Letting the night shine

Take Back The Night, an annual event which returns to Williams today, is described by the College Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN) as “an evening of solidarity and support for survivors of rape and sexual assault and their allies.” Take Back the Night is an event with a rich history and global importance; however, most Williams students, myself included, have only experienced Take Back the Night (TBTN) at Williams. Although I have been a member of RASAN since the fall of my freshman year and a former organizer for the event, even I had only an abbreviated understanding of Take Back the Night until I did the research for this piece. The new understanding and context of TBTN has only added to the importance of Take Back the Night for the Williams community.

According to its Web site, TBTN may have its roots as early as 1877, when women in London protested the violence and fear to which they were subjected in the nighttime streets. It began to take on its more modern form in Belgium in 1976 following the International Tribunal of Crimes Against Women. It then came to the U.S. in 1978 as part of an anti-pornography conference held in San Francisco. The thematic focus of Take Back the Night varies widely depending on the time and place in which it is held. The anti-pornography emphasis has fallen largely out of favor, and “taking back the night” has come to mean taking a stand against all forms of sexual violence and breaking the silence that surrounds these crimes. Take Back the Night events are held internationally, but they are especially popular on college campuses.

I began to wonder why Take Back the Night has gained such traction on college campuses, and what its meaning might be for the Williams community specifically. Admittedly, there is nothing a certain breed of college student loves more than rallying around a political cause. However, the importance of an event like Take Back the Night for college students runs deeper than that.

For most people, college is their first time living apart from their families. For all students, coming to college means, in the words of Dorothy Allison on Claiming Williams Day, “building a home among strangers.” Part of feeling at home is feeling safe, and the sexual assault that runs rampant on college campuses is detrimental to the safety and well being of everyone. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), one in six women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. In addition, college-age women are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted.

I hesitate to include statistics about rape since it is chronically underreported, but I believe these numbers can give some perspective on the truths of rape and sexual assault in this country. Many people face these truths for the first time upon entering college, and in response they empower themselves to feel safe in their new communities through an event like Take Back the Night.

Take Back the Night at Williams is less politicized than it is in many other environments. Here, Take Back the Night is focused less on fighting the power or demanding safe streets and more focused on supporting survivors and their allies. Williams is an incredibly safe place, thanks in part to the size of our community as well as the efforts of Campus Safety and Security and the Williamstown Police Department. I have always felt safe walking through the Williams campus alone at night, but this is not true for everyone. A friend of mine who had experienced sexual assault was more wary, and she was always careful to stay in well-lit areas and to let friends know where she was going. These kinds of precautions are probably good ideas for anyone, but they are often forgotten in the idyllic “purple bubble.” We must not be naïve in our assumption that “things like that don’t happen at Williams.”

My memories of organizing and attending Take Back the Night at Williams have been some of the most important of my entire college experience. I never fail to be amazed by the strength and courage of survivors who step forward to tell their stories to a crowd of hundreds. The sight of a silent candlelit procession across campus in honor of these survivors consistently moves me to tears. Sexual assault is an incredibly isolating experience, not only for survivors, but also for their friends and family. Take Back the Night tries to change that by allowing survivors to speak publicly in a safe, supportive environment. It allows all of us to come together as a community to say that rape and sexual assault will absolutely not be tolerated or ignored. Take Back the Night reminds me that Williams is not just our school; it is our home, and as such, we all have a stake in making it a safe and livable place.

Bonnie O’Keefe ’09 is an English and women’s and gender studies major from Mamaroneck, N.Y.