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Take Back the Night recognizes impact of sexual assault in new format

April 16, 2021

Courtesy of Lisa Peterson
listen, believe, support: Staff in the Office of Gender Violence and Prevention handed out to-go bags with resources and information about sexual assault to student participants.

On Wednesday evening, the Office of Gender Violence Prevention and Education (OGVPE) hosted its annual Take Back the Night event, offering a time for students, both on and off campus, to hold a moment of reflection about sexual assault and rape culture at Bowdoin in their individual residences at 9 p.m. This is the first time the event was held in the spring and in a socially-distanced format.

Throughout Wednesday, to-go bags were distributed by the OGVPE to participating on-campus students. All 100 of their bags were distributed, with each holding an artificial candle, readings on rape culture, poems on healing and information on resources available to students affected by sexual and gender-based violence. At 9 p.m., participating students stepped outside their residences with their candles and read the material aloud or to themselves, taking time to reflect on the readings and the impact of sexual violence on the campus community.

Director of Gender Violence Education and Prevention Lisa Peterson worked with students involved in her office to reimagine a format for the event that would suit the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the 2019-20 academic year, Take Back the Night involved students gathering in front of the Bowdoin Museum of Art steps with candles to listen to personal accounts and readings regarding sexual assault at Bowdoin, on college campuses and in society at large. The crowd would then take the candles and march silently in a route around campus.

Last year, Peterson decided to change Take Back the Night from October, when it formerly took place, to April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Most similar events on other college campuses and communities occur during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so shifting the timing of Bowdoin’s programming would allow it to align with a broader movement to recognize the impacts of sexual violence. Peterson also made the move in a hope that the warmer weather in April would draw more students.

Because the decision to move the event to April happened early in the fall of 2019, the event did not take place last year; the rescheduled date fell soon after the college transitioned to remote learning, making for insufficient time to re-plan.

This year, Peterson decided to plan for Take Back the Night to take place through individual or small-group reflection on the part of community members at a prescribed time, foregoing a virtual component that many other Colleges have opted for.

“I personally have a lot of concerns about the virtual format for an event like this because we can’t control who logs in and who views the stories,” Peterson said. “It’s really important to me for the privacy of folks who participate that we have a little bit more control over who is present and who gets to bear witness to those stories.”

While Peterson considered facilitating an in-person, outdoor gathering for students on campus, she ultimately decided against it due to both concerns about COVID-19 and the impact on those sharing their stories of assault.

“If folks don’t want to attend [a large gathering] because they don’t feel safe doing that with a pandemic right now, I think that’s completely reasonable, and I had concerns that the unintended impact on survivors could be feeling like that might indicate that there isn’t support or make people feel further alienated or isolated, which we know [is] something that a lot of survivors experience,” Peterson said. “So I wanted to come up with a way that felt really accessible and easy for folks to participate in but still felt really meaningful.”

Grace Carrier ’23, a programming assistant in the OGVPE, worked with Peterson to reimagine the format and content of Take Back the Night this year.

“I think the most important part is just that the event was a break from people’s routine,” Carrier said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “People went outside, lit their candle and then intentionally reflected on this topic, which I think is really important for our Office because we’re trying to prevent the normalization of sexual violence … it’s a result of a toxic campus culture. And I think people intentionally thinking about that is an important step in making that problem more visible.”

“That’s at least what I hoped was the impact of the event—getting people out of their routine of day-to-day just accepting how Bowdoin is, and starting to think and take responsibility for how Bowdoin could be,” Carrier added.

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