Rape happens here

November 15, 2012

Madeline Burrows documents a rise in sexual violence at college campuses--and discusses what steps that activists can take to combat it.

IN A photo essay in the Amherst Voice titled "It Happens Here," Amherst students stand against fall foliage, holding signs with words said to them by administrators, coaches and peers in the aftermath of being sexually assaulted on campus. The quotations are difficult to read, because for so many of us, they are painfully familiar:

"Are you sure it was rape? He seems to think it was a little more complicated."
--An Amherst College administrator

"Why don't you take a year off, get a job at Starbucks and come back after he's graduated?"
--Amherst College Dean

"If you didn't want to have sex with him, why were you sitting on his bed two weeks before?"
--Student on the Amherst College disciplinary committee

Sexual violence at Amherst College--and at college campuses around the U.S.--isn't an exception to the norm of sexual respect and consent. It's an epidemic.

The photo essay came in response to an October 17 article in the Amherst Student by former Amherst student Angie Epifano titled "An Experience of Sexual Assault at Amherst College." The piece speaks volumes about the way college administrations actively perpetuate a culture of silencing and victim-blaming of sexual assault survivors. Epifano writes:

UMass Amherst students protest the culture of silence around sexual violence
UMass Amherst students protest the culture of silence around sexual violence (Barry Scott)

I was continuously told that I had to forgive him, that I was crazy for being scared on campus...They told me: We can report your rape as a statistic...but I don't recommend that you go through a disciplinary hearing. It would be you, a faculty adviser of your choice, him, and a faculty adviser of his choice in a room where you would be trying to prove that he raped you. You have no physical evidence--it wouldn't get you very far to do this.

After telling a counselor how unsafe she felt at Amherst, Epifano was forcibly escorted off campus by campus police and checked into a psychiatric ward for depression and suicidal thoughts, where doctors continued the victim-blaming. "I really don't think a school like Amherst would allow you to be raped," she says they told her. "And why didn't you tell anybody? That just doesn't make any sense."

Epifano then learned that Amherst would not allow her back on campus without parental supervision. Because Epifano does not have parents, she would not be permitted to return to school. She and her social worker fought back, but her struggle didn't end there: Epifano was prevented from studying abroad the following year in South Africa.

According to the racist logic of her dean, African Studies would be bad for her mental health: "Africa is quite traumatizing...You'll be much better off here at Amherst where we can watch over you."

Compare Epifano's treatment as a rape survivor to that of her rapist: Epifano was forcibly institutionalized against her will in a psychiatric ward, had to fight be re-admitted to the campus, and was restricted academically, all because she came forward and sought help in the wake of her rape.

The student who raped Epifano graduated last spring with honors.

EPIFANO'S STORY went viral. Her story struck such a chord with people not because it was so shocking, but because it was so common.

Last spring, an Amherst fraternity celebrated their annual "Bavaria Day" by creating sickeningly misogynistic T-shirts with the image of a nearly naked woman tied to a pole, with bruises on her side and an apple in her mouth, being roasted over a fire. The T-shirt reads, "Roasting fat ones since 1847."

According to an article by Dana Bolger in the Amherst College Voice, administrators silenced the controversy by holding a closed-door, unpublicized meeting with a small group of frat members.

"[T]he boys-will-be-boys type comments made prior to the meeting...were replaced by apology ("We didn't mean to offend anyone")," writes Bolger. "And that was that." Bolger concludes, "Amherst's silence concerning the shirt shouldn't come as much of a surprise. We're all part of a larger culture...that excuses (and often promotes) the objectification of female bodies, the glamorization of violence against women, and the normalization of rape."

In the wake of the articles, students organized a "Rally to End Silence," which grew into a 200-person speak-out and forced the Amherst administration on the defensive--it canceled classes for a "Day of Dialogue" and made verbal promises to address the problem of sexual assault.

This also made space for students--silenced by institutional victim-blaming--to come forward with their own experiences of sexual assault. Letters from alumni poured in, commenting on the culture of sexual violence they experienced at Amherst, particularly as female students in a college that only began admitting women in 1974.

And on November 5, the parents of Trey Malone--a 21-year-old former Amherst College student who committed suicide last June--made his suicide note public. In it, Malone explains his struggle to cope with being sexually assaulted while a student at Amherst:

I blame a society that remains unwilling to address sexual assault and rape. One that pays some object form of lip service to the idea of sexual crimes while working its hardest to marginalize its victims. One where the first question a college president can pose to me, regarding my own assault is, "Have you handled your drinking problem?"

THE ACTIVE silencing of sexual assault survivors is a form of institutional violence, and it isn't exclusive to Amherst College.

A week after Epifano's story came out, another harrowing story of rape on college campuses emerged at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A group of four men, aged 17 and 18, gang-raped an 18-year-old female UMass student in her bedroom. Instead of confronting the culture of sexual assault at UMass, the university quickly reframed the assault as something "outside" the campus community norms. As one UMass student tour guide explained:

The idea of a prospective family asking me about the recent rape on campus made me physically sick, triggering memories of my own rape on campus committed by a UMass student. When I expressed concern to my boss, she reaffirmed that they were not UMass students, ignoring the fact that I knew firsthand that there were too many unreported rapes on campus.

Sexual assault happens on every campus. And far from the "stranger danger" mythology surrounding rape, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, the vast majority of sexual assaults (73 percent) are committed by someone the survivor knows.

An exhaustive 2011 government survey of rape and domestic violence in the U.S. determined that:

-- One in four college women experience sexual assault during their college career.

More than half of female rape survivors in the study were raped by an intimate partner.

More than half of the male rape survivors were raped by an acquaintance. And statistics for sexual assault against transgender individuals--notably excluded from this survey--are even higher.

These statistics are conservative estimates. Sexual assault is the violent crime that is least often reported to police. And many survivors of sexual assault don't recognize their experiences as assault. Nearly 50 percent of women whose attacks met a 2000 Bureau of Justice Study's definition of rape did not consider what happened to them to be rape.

From Miami University in Ohio, where a flier surfaced with the title "Top 10 Ways to Get Away With Rape" (the list advocated having sex with unconscious women because it "doesn't count," drugging women with "roofies" and slitting women's throats if they recognize their attackers); to Yale, where the Delta Kappa Epsilon frat paraded around campus in 2010 chanting, "No Means Yes!"; to Wesleyan University, where a former student is suing the school after she was raped at a frat informally called "the Rape Factory"; rape culture is alive and well on college campuses.

Why, then, do college campuses underreport assaults and actively cover them up?

Since its founding in 1821, Amherst has only expelled one student for sexual assault, and only after he was charged in courts outside of the school. This is a nationwide trend. In a 2008 study conducted by the U.S. Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women, only 10 to 25 percent of students found responsible for committing sexual assault faced permanent expulsion from their colleges.

The most common sanctioning for students found responsible of sexual assault? Social probation, writing a letter of apology, and writing a research paper on sexual violence.

AMHERST COLLEGE students are holding the administration accountable for silencing sexual violence survivors and giving misogyny a pass by raising important demands. In "An Open Letter to President Biddy Martin," a coalition of Amherst students demand better services and expanded hours at the Counseling Center and new counselors specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.

Because of limited hours on our own campuses, students at the Five Colleges (UMass Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith and Amherst) rely heavily on UMass Amherst's health services. Hampshire College health services, for example, closes at 4 p.m. on weekdays and remains closed on weekends.

But in spring 2011, budget cuts reduced UMass health center hours to closing at 8 p.m. on weekdays and 4 p.m. on weekends. Students seeking care after those hours must drive to Northampton--sometimes an hour-long drive in traffic or on the bus.

In 2003, services provided by the Rape Crisis and Violence Prevention Program at UMass were cut drastically by 50 percent--losing $90,000 in funding--after state rape crisis services were cut across the board. The counselor advocate program at Hampshire College, which ran a 24-hour hotline and trained students to offer rape counseling services to their peers, stopped running in 2011 after it lost funding for its sole paid staff position.

The shorter hours and cuts to much-needed programs send a clear message to survivors of sexual assault, especially women and transgender students who disproportionately experience sexual assault: If you are raped after 8 p.m., you are on your own.

The feminist movement that opened rape crisis centers in the 1970s helped shift the national conversation about rape in a political context where marital rape was legal and women seeking an abortion were required in many states to present written consent from their husband.

Those laws were overturned because there was a women's liberation movement in the streets connecting the fights for reproductive justice, against racism, for welfare and housing and sexual liberation.

Flash forward to 2012: Rape crisis centers exist, but are constantly fighting to remain funded. Politicians like Todd Akin argue that women cannot become pregnant from rape. A proposed Pennsylvania bill would have required women on welfare who became pregnant from rape to "prove" they were raped in order to retain public assistance. And a generation of young people has grown up under federally mandated abstinence-only education, alienating us from our bodies and sexualities.

We have a lot of ground to gain, and a national grassroots fightback--on campuses and in communities--is desperately needed.

Let's not forget the fightback at University of Vermont in 2011, when fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon circulated a flier that read, "If you could rape someone, who would it be?" Students organized protests with community organizations, unions and faculty, and forced the university to shut down the frat. In the process, activists exposed broader issues of on-campus sexism and rape.

As Amherst student and activist Briana Hanny explains, "We have to take a stance against oppression--we are only in the initial stages and have a long way to go, but it keeps me hopeful that people are willing to acknowledge the wrong rather than continuing to keep things on the hush to maintain appearances."

We should all take lessons from the way Amherst students rose up to break the silence surrounding rape, and generalize the fightback to our own campuses and communities. This is a crucial contribution to building a national movement against rape culture, one that can win justice for survivors of sexual assault everywhere.

Further Reading

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