Supporting Williams’ survivors

In my time here at Williams, I have talked to all sorts of people about sexual assault, about the effects of such a traumatic experience, and about the issues with which survivors struggle. I co-coordinated the Rape and Sexual Assault Network for two years, have been a counselor for over three years, have led the annual training twice and helped to organize Take Back the Night both my sophomore and junior years. However, none of this public speaking and personal conversation compared in any way to the experience of standing up in front of hundreds of my peers and actually saying the words “I am a survivor.”

It was sophomore year, and I was introducing Take Back the Night. Having spent a good part of the winter working on this project with other members of the network, I was very nervous about campus reception of the entire event. I was also making an important and personal experience part of my public self, and I must admit that this was the most frightening part of the whole night.

We all know by rote the benefits of going to a small school: we have small classes and really know our professors, it is a friendly place and each of us is more than just a number. Most Williams students also know that the preview weekend promise of a supportive and compassionate utopia is often left unfulfilled. We see segmentation and judgment, racism and sexism and we all hear more gossip than I thought possible. As I stood up to speak two years ago, these more negative thoughts were all flying through my head. Familiar with the cultural judgments passed on survivors as well as the general curiosity of our campus, I wondered how this personal proclamation would change my identity here. At Williams we have, at best, only limited control over our reputations and what people know about us, and I was about to add fuel to the gossip fire. I am not claiming that everyone on campus is interested in my life, but even the most casual mention of knowledge of one another has a way of circulating around campus as rumor. There was nothing confidential or inherently safe about standing there on Chapin steps, no history on which to base optimistic predictions of communal reaction, and I suddenly felt very vulnerable.

Now, as Take Back the Night arrives again, I am compelled to say that this experience of “coming out” as a sexual assault survivor has affirmed all of the good things I have wanted to believe about Williams. The response to the entire event, and specifically to the voices of survivors, was profound. Williams can in fact be compassionate, caring, friendly and even respectful. In our best moments, this small community can reveal both the goodness of individuals and the impact of public discussion of difficult issues. Of course we all know of instances in which this has not been true, but that does not devalue or undermine experiences such as Take Back the Night.

In light of recent events on campus, many of us have had our faith in Williams shaken. To many, our campus suddenly seems unfamiliar and unfriendly. In the aftermath of discussion and disagreement and gossip, countless people have said to me that they feel as if they do not even know their own community, while for others these events have confirmed already existing doubts about the integrity of this place. Both of these sentiments can lead to a deep and awful feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. If this is true for you, or if you’ve had faith in your peers all along, please come to Take Back the Night this week. There is a community here that cares about issues such as sexual assault, and this one night provides a space for people with all experiences to speak on an issue that is deeply personal to so many. I can promise that it is powerful to hear the voices of your friends and classmates. For me, who has been touched personally by this issue, it rebuilds my faith in our small community here in the Purple Valley. We are by no means perfect, but there is always the potential for moments of pure compassion and goodness.