Content warning: This article discusses sexual violence.
On the morning of Nov. 20, a Twitter account was created with the handle @WilliamsRapists and the description “Sexual Assaulters of Williams College.” Over the course of the day, the names of at least five current students were posted, in addition to a message encouraging students to “Please share the link to this page on facebook and ask your friends if they have names to submit!” It is unclear whether the survivors of sexual assault themselves submitted names or whether peers and friends undertook the task. Regardless, after about 12 hours, the account was made private and then deleted. It is no longer accessible.
For students across campus, the account stirred up elation, concern, frustration and overwhelming emotion. “The first thing that I thought when I saw it was immediate concern for the safety and agency of survivors,” Ayami Hatanaka ’18, co-chair of the Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN), said. Hatanaka, who does in-person contact work with survivors of sexual assault on campus, saw the account as potentially problematic. “It can be incredibly healing for a survivor to have an outlet like this, but it can also be deeply re-traumatizing,” she said. She elaborated that some survivors could feel uncomfortable in seeing the name of their perpetrator, or feel guilty if they themselves do not feel able to name the person who has harmed them. Hatanaka also emphasized that RASAN was in no way involved in the creation of the Twitter account. However, RASAN did hold emergency open office hours in response to the account and the resulting confusion and atmosphere of crisis for some on campus.
Director of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Meg Bossong ’05 found a diversity of reactions to the account’s creation. “I hear from people who are feeling everything from overwhelmed, to a feeling that their experience is missing from the narrative that’s in focus at the moment and wondering about what that means for them and their support system to feeling solidarity and relief that the issue is being discussed more broadly. Those are very big categories of human experience,” she said.
For Hatanaka, this divergence of experience was reflective of her work throughout her time on RASAN. “That’s part of what’s really hard about doing activism work on this topic. … How do you acknowledge that different survivors want different things and protect confidentiality?”
For Bossong, the appearance of the account, though shocking, hardly struck her as a new phenomenon. “People have been talking about their experiences of violence and harassment for a long time, including naming the person or people who harmed them,” she said. She was additionally skeptical of Twitter’s potential to revolutionize the reporting of sexual assault, adding, “as far as Twitter, it’s a tool. Some people find it useful and effective; some people find it ineffective or troubling.”
Hatanaka, too, did not see the account as an isolated incident. “Over the past couple of years, there have been repeated calls for something like this,” she said.
As for why some survivors or allies chose this particular method of reporting, Bossong said that it “has to do with everything from personal coping styles to how people perceive the support levels of those around them, to very real safety risks.” However, for Hatanaka, there was a far clearer explanation for the choice to resort to Twitter: a lack of resources for survivors on campus.
For her, the incident punctuated concerns that many survivors do not feel comfortable going through the College administration’s formal disciplinary process. “There are such limited resources for survivors on campus, not only in terms of support but in terms of seeking justice,” she said, giving the example that survivors who go through the disciplinary process are sometimes permitted to talk only to specific designated individuals. She noted that some survivors have even found the reporting process re-traumatizing. This was part of Hatanaka’s reasoning for understanding why some might have initially supported the account. “It can be viewed as another way to subvert the system and structure that limits student work around sexual violence,” she said.
There is widespread hope that this incident could have the potential to alter how sexual assault is discussed on campus, and Hatanaka and Bossong both emphasized that serious changes need to be made. Hatanaka discussed a necessity to move away from a “bad seed rhetoric” in which perpetrators are framed as mere outliers who can be summarily eliminated from a community. “I would prefer to have a continual and honest conversation throughout Williams about complicity in sexual violence and rape culture on campus,” Hatanaka said.
Additionally, Bossong stated, “Restorative justice practice would suggest that to fully understand how to repair harm, we have to understand the extent and impact of it. We recognize this most clearly for people most immediately harmed, but it also ripples out to friends, to family, to partners, to teammates, to people who have to reorganize their relationships and lives because of violence and harassment.” For both, though, progress is impossible without placing honest and thoughtful conversation at the forefront of daily life.