Reflections on ‘Take Back the Night,’ Williams, Rape and Sexual Assault

Diane, I want to thank you for what you are doing tonight. People need to know that sexual assault happens, to all kinds of people. I’m a survivor. I don’t think I’ll be there tonight, but will you do me a favor? Make sure that people know that this happens, and it doesn’t just happen to women, it happens to men, too. And to people you wouldn’t think it would. I just wanted to tell you that what you all are doing tonight is very important. – A friend, 8:50 p.m., April 20, 2000

Something happened at Williams on the night of April 20th. If you were walking from Baxter around 9:05 p.m. that evening you saw a group of 250 students gathered around Chapin Steps – braving the drizzling, cold rain and burning their fingers with hot wax from the candles they held – listening to the heartfelt music of Ephoria, Ethan Rutherford ’02 and Molly Venter ’02. Or maybe you were just getting to Jesup around 9:40 p.m. and noticed a mass of people, swarming in candle lit darkness, assembling between Morgan and West to hear a poem read by Elise Cucchi ’00 and a monologue read by Kari Sutherland ’02. Or maybe you had the unfortunate luck of driving on Route 2 at 10:00 p.m. – just in time to be stopped at Spring Street by a police officer holding traffic for (what looked like) an almost interminable line.

Or perhaps you noticed, as you glanced up from your studies in Sawyer around 10:15 p.m., this same group in front of Stetson Hall, riveted and listening to over 15 students share their thoughts, experiences, ideas. Maybe you were a part of the group. Or, at the very least, maybe you walked by Chapin on April 21st, and noticed the white wax spilled all over the newly laid bricks: organized in clumpy little mounds where each person had stood. On April 20, 2000, at 9 p.m., the Rape and Sexual Assault Hotline sponsored our Take Back the Night march/rally. It was the first in over three years and was an amazing night of listening, learning, healing, openness and community building.

The history of this particular march is short, but dense. The Rape and Sexual Assault Network had been planning to do a Take Back the Night march in association with “Whose Responsibility Is It?” since September, but it was only a few days before spring break that Kathryn Hibbert ’02 and I became coordinators. During our initial brainstorm, we discussed how important it was that the community understands what the night was to be about, exactly.

Take Back the Night marches have been around for over 30 years, and they manifest themselves differently in different locations and eras. We came up with a sentence to describe our goals: “A night of women and men acting together, raising awareness, and taking responsibility for our Williams College community.” In other words, we wanted to break the purple haze that we all live in and let people know that sexual assault, violence, rape, and harassment happens at Williams, and it happens or has happened to people you know at Williams. The truth is, statistically, you already know at least one survivor.

When it comes to most issues, we all believe that if we haven’t heard about it, it must not happen. Sexual assault is no different. However, while Williams may be one big gossip mill at times, no one knows what they are not told – hears what is not spoken. We had two main goals for this night. First, we intended to raise awareness in the community at large and break the silence and naïveté around sexual assault. Secondly, we wanted to let survivors know that people care about them, about their experiences, and are trying to do something to change the way people look at sexual assault, sexual intimidation, and sexual harassment – especially at Williams. It is a big deal.

A week or so before the event I was explaining the project to a friend. He incredulously asked me, “Do you really think people don’t feel safe at Williams?” I told him, no, they don’t, and I am sure that more things go on here (and everywhere) behind closed doors than he could dream of. As a part of my introduction on that night, I read a letter to the editor of the Record that was published last year. It was written by a woman at Williams and recounted her experience of being sexually assaulted in her bathroom late on a Saturday night.

This letter had been given no attention in the Record except for a spot on a page. I only happened upon it by accident. It shocked, horrified and frightened me. People needed to hear it and to break down the “it doesn’t happen here” wall. That letter went right at the beginning of the night to immediately orient everyone. My friend came that night, and was very glad he had done so.

I need to know the route you all are taking tonight because, with a group this big, I have to notify the police just so they know what is going on. – Security officer, 9:10 p.m.

I don’t know if you realize how many people were here and, more importantly, how many stayed the whole time. Hardly anyone left from start to finish. – A friend, 10:45 p.m.

The group of students who came that night to bear witness, to listen, to participate and to support made the night work. All of the planning in the world couldn’t have planned a more receptive and engaged crowd. Without data to back up my claim, I would venture that this was one of the largest crowds of any event during “Whose Responsibility Is It?” I would even go as far as to say that there have been few times in my Williams career when I have seen more than one-tenth of the entire undergraduate population together, participating in an activity that does not involve a “-ball.”

Around 250 students and two coaches came together on that night, knowing they were going to be forced to address rape and sexual assault on campus – not a fun or easy topic. Not quite like going out on a Thursday night to the Log. I am thankful for each and every person who was there, and have thanked as many as I could personally. They were not there for me, so my thanks was not derived from that, but from the fact that they were there – showing that they cared, were interested and were supportive. Every person’s presence meant hope that Williams can be community of openness, caring concern and safety – and that there are people who give a damn about making it so.

At the final stop of the march, Stetson Hall, we opened up the microphone for anyone to speak. We were prepared for no one to step forward, and knew that would not be a sign of failure. But around 15 people spoke. There was natural diversity in the speakers, representing all different (so-called) “types” of people. The unifying factor was sexual assault: a cause that affects so many of us. We heard about personal experiences, experiences of loved ones, and people wondering what to say to a friend who’s been raped. “Tell her she is still beautiful, that no one can see it, that it doesn’t change her,” was the response we heard.

People read poems, told of their discomfort at some parties on campus, at some “acceptable” behaviors. One man apologized for things he had heard, but let slip by, unnoticed, while another spoke about the way that men on campus talk: the violent, misogynistic, hateful phrases that are used, often without intention to harm, but with full knowledge of the implications of those words. From where Kathryn and I stood, we watched the audience and the speakers simultaneously. The group was with each speaker, supporting them all the way, and validating their experiences and opinions as relevant and important.

Despite the heartbreaking stories that came out that night, the mood was not somber. Instead, there was a sense of healing, a sense of a first step being taken towards a better, more understanding society. We closed with a quick rundown of all of the resources available on campus for survivors, friends of survivors or anyone with questions. These include the Sexual Assault Hotline (x4100), health center (x2206), security (x4444) and deans’ office (x4171). We thanked everyone for making this night what it was, and invited them all to a reception in Goodrich.

At least 70 people joined us for coffee, cookies and company.

Honestly, Diane, tonight was one of the best I have had at Williams. Thank you so much. – A friend, 11:20 p.m.

Of all the things said to me that night, this is one that sticks with me the most. She meant this in the same way I felt when I took on co-coordinating this event. It needed to be done. It is so hard to say that a night of talking about rape and sexual assault on campus is “successful,” but Kathryn and I heard enough appreciation that night, and the week that followed that we think we did something right. Many people thanked us, and told us they were glad they had come. They apologized that they had to leave early for other engagements. They heard other people talking about it later and were glad they were able to be there for even a little bit. I am not making up stories here; Kathryn and I heard it all. The efforts of many people on the hotline and on campus went into this night and made it as powerful and moving as it was.

April 20, 2000 was the start of a dialogue that needs to continue on this campus. We all need to take responsibility for our actions, our friends and ourselves. I opened the night with a plea to “listen to the words, tonight. Make tonight a world outside of your usual one, a safe and comfortable place for people to share their thoughts. It is our responsibility to provide a safe community here and it starts tonight, now.” It is up to us to determine how the future discussions of injustice, violence and sexual assault are to go. There will be another Take Back the Night next year, but our hope is that between that time and now, the spirit of opening up, of beginning to heal and of becoming personally aware of your words and actions can continue at Williams and for the rest of your life.