Sexual Safety on Campus

Although my active membership in the Rape and Sexual Assault Network is one of the most important things I do on this campus, it also carries an incredible burden. Surprisingly, it is not the counseling that weighs most on my consciousness (helping people affected by the issue is incredibly rewarding), but rather the intimate knowledge I have of the extent to which rape and sexual assaults affect the Williams community. Despite the fact that several survivors have come forward in the past few weeks, there are many more who keep their experiences a secret for fear of the humiliation, shame and ostracizing that go along with exposure.

Probably the most important role that the Rape and Sexual Assault Network plays at Williams is the provision of invaluable information, counseling and support to people who are deeply affected by this issue, but do not feel comfortable filing an official report with the College or the police. In addition, some of the sexual activity that occurs on this campus that is traditionally not labeled as rape (especially hook-ups that occur under the influence of alcohol) leaves many people feeling uncomfortable and uncertain about what to do. Contacts have someone to listen and help them work through their feelings, all the while comforted by the guarantee that the experience that they share will not go beyond a trained student counselor. This means that Hotline members are more aware than perhaps anyone else on the campus how much non-consensual sexual activity occurs at Williams.

Take Back the Night (TBTN), organized by the Network, is an effective medium through which other members of the community can begin to understand how close this issue hits to home. As the crowd disperse after the last stop of the TBTN in front of Stetson Hall, the murmurings of “wow, I had no idea that I knew so many people who spoke” proves that TBTN opens people’s eyes to what happens all too often on this campus behind closed doors. However, perhaps a more important purpose of TBTN is to provide an opportunity for survivors, relatives and friends to speak about their experiences in a comfortable and secure environment. People who come to the event are obviously sensitive and care about the issues at hand, so speakers are guaranteed sympathy, support, respect and emotional and physical safety.

The fact that so many speakers, many unplanned, come forward and openly discuss experiences during this important event provides evidence that TBTN serves its purpose. However, inherently problematic in this assumption is that for many of the brave contributors to TBTN, that evening is the first instance in which they have felt comfortable enough to break their silence.

While TBTN provides a time and place where people can be open about sexual violence, Williams as an institution and as a community does not always project that image of safety. After one incident of recent sexual violence on campus, several more instances have been reported at the encouragement of the Dean’s office, some of which happened weeks or months before.

The significant amount of time that passed before some incidents were brought to light (as well as the incidents that are still not reported and probably never will be) implies that Williams may not be as accepting and sensitive a place as we might like to think. While TBTN rallies many supporters from all parts of the college community, it only occurs one night of the year. For most of the year, rape and sexual assault is a “taboo” issue on campus, and whether or not a drunken hook-up was completely consensual and comfortable for both people involved is never discussed. TBTN is a dramatic reminder of what can occur on this campus – but it should not be the only one.

We need to form a community at Williams where the spirit of TBTN lasts all year long. Anyone who experiences any sort of sexual violence on this campus, no matter what their gender is, what social circle they travel in or what kind of sexual history they have, should be able to speak out any day of the week and any week of the year. They should feel comfortable voicing their experiences to anyone on this campus – student, faculty member, teammate or coach – without fear of being judged, shamed or made vulnerable.

There will always be people on this campus specifically trained and dedicated to helping people work through the aftermath of sexual violence, such as hotline members, SART, JAs, Security, and Psych Services. However, people must also be able to feel comfortable discussing rape and sexual assault with any member of the College community at any time and place of their choosing. “Breaking the silence” should not just be reserved for two hours on a designated night in front of a self-selecting group of people carrying candles. No matter how empowering and successful TBTN is, until Williams can reach this level of acceptance and openness consistently throughout the year, we cannot allow ourselves complacency with the way that sexual violence is received in our community.

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