Picking up the pieces

It was a poignant picture we found on Sunday: a severed head, a pile of limbs, a broken and battered wooden person in a heap in Frosh Quad. The target of this abuse was our class project: a pair of anonymous human silhouettes and stories meant to raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual assault on this campus. These silhouettes were themselves assaulted just a day – if even that – after their installation. The silhouette’s heart, the story of a survivor of domestic violence, was literally pulled from her chest and out of its binding.

After the project’s destruction, we were told that we “should have known better” than to put our project out on a Friday. Was it idealistic to assume that our work would be respected, that a peer’s story of struggle would not be torn to pieces? This blaming of the victim of a crime is all too familiar for survivors of domestic violence and rape. Domestic violence victims are asked why they didn’t leave sooner, ignoring the financial, psychological and emotional ties the victim has to her home and family. Countless rape survivors are told that they shouldn’t have been wearing such a short dress, had those two drinks, gone to a date’s room. Rape is the only crime where survivors are blamed for the attack. No one would tell a victim of attempted murder that they were “asking to get killed” based on their location, dress or relationship to the murderer. No one is ever implicitly asking to get raped. Asking for attention? Sure. But asking to be violated? Far from it. Our figures, too, were asking for attention, for a few minutes of people’s time to read the stories and think about them. Maybe, we hoped, they’d give survivors the strength to speak up, or inspire students to break the silence surrounding these issues.

Alcohol cannot be removed from the equation. After our silhouettes were destroyed, we were told that the people who ripped them apart were probably “just drunk.” That line is exactly what many survivors hear after being raped or beaten by someone under the influence of alcohol: that because the attacker was drunk, the attacker cannot be held accountable. Alcohol is never an excuse for hurting another person. It is difficult to ascertain consent when a partner is under the influence. In addition, no party can legally consent when drunk. Further, if someone is drunk to the point of being incoherent or unresponsive when you ask consent, do you really want to have sex with that person? Wouldn’t you rather have sex with someone who is soberly psyched to have sex with you?

One of the stories in our project was a Williams student’s. A peer came forward anonymously, fearing social retaliation if she reported her assault officially. Imagine what it must feel like to be that student – to have bared oneself and one’s intimate, painful story to the campus, only to see the silhouette representing you ripped to pieces. This is why survivors of rape and domestic violence do not come forward, fearful that their stories will be ignored, dismissed or ridiculed. Based on the treatment of this student’s story, how can we blame them for keeping quiet?

The actions of a few will not keep us quiet. We will re-install and expand our project. Our campus cannot remain silent about abuse and sexual assault. According to Sanctuary for Families, a domestic violence nonprofit, one in three teenagers report knowing a friend or peer who has been hit, kicked or choked by their partner. The Rape and Incest National Network found that between one in four and one in six women will be raped by the time she leaves college. Statistics, while powerful, are faceless and hard to verify. Isn’t just one rape, one abusive relationship, too many? We have seen the profound impact that such violence has on members of our community. As a Rape and Sexual Assault Network member, Chandler has counseled dozens of students about their assaults on campus this year (not a single one reported the crime) and seen their daily suffering and the utter upheaval of their lives. Domestic violence victims remain in cycles of abuse even after leaving their abusive partner, taking longer to achieve financial independence and emotional stability. Survivors need support to overcome their feelings of violation, worthlessness and helplessness and regain their life, stability and sense of self. We must make this campus a place where survivors are heard and supported, and the abuse against them is condemned and punished.

When we installed these silhouettes, we hoped that through the stories of survivors on campus, we might raise awareness and discussion about these issues. The disrespect with which these stories were treated underlines the need to address these issues.  How can we expect to solve problems of sexual assault and domestic violence when even efforts to raise awareness are met with violence? We remain hopeful, however, that change truly is possible. We will harness the energy we’ve seen over the past few days to foster a healthy, supportive campus attitude towards survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. The survivors in our stories have bravely reestablished their sense of self despite the wrongs against them. It is our hope that, out of this heap of plywood limbs, Williams can rise up to become a place where those suffering from sexual assault and domestic violence can heal and gain strength with the support of the community.

Some members of campus may only have tolerated these stories for a few hours, but RASAN is available 24/7 to confidentially listen to your story. If you would like support, call (413-597-4100) or approach a RASAN member in person.

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