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Taking back the night: community shows solidarity with survivors of sexual assault

October 27, 2017

Sam Honegger
Students, faculty and members of the Bowdoin community gathered on the Museum of Art steps Tuesday evening to reflect on the widespread impact of gender-based violence and sexual assault on campus and throughout the nation.

“Take Back the Night” took place on the steps of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art Museum Tuesday evening, bringing together community members to discuss and reflect on sexual assault on Bowdoin’s campus and in the nation through a candlelit walk from the Museum to 30 College Street.

“There are a lot of groups on campus and different programs that people hear about, but when you actually have everyone in a place together visibly showing ‘I am here and stand with all of you’—I think that’s really impactful and can be pretty profound,” said Nora Cullen ’18, who attended the walk.

The event strives to not just show solidarity but also demonstrate how gender-based violence and sexual assault affect the entirety of the Bowdoin community.

“I think the importance of this event is to bring everyone to the table,” said Elena Gleed ’18, who helped organize the event through the Office of Gender Violence Prevention and Education. “The message that we’re really trying to send is that if you don’t feel like this affects you, I would greatly push back on that and challenge that assumption. I personally think that everybody is responsible, or everybody has been affected in some way.”

“Often times people will cite the importance of folks who are perpetrating violence to be accountable for that and recognizing that, and I would push it even further and say that we all have a role in perpetuating rape culture, and so we all play a role in helping to dismantle it,” said Lisa Peterson, associate director of gender violence prevention and education.

The event opened with readings of stories and poems that brought to the forefront experiences and reflections not frequently found in campus discourse. Topics ranged from a comment on “#MeToo” posts to statistics about gender based violence at Bowdoin to the responsibility of all members of the community—especially men—in addressing these issues.

Some students felt the perspectives that were shared reinforced the gendered stereotypes associated with sexual assault.

“Some of them, I felt like, pretty aggressively targeted men as perpetrators,” said Cullen. “Which I think obviously can be true, and I think statistically the majority of cases of sexual assault tend to be perpetrating against a female, but there are a lot of other types of gender-based violence or relationship violence that can happen, so I was a little taken aback by that.”

“Take Back the Night” is a worldwide movement, taking place across the globe since the 1960s and that still occurs at many colleges across the country. With its long history and breadth of location, the event ultimately takes shape differently on each campus.

According to Benje Douglas, director of gender violence prevention and education, Bowdoin holds the walk in October as opposed to in April—sexual assault awareness month—in order to set a tone of supporting survivors and keeping the campus safe from the beginning of the academic year.

On other campuses, the event manifests as a protest—a stark contrast to the candlelight vigil and walk that took place Tuesday night. Gleed explained that Bowdoin’s goals for the program focus on supporting survivors, showing solidarity and building community and allyship, rather than enacting change.

“The goal of the event is to bring awareness to the community,” said Gleed. “This event is not an activist event necessarily, like it is on other campuses. So if we were to assume that something were to change or we expect action from an event like this [would be] a little misleading. I think that it’s both speaking to the wider community, but it also is a space for people to hold a candle and to self-reflect, and so it really straddles that line.”

However some students believe the event could foster more meaningful discussions and spur action if it didn’t shy away from addressing Bowdoin’s shortcomings.

“I think [“Take Back the Night”] is not critical enough of the way Bowdoin as an institution and as a community addresses sexual assault and sexual harassment,” said Eliza Goodpasture ’18, who attended the event. “I think it’s a really hopeful event, which is really powerful and needed, but I also think this year especially it struck me a little bit as surface-level.”

“And I think it could be really productive and an equal show of solidarity and support to say ‘Bowdoin’s trying really hard, but we can do better.’ And I would like to hear more of that,” added Goodpasture.

However the awareness the event spreads and the conversations it starts are in themselves impactful  in the Bowdoin community, where engaging deeply in discussions of sexual assault and gender-based violence can often be avoided due to the complexity and significance of the issue.

“I think at a place like a college that spends a lot of time interrogating things and trying to figure out truth and really really important weighty things, [discussing] something like sexual violence can feel like, unless you’re doing it perfectly, you’re not supposed to do it at all,” said Douglas.

The timing of this year’s event coincided with the “#MeToo” movement, something that was acknowledged through stories shared at the vigil. Both Peterson and Gleed acknowledged the care that went into acknowledging the movement that has affected so many people so differently.

“I think for some survivors it has felt really empowering to have a voice and to see this sense of community and feel support. I think for other folks there has been some internal tension of feeling pressured to participate but not feeling safe or ready, and also I think some senses of being overwhelmed or triggered by exposure to the content,” said Peterson.

“[But] to ignore the impact it has had would do a disservice to campus so instead [we tried] to recognize all the ways it might be impacting people and to really bring those to light in a really powerful way that hopefully made folks feel included and heard and empowered,” Peterson added.

Events like “Take Back the Night” and trends like “Me Too” demonstrate the ways in which the conversation around sexual assault has changed over the last few decades. Peterson said she was recently reminded just how much these policies and conversations have changed since she was a student at Bowdoin in 2003 after coming across the whistles the College used to give out during first year orientation.

“I kept it in my office as a reminder of how far we’ve come,” said Peterson. “That was sexual violence prevention programming at that time, in that recent history. So I think it is really incredible and important to remember how far our programming work on campus has come and of course there is more work to do, but we’ve moved past rape whistles and asking folks to take care of themselves and putting the onus on the community to take care of one another, which I think is really important.”

Sarah Drumm and Ellice Lueders contributed to this report.


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