A petition calling on Bowdoin to reform its sexual assault policy has received over 800 signatures. The petition, written by Sophie Cowen ’18, Julianna Burke ’18, Amber Rock ’19 and Eleanor Paasche ’20, was announced last Friday. A poster campaign in David Saul Smith Union and outdoor tabling accompanied the petition’s release, bringing awareness of the petition to the wider Bowdoin community.
“It’s been time for a long time to do something,” said Cowen. “This isn’t necessarily related to #MeToo or Harvey Weinstein—I think we were talking about this before that happened.”
The petition, which will be presented to the College Administration, demands that “the College recognize its obligations to its students affected by sexual violence” by changing its sexual assault prevention and programming, changing the process required to report sexual assault and changing the overall institutional response to sexual violence.
The authors outlined a need for more informative sexual assault programming during First Year Orientation, mandatory education for club officers and programming in the College Houses. All of this additional education would aim to prevent assault, inform students of their Title IX rights and equip all students with knowledge of how to navigate reporting and seeking help after a sexual assault. The authors hope that a common baseline of knowledge would both decrease the prevalence of sexual assault at Bowdoin and create a more streamlined, smoother road to resources and help for survivors after they are assaulted.
“It’s a really convoluted process right now,” said Rock of the current practices around sexual assault reporting. “Being passed from person to person and trying to go on this really old website and find who to talk to … It’s just an unnecessary burden that survivors shouldn’t have to go through.”
The petition also calls for the administration to place the same emphasis on Social Code violations as it does on Academic Code violations.
“If we gave the same weight to how we perform socially as students as how we do academically, I feel like that would help students understand the gravity of this issue and how seriously we take it here at this institution,” said Rock.
Some of the ideas in the petition were presented to members of the administration in the last couple of months, before the petition was released, when the authors met with Associate Director of Gender Violence Prevention and Education Lisa Peterson and Director of Gender Violence Prevention and Education Benje Douglas, who oversees the Title IX program at the College.
“I was not aware that they were releasing a petition, but I met with them earlier in the semester,” Peterson said. “They had reached out to me with some ideas for potential programming, and so we had a couple really robust meetings to discuss different gaps that they saw in programming … I was really excited about some of the ideas they brought forward. Some of them overlapped with plans, with hopes that I had for future programming as well, and so provided a very nice opportunity to partner with students in getting those implemented.”
Douglas feels that the petition is positive in that it constitutes a concrete example of a community putting voice to wanting to end violence, and he agrees with its emphasis on prevention. He also pointed out the longstanding efforts by students and staff to fight the presence of sexual violence at Bowdoin.
“I do think it’s difficult to feel like a lot of people have worked hard on this issue and that has been somehow flattened to mean that because sexual violence has not ended, there is something wrong with what has been done,” Douglas said. “Sexual violence is a huge, multifaceted problem—I think it takes a really big concerted effort and lots of different variables and lots of different staples are involved and invested.”
Dean of Students Affairs Tim Foster explained that he was initially surprised to hear about the petition, as he feels there’s a lot of activity at Bowdoin already happening around sexual assault prevention. However, he explained that he understands the concern that people have that there is not enough mandatory programming, and he expressed that the College could always be doing more with this issue.
“I look forward to actually hearing constructive ideas people have because this is a classic place where there are so many opportunities to do more and better,” said Foster. “I’m hopeful that—I haven’t seen the petition—but that there’ll be some really good ideas we can consider.”
Burke said that the intent of making the petition public was not to exclude the Title IX Office and explained that the meetings she and the other authors had with Peterson and Douglas were positive.
“They were super receptive and thought [the prevention programming] was a good idea,” Burke said. “This petition is by no means an attempt to circumvent that, or minimize that, but it’s the idea that we didn’t want this to be a private conversation that was occurring between me, Sophie, Amber, Eleanor and a couple other people.”
The decision to write and release the petition stems not from a feeling that Bowdoin is facilitating an unhealthy culture that is specific to this institution, but rather from the idea that Bowdoin exists within a wider society that instills certain norms about gender relations in students before they come to campus.
“We live in a rape culture, so this isn’t Bowdoin’s fault,” said Rock. “But I feel like Bowdoin definitely has a role and can … really do a lot of prevention work and help make sure students feel as safe as they can so they can just focus on being a student.”
While acknowledging the important work done by existing student groups whose missions are specifically related to sexual assault prevention and supporting survivors, the authors said that the amount of programming around sexual assault that is mandatory for all students is insufficient.
“There are a ton of great groups that do things around sexual violence,” Cowen said. “But because sexual violence is something that exists on every part of this campus … we need the education to be part of every club, every organization on this campus—not just Safe Space, not just BMASV [Bowdoin Men Against Sexual Violence]. It needs to be everywhere.”
Some students expressed concern that some of the posters, which referenced vaginal and anal penetration in large font sizes, could be triggering to some survivors of sexual assault. In an email to the Orient Thursday night, the petition authors apologized for the potentially triggering content.
“We would like to extend a sincere apology to those who were hurt by our posters,” they wrote. “Our attempt to direct attention to sexual violence at Bowdoin occurred at the expense of some survivors’ healing processes. While we know some students were empowered, we also recognize that other students were upset and triggered by this information and we failed to fully account for their individual wellbeing.”
Another concern that was raised was the idea that, while the petition may be empowering for some survivors, it may also stir up difficult psychological and emotional reactions for other survivors.
Shea Necheles ’18, a co-leader of Safe Space, explained both her support of the petitioners and her concern around the poster campaign, especially one poster that says, “Only 11 percent of survivors choose to formally report their assailant” and “Rapists are on our campus.” Necheles stressed the importance of remembering that different avenues are empowering for different survivors and that formal reporting is not the right avenue for everyone.
“I’m worried that this poster makes it seem that if you aren’t formally reporting your assault, that’s why there are still assailants on this campus,” Necheles said. “It’s no one’s obligation to formally report an assault—if you choose not to formally report an assault, you are not the reason why there are assailants on this campus.”
The posters were taken down on Tuesday, not because of their content, but because posters that are hung in Smith Union must be associated with a sponsoring organization, according to Director of Student Activities Nate Hintze.
Previously, the petition authors had hoped that the accompanying opportunity to sign a petition would provide an avenue for people to channel their emotions into a contribution toward positive change. Even so, they acknowledged that the posters would cause some degree of pain.
“The terrible reality with sexual violence is that when you talk about it, it will hurt,” Cowen said. “This is not a painless process for most people who have signed, most people who have created the petition, and so my heart goes out to the people who were affected by this and [were shocked]. My hope is that they did have a moment of empowerment in knowing that we’re working, because that emotional labor is so real. People shouldn’t have to go through that in order for things to change.”
The authors explained that, while this process has been difficult for many people involved with the petition, the response of the Bowdoin community has been encouraging, with many students, faculty, staff and alumni reaching out to express support.
“People really care, they really do,” Cowen said. “And people have come to us with concerns and questions about parts of the petition, and we’ve had important conversations with those people, and we definitely encourage them to come to us if they have any more concerns or questions.”
Burke affirmed a commitment to Bowdoin as an institution, calling protest “an act of love.”
“We love Bowdoin; we care about Bowdoin. If we didn’t care, if we just thought this was the way it was and this was how it has to be, then we wouldn’t be doing this,” Burke said. “We recognize the power that Bowdoin students, Bowdoin staff, Bowdoin faculty have … we’ve seen a lot of positive changes happen, and we can just continue and do so much more.”