Campus seeks to counter silence surrounding sexual assault issues

This evening, students will gather at the steps of Chapin Hall before proceeding in a candlelight walk around campus for Take Back the Night, an annual event in solidarity with survivors of rape and sexual assault. The Williams College commemoration of this international movement is sponsored by the Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN).

Take Back the Night is one of several visible efforts at the College to address the silence that frequently surrounds sexual assault. Before spring break, the Diversity Advisory Research Team (DART) collaborated with women’s rugby to launch the Check Yourself poster campaign to educate the community about sexual assault. Last Wednesday, Jaclyn Friedman, editor of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, delivered a lecture on campus expounding on the relevance of sexual assault discussion in the college context.
“We sell the idea that campuses are doing something about this problem,” Friedman said. “We have this campaign of silence on nearly every campus in the country. Williams is no different from any other school in pretending it doesn’t happen here.”

However, many students and administrators still feel that sexual assault is a severely underemphasized issue in the community.

Sexual assault prevalence

According to Friedman, between 200,000 and 450,000 female college students will be raped this year. She called the prevalence of sexual assault a “public health crisis.”

According to Jean Thorndike, director of Campus Safety and Security, Security received two official reports of sexual assault in each of the last four calendar years. “The wishes of the student are always taken into consideration regarding investigation, complaint or determined outcome except when there is a clear danger to the community,” Thorndike said. “In some cases, an all-campus notification will be sent to the community; however, names remain confidential.”

The Health Center also keeps records of reported sexual assaults, and offers Sexual Assault Survivor Services (SASS) as a resource. SASS comprises Ruth Harrison, director of Health Services, and Donna Denelli-Hess, health educator and faculty advisor to RASAN. According to Denelli-Hess, SASS usually works with two or three survivors each academic year, but that they have received no reports so far this year. “Do we conclude from this that there have been no sexual assaults on campus? Hardly,” Denelli-Hess said. “We know that assaults are happening but that they are not being reported.”

Denelli-Hess explained that in accordance with state laws, the Health Center must report all sexual assaults to the Williamstown Police Department (WPD) but does not include students’ names in the report without their permission. The College also requires that the Health Center report all incidents to Security, but again, the report does not include specific identifying information without the survivor’s permission.

According to Chandler Sherman ’10, a co-coordinator of training for RASAN and a current Junior Advisor (JA), many incidents of sexual assault on campus go unreported – something she has learned from her time working with RASAN. Sexual assault survivors can call the RASAN hotline for support and will receive a call back from a RASAN member within 15 minutes. RASAN members erase all voicemails and do not keep track of the number of calls the organization receives for confidentiality reasons.

“People will talk to us in person more than they will talk to us through the hotline,” Sherman said. Although she has never personally been contacted through the hotline, she has been approached in person many times. “It’s probably because I’m a JA and I led RASAN training, so I’m more visible,” she said. “It’s a disturbingly prevalent issue on campus. It’s far more common than you would think – and those are just the people who report it.”

According to Sherman, RASAN members who talk to sexual assault survivors let the survivors guide the conversation completely. RASAN does not advocate for the caller to follow any particular course of action, but offers information about such resources as the SASS and the Dean’s Office.

Culture of silence

Despite the fact that bringing discussion of rape and sexual assault into the open is a major goal of Take Back the Night, several members of the community have expressed the idea that rape is not only underreported but is also not often an explicit enough part of conversation. Sherman gave the example of someone who labeled her encounter a “nonconsensual sexual experience” rather than saying “rape,” which was what she was technically describing.

Veronica Rabelo ’11, the incoming co-chair of the Women’s Center, felt similarly about the word “rape.” “I have never heard anyone use that word – man or woman – but a lot of what they’re describing is rape,” she said.

Even if explicit discussion of rape isn’t part of the mainstream dialogue, many people at the College can cite examples of sexual assault. Rabelo said that she encounters these issues every weekend, explaining that after weekend nights, she is approached “every Sunday either as a friend or a member of the Women’s Center board … to find out what happened, what to call it, what to make of it.”

Aubree Stephens ’12, who has also helped organize the Check Yourself campaign, spoke about the pervasiveness of sexual assault in the community. “Unfortunately, I think everyone I know has fallen victim to sexual assault, at least once, myself included – all of whom did not think it significant enough to report it,” she said. “[This] only perpetuates the problem further.”

According to Johannes Wilson ’11, who serves as a Man of the Week counselor for RASAN, the specific atmosphere at the College may foster this pattern of silence surrounding sexual assault cases. “No one realizes how important the issue is in part because it’s denied,” Wilson said. “Many people here don’t like making trouble; they don’t want to cause what they see as unnecessary conflict in the context of their busy lives of which they are trying to present an image of perfection and control.”

An anonymous survivor talked more specifically about the emotional difficulty of reporting. “It’s kind of scary to say ‘this is how I feel about it,’” the survivor said.

Michael Marchinetti ’10, a member of the 2009-10 JA Advisory Board, drew a link between College’s small size and the low reporting numbers. “I don’t know that Williams does anything to further shut down that dialogue about sexual assault survivorship, but just the fact that the community is so small and tight definitely pressures people against reporting,” Marchinetti said.

Gender patterns

While acknowledging that men definitely experience rape, Friedman begun her lecture by framing sexual assault as a “gendered phenomenon”: Between one in four and one in eight women will be raped during their lifetimes, as compared to one in 33 men.
Sherman verified that male rape survivors at Williams have approached her, although she has encountered far more women in this situation. “There’s a big machismo culture where men don’t want to admit it,” Sherman said. “It’s a really tough issue, and women have started to rally around it, and men don’t know where they fit in.”

Tracey Vitchers ’10, co-chair of the Women’s Center, explained the dangers of assuming the stereotypical model of male assailants and female survivors. “I sometimes think that male survivors of rape and sexual assault get forgotten, which is problematic because it creates the negative assumption that men are perpetrators of rape and women are the victims,” Vitchers said. “Men can be survivors just as easily as women, but I think because men are even less likely to report than women it makes addressing issues of rape and sexual assault perpetrated against men even harder to combat.”

Marchinetti said that he has known female sexual assault survivors but knows of no male survivors on campus. He also spoke to male familiarity with the issue. “To be honest, the first person who opened my eyes to the fact that it was a real issue was a male RASAN member who graduated in 2008,” Marchinetti said. “As a male, I am aware of it, but it is less pervasive for me.”

Sexual assault and alcohol

In her lecture, Friedman also touched on the fact that 80 percent of self-reported rapists used alcohol and/or drugs to facilitate the assault. According to Massachusetts law, people cannot legally give sexual consent under the influence of alcohol.

“I think that sexual assault is such a big issue on this campus because of how pervasive the drinking culture is, and the sense that many students see parties as times where anything goes,” Wilson said.

Dave Johnson, associate dean and dean of first-year students, spoke to the inextricable link between alcohol and sexual assault. “A lot of great kids make horrible decisions that they would never make in the light of day,” he said. “Kids make these mistakes not realizing that if they weren’t drinking so much, they wouldn’t be doing the things they are doing.”

Rabelo also discussed how the alcohol problem contributes to the underreporting problem among students. “I think that because they were drunk, they think it can’t be rape,” she said. “Maybe they were okay with the situation to a certain extent, but it went further than they expected,” she added.

“It’s not like people are going to stop drinking and stop hooking up – those are both fun things to do, but it can go wrong if people aren’t aware of themselves, aren’t aware of their partner,” Sherman said.

Changing rape culture

Friedman’s solution to the sexual assault problem was a “yes means yes” approach. The “yes means yes” campaign advocates that people only have sexual relationships when they receive “enthusiastic consent” from the other person involved. Sherman hopes to implement Friedman’s “yes means yes” policy on campus along with other strategies like the ongoing Ask campaign.

Rabelo complimented the Check Yourself campaign, which has placed posters with students’ faces around campus to raise sexual assault awareness. According to Gina Coleman, associate dean and member of DART, the Office of Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity conducted research that presented “an alarming amount of references to the treatment of women on this campus.” Coleman launched the Check Yourself campaign in collaboration with women’s rugby, a team that she also coaches. Coleman said that the campaign also plans to launch another set of posters later in the month.

“I have heard so many people talking about the posters,” said Rabelo, who is also a member of the women’s rugby team. “I think it was good that it was the women’s rugby team – not just because of the drinking culture, but also because of the sports teams’ [reputations].”

Indeed, Johnson said that efforts to change rape culture on campus might do well to start with athletic culture. “I personally feel that we have to get the athletes and the team sports on board this initiative, and not just the male athletes,” Johnson said. Johnson also suggested that coaches might be able to effectively communicate messages about sexual assault to team members. He also stressed, however, that this strategy is not about blaming any particular group on campus.

According to Friedman, 75 percent of self-reported rapists targeted exclusively acquaintances, a statistic she cited as particularly relevant to small communities where people tend to feel safe because the “stranger in a dark alley” idea of rape persists as the primary model. Later in her lecture, she explained that people on college campuses need to remove the rapist’s “social license to operate.” “As long as we buy into this idea that rape is a misunderstanding, we let rapists off the hook,” Friedman said.

Vitchers believes that the College should instate a zero-tolerance, no re-admittance policy for sexual assault perpetrators. “I believe that if someone commits an act of rape or sexual assault that they give up the right to remain at Williams,” Vitchers said.

Sherman is remaining in touch with Friedman about more strategies for RASAN training, and Friedman expressed interest in returning to campus to speak with student constituencies. Johnson said that bringing in Friedman for JA training and First Days is a definite possibility.
In addition, Queer Life Coordinator Justin Adkins said that the new Gender and Sexuality Resource Center has already begun to work with RASAN, the Women’s Center and the Health Center on sexual assault issues.