April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month at Swarthmore and around the country, during which students and staff alike try to promote better understanding of the problem for all and support for survivors. Yet, even as programming around the topic has ramped up this month, questions remain about the current climate surrounding the issue of sexual assault on campus.
Two weeks ago, a t-shirt was found outside of Parrish on which was written, “Dean Braun is responsible for letting my rapist graduate. There is nothing else I can do but ignore it. Happy Sexual Assault Awareness Month.”
Together, this incident and the month in general have sparked new conversation about what understanding sexual assault looks like and whether we at Swarthmore have achieved meaningful awareness of the issue.
Most students that I spoke with agree that the student body has a general sense of what consent and sexual assault are but could better understand its causes and impacts.
“I think there are a lot of people that get the gist but don’t necessarily understand the intricacies of the experience,” an anonymous junior tells the Phoenix. “Healing, for example, is a really underrated part of the process.
Along those lines, this year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month programming has increased emphasis on healing, community-building, and support. Last Sunday, over 100 people attended Voices of Healing, a storytelling event in the amphitheater, where survivors and allies were invited to share their narratives.
This was meant to fill the absence of The Clothesline Project, a previously popular event that allowed survivors to write an often-political message on a t-shirt, about their experiences, to be strung publicly in Parrish.
“I really liked that project. I really miss it,” Allison Hrabar ’16 explains. “I’m happy we have that public talk but a ‘Voices of Healing’ event isn’t really reaching a new audience.”
Despite the ability for the Clothesline Project to reach a wide audience, not everyone within the survivor community on campus felt positively about it. The anonymous junior says that many other survivors found the upfront display to be triggering and unavoidable. She emphasizes the power of stories as another form of productive activism.
“Personally, a lot of what I’ve done is try to share my story with people who may not know a survivor. Personal stories are really important and so is making myself human and vulnerable,” she says.
“It’s such a charged discussion. People don’t necessarily understand the perspectives of a survivor. It’s an inability to empathize if you don’t have ties,” Clare Pérez ’18, who also works with Title IX, describes this gap as a key barrier in bettering campus culture.
Many believe that personal connections are crucial to humanizing the issue and seeing it as relevant and very important. However, students also wish the month directly addressed the underlying problems, like lack of education and social attitudes, that allow it to occur in the first place.
Cayla Barry ’18, wishes the month also re-addressed prevention. She describes how the consent education provided at first year orientation is not enough to adequately address sexual assault. Currently, orientation programming doesn’t note many kinds of violence, including those between same-sex people or within relationships, and the programming itself only happens once.
“I don’t see the same energy around actually practicing consent and enforcing it,” Barry said. “In my orientation, it seemed like they were saying sexual assault doesn’t happen here.”
Sexual Assault Awareness Month and the programs it offers are crucial, largely because sexual assault at Swarthmore is still a common occurrence.
One freshman survivor described her experience looking back at orientation after experiencing assault this past year.
“I wish the school named the problem. It’s not always miscommunication. It’s attitudes, too,” she describes. “I wasn’t assaulted because someone misread the situation, you know? I was assaulted because they didn’t care.”
Hrabar especially echoed the importance of shifting focus of our conversations towards personal accountability.
“It’s much harder to hold people accountable. It’s one thing to go [to a consent workshop] and think, wow, I would never do that, good thing all these other people are here learning. It’s another to go and think, wow, I have messed up before,” she says.
The anonymous junior also notes the importance of accountability, highlighting the need for everyone to not see themselves as potential “bad guys” but rather capable of doing harm. Along those lines, Pérez emphasizes the focus of the Title IX office this year in doing just that.
“It’s moving the conversation away from blame and towards community,” she says.
In identifying ways in which institutional change can occur, the relationship between survivors and the College administration is a crucial point of conversation.
As the t-shirt found outside of Parrish displays, many feel a sustained ineffectiveness of the administration in adequately addressing instances of sexual misconduct. Some of these sentiments seemed to be reinforced last week when Dean Braun did not offer a response to the incident.
“If not malicious, then students perceive administration as incompetent. I don’t think there’s a lot of trust,” Hrabar, a senior, says. Especially with those who lived through “The Spring of our Discontent” in 2013, the relationship is perceived as precarious.
“I think there are a lot of people doing things to prevent sexual assault and to accommodate survivors and there’s a lack of recognition for those people. I have never had a negative experience with someone who knew I was a survivor. I’ve only gotten support,” the junior source adds. She clarifies that not everyone has been so fortunate.
Yet, even prior to contact with the administration, many students simply do not know what procedures and resources exist nor do they feel confident in helping others navigate them.
“What does it mean to be a required reporter? What do you have to report? What does the judiciary process look like? Who’s going to be asking me questions and what will they be?” the same anonymous freshman asks.
The administration could also be more proactive in initiating and supporting cultural change.
Concerning policy, both Hrabar and Pérez consider the current structures, norms and rules surrounding party spaces to be overly restrictive and inequitable.
“When I was a freshman, there was a party in Paces, Olde Club, and the frats. I went out and avoided the spaces where I felt uncomfortable,” Hrabar says.
Now, many feel that the dominant party scene is limited to the two on-campus fraternities. While some weekends a party is hosted at Olde Club or Paces, and Pub Nite (despite decreased funding) still happens once a week, most interviewees identify the fraternities as the almost-exclusive party spaces open to campus on a Saturday night.
Despite sustained efforts, these spaces still feel uncomfortable to many. Many described the frats and other party spaces as being “hunting-grounds” for hook-ups, where the expectation of going home with someone is so strong that it has the potential to be dangerous.
Barry tells me about the persistence of people looking to hook up, despite verbal and nonverbal cues she’s given of disinterest. She also describes, as a queer woman, feeling watched and sexualized.
Pérez reiterates these party spaces, and party policy, as crucial points of activism.
“I disagree with just putting it on the frats but it is about creating a whole new culture and that involves creating new party spaces,” Pérez adds. “It’s the transition to something new that doesn’t already have all these things attached to it.”
She describes the discussion around new spaces focused around women and non-binary people as an important step in diversifying the party scene and encouraging new norms.
However, many feel that the current policy is not conducive to this project. Because the fraternities have physical spaces and institutional recognition, they are able to more easily fund and organize parties on a regular basis.
“It’s the difference between encouragement and prevention. There’s no rule we can’t throw it a party but they are not helping us. It’s the difference between equality and equity,” Hrabar says.
Other important areas of activism cited through the interviews included more effective SWAT team training, better orientation education efforts, empowering RA’s to be facilitators of discussions, and even space-based tweaks, like locking doors or hanging up posters, to minimize risk and encourage in-the-moment accountability.
The anonymous junior discusses the new “It’s On Us” video to be shown at orientation and used as a tool of education and advocacy. She also discusses the renewed energy on the part of fraternity leadership in tackling these issues.
Summing up future hopes, Hrabar says, “We need to keep caring about this. It’s very, very easy to get tired. That’s where administration can come in.”
Sexual Assault Awareness Month is important in reminding the general campus what so many already know: sexual violence happens on this campus and, even as so much work has been done to address it, there is still much more to do.
Edited April 29, 2016: This article previously misidentified the amount of students who attended Voices of Healing. The author is deeply apologetic for the misrepresentation of the event’s impact.