Take Back the Night

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Photo, Donna Hughes

Women have the right to Take Back the Night.

Women and a few men were marching and speaking out against sexual violence on the Kingston campus of the University of Rhode Island on Thursday evening.

The students were energized as they walked around the campus, chanting and waving their protest signs. Girls just want to have fundamental rights. Silence does not equal consent. My body isn’t yours. Cats against cat-calling.

After the march, URI students gathered for a speak out. They described their experiences to break the silence that surrounds sexual abuse. Several of the women said it was only the first or second time they had spoken about the rape or abuse.

I was at a sleep-over.

He got me to drink.

If you are not familiar with the sexual victimization of women and girls, you might be surprised to hear how many of them had been molested or raped multiple times.

The first time, I was 10.

I was 17, the second time I was raped.

Between the ages of 13 and 18, I was photographed nude many times. I was filmed for a web cam.

One woman who is new to campus studying in a male-dominated major described being taken aside by other women and told: Our department has the creepy guys. They told her which men she should watch out for and what they might try to do. Thank you, women, for having other women’s backs!

As a professor on campus and someone who studies sexual violence, I can tell you there are many more assaults that are never reported.

I see and feel the presence of them all the time. The notes telling me they will miss class because of an investigation. The requests for extra time to hand in assignments that come from university counselors who know what the student is going through. The requests from staff for me to accompany a victim to a hearing. Also, I have enough experience to recognize someone living with anxiety, fear, and confusion. Of course, I don’t know that all of these students are suffering the effects of a sexual assault, but I know distress when I see it.

Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means not!

At URI last year (2017-2018) there were 66 reports of violence. There 43 reports of sexual assault; 14 reports of dating or domestic violence; five reports of harassing behavior; one report of stalking; one simple assault; and one report of non-consensual pornography. However, we know that the majority of assaults are not reported. In addition, many of the reports of violence do not meet the Clery standards (U.S. Department of Education) for inclusion in the official report required by law.

Racine Amos, the coordinator for the URI Violence Prevention and Advocacy Services (VPAS), has tallied all the reports for past years. She’s found that when all reports of violence and all locations where the acts occur are included, and not just those acts that meet the Clery criteria, there has been a 249% increase in reports to the URI VPAS between 2014 and 2019.

Staff at the Women’s Center and VPAS are overwhelmed by the number of victims that are requesting support. Even with this increase in need, Penny Rosenthal, Director of the Women’s Center told me that they are down two staff members. She doesn’t know when or if they will be replaced.

A few staff members spoke at the event. They were tired. Given this increase in need from victims, that isn’t surprising. One said: I’m tired of Take Back the Night marches. She said she’d participated in them too often over the years. She wanted an end to sexual violence instead.

One staff member asked for student support: We need your help. We need partners.

That tells you much of what you need to know. The staff who support victims are exhausted. They are asking students for help.

URI has conduct board hearings for assaults. I think they are the most confidential meetings on campus. Students–both the victim and the accused—are discouraged from speaking about them or the outcomes. The university urges the victim to be silent, just like the perpetrator usually does. At this time, URI does not release how many conduct board hearings are held each year.

Where are the URI officials? There were several of them at the march and speak out from the administration and the police department. As usual they reassured everyone that they cared and were committed to ending sexual violence. They may even believe that themselves.

Years ago, a sociologist friend of mine gave me an insightful analysis into the behavior of administrators: They have the capacity to say one thing, do another, and believe both.

1, 2, 3, 4, We won’t take it anymore! 5, 6, 7, 8, Stop the violence, stop the rape!

A term has been coined to describe what often happens to sexual assault victims on campus: institutional betrayal. The term evolved out of the term betrayal trauma, which occurs when a victim is further traumatized by not being believed or protected by people she thought she could trust and rely on for protection.

A few years ago, Jennifer Freyd, who coined these terms and studies campus rape, spoke on the URI campus about the frequent occurrence and the impact on victims of institutional betrayal.

Freyd described an antidote to institutional betrayal—institutional courage. Institutional courage occurs when there is institutional accountability and transparency. The institutional priority is to protect the victim and seek justice for the victim. Institution courage is not the same as institutional reputation management.

URI needs institutional courage.

Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Sexual violence has got to go!

One thing was notably missing from the Take Back the Night and speak out: There were no whoops of victory that a perpetrator had been held accountable.


Donna M Hughes
Professor & Carlson Endowed Chair in Women’s Studies
University of Rhode Island

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