No one should be forced to go to school with their rapist, said Roxane Gay in front of a packed audience in Pickard Theater last Monday. At Bowdoin, like many other institutions of higher education and in work places around the world, survivors of sexual violence are forced to face their own perpetrators each and every day. On this campus, 15.8 percent of student respondents reported non-consensual penetration of the vagina or anus or oral sex in the 2016 Bowdoin Experiences and Attitudes about Relationships and Sex (B.E.A.R.S.) Survey. That’s close to 300 students, the equivalent of every College House occupant—plus about 85 more students—who survived what Bowdoin defines as sexual assault. For many students, an assault becomes central to their “Bowdoin experience.” Is this okay?
Every student is affected by sexual violence. Every student knows survivors and perpetrators. Many of us are aware of this—so why has sexual violence become normal on our campus? Why do we accept our current reality as unfortunate but unchangeable? And most importantly, why has our administration failed to address this issue seriously and openly among all students, faculty and staff? Too often, sexual violence is only addressed behind closed office doors in order to protect our institutional reputation. As a response, many survivors turn to public spaces to express their hurt and frustration and to share their stories. Too often, the burden is on survivors to lay bare their personal trauma in order for others to care, to listen, to believe. As Roxane Gay said, “We have to cannibalize the worst things that have happened to us to increase awareness.” Is this okay?
The prevalence of sexual assault on our campus clearly demonstrates the utter ineffectiveness of our current programming: a lack of comprehensive education, inaccessible resources and a failure to hold perpetrators accountable allows these crimes to continue. According to B.E.A.R.S., less than half of students have participated in education about sexual assault beyond orientation programming; the sole mandatory program is Speak About It, a 90-minute comedic play that prioritizes entertainment over comprehensive information. Is this okay?
Preventing sexual assault from occurring on our campus must be our first priority. We must break the cycle of violence and create a campus where all members of the Bowdoin community are respected as human beings of equal worth. Sexual violence is traumatizing; it is wrong and, ultimately, it is illegal. Members of the Title IX office and other members of Bowdoin staff have been responsive to our proposed initiatives and our frustrations with the campus climate surrounding sexual violence. However, these conversations have occurred in private thus far. We believe that students have a right to know about these conversations and that the administration must understand that their accountability transcends this small group of concerned students.
We are presenting a list of demands to the Bowdoin College Administration, asking it to fully commit to the eradication of sexual assault and gender violence on our campus. Students who are enrolled at Bowdoin College have the right to pursue their education and take advantage of all of the incredible opportunities that the College has to offer without fear of violence. Title IX compliance is only the bare minimum, and we ask that the Administration do everything in its power to protect its students. Sexual violence is a pervasive issue impacting our lives at all levels. Bowdoin must recognize the prevalence of violence on this campus as the crucial public health issue that it is and create strong, substantive programs and messaging that support survivors, provide education and hold perpetrators accountable.
For this reason, we call on you, our fellow students, to sign our petition. We want the Bowdoin community to realize that assailants exist in every social and academic space on campus and that many of them carry on their Bowdoin careers without repercussions. We want our administration to provide all students the necessary education to prevent sexual violence. Bowdoin is Bowdoin because of the students who inhabit this campus, and it is on us to hold ourselves and our peers accountable for their actions to create a safe and prosperous community. We can, and we must, do better.
Julianna Burke and Sophie Cowen are members of the Class of 2018, Amber Rock is a member of the Class of 2019 and Eleanor Paasche is a member of the Class of 2020. They write on behalf of a group of concerned students impacted by sexual violence on Bowdoin’s campus.