After I attended my own college's Take Back the Night, I didn't feel empowered. I felt shaken and shamed.
If you don't live on a college campus, you may not be aware that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. If you do live on one, you probably haven't gone a day without a reminder—in the form of a lecture, art exhibit, poetry slam, speakout, and, most prominently, a "Take Back the Night" march.
It makes sense for colleges to pay special attention to the epidemic of sexual violence—the Department of Justice estimates that one in five women will be sexually assaulted during their college years. But "raising awareness" is a well-established institutional trick to avoid addressing a problem head-on. In SAAM's case, that strategy can backfire, shaming sexual assault victims further. I know because that's what happened to me.
As a freshman in college in 2003, I was attracted to the idea of an entire month dedicated to talking about a topic I had always kept quiet. I had been raped three years earlier, by a member of the family I lived with while working in Nicaragua for a summer. He came up behind me as I was brushing my hair, shoved me onto my travel cot so hard it snapped, then tore my clothes off on the floor. When the rest of the family returned from the market, I laughed about the clumsiness that caused me to break my own cot. I lived with them for three more weeks without saying a word.
When I got back to the States, I told a friend or two, but not my parents or any other adults. I've never been one to openly air my feelings, but by the time I got to college I had started to see the appeal of talking with other women who could relate. So on a Thursday night in April, I showed up at the main gates of my university for its annual Take Back the Night march.
When the event began, a student read the TBTN mission statement, which concluded, "tonight is a night of empowerment." Three hours later, I didn't feel empowered. I felt shaken and shamed.
It started with the march itself—a couple hundred women walking down Broadway in Manhattan (police had cordoned off several blocks for the event) chanting "Whose streets? Our streets!" and "Two, four, six eight! Stop the violence, stop the hate!" Though men were invited to participate once the procession arrived back on campus, they were excluded from the main event (this year, for the first time, my alma mater opened the march to men as well). This symbolic display of collective force seemed to energize my peers. But I had just spent three years finding a vocabulary to discuss my own experience in terms that made sense to me. I bristled at seeing it reduced to an easy-to-scream platitude, one announcing that sexual assault survivors existed, but not what they wanted or needed. I couldn’t force myself to join the chanting.
When I read into the history and intentions of the event afterward, I was struck by the fact that the nation's most visible series of anti-sexual assault events draws on a very particular type of narrative: the "righteous rape," in which a stranger jumps out from a dark alleyway. The first U.S. TBTN event was organized in response to a young scientist who was attacked and killed by a stranger in Philadelphia in 1975. The official event history traces the origins as far back as Jack the Ripper, who raped and killed prostitutes in London's East End in the late 1800s. Nowhere does it mention that as many as 90 percent of rape victims on college campuses are assaulted by people they know. Maybe taking back the dorm rooms and frat houses would be more effective than blaming the neighbors.
At my university's event, the "righteous rape" narrative continued at the post-march speakout, which took place in a dark gymnasium on campus. Women lined up to take a turn at the mic and tell their stories of being assaulted. Many of them were genuinely inspiring—I remember one woman recounting how she taught herself to paint as a coping mechanism after she was raped, and now planned to make a living as an artist. Every story was a difficult one to tell. Most of the people in the room cried both while telling their own stories and while listening to others'.
But I sat silently in a back corner, growing increasingly frustrated by the stories that weren't being told. Without any sort of overt institutional pressure, the speakers’ tales slowly built to form an uncomplicated account of rape in America. None of the speakers had been drunk when they were assaulted. None of them had willingly followed their attacker into a room. None of them had been betrayed by someone they trusted. Considering the origins of the event, it was fitting that a disproportionate number of stories involved strangers jumping out of the dark. Most strikingly, every single speaker had either reported the crime or had been directly intimidated to keep quiet.
As the event stretched into its third hour, anyone who might have had a thornier story to tell had already received the message that they shouldn't complicate things. I don't know about everyone else, but I went back to my dorm room feeling that by not reporting, I had let everyone down. And while the speakouts on other campuses may be more representative (I never could bring myself to attend another one), the flawed narrative that underpins Take Back the Night marches means they'll never paint a full picture.
The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, America's largest nonprofit dedicated to stopping sexual violence, estimates that 54 percent of victims never report their sexual assaults. Yet awareness efforts like the TBTN event I attended routinely privilege the minority who do. They celebrate the women who are "brave enough" to report their assaults to the police or campus authorities. Even RAINN puts pressure on victims, emphasizing on its website that "Reporting to the police is the key to preventing sexual assault: every time we lock up a rapist, we’re preventing him or her from committing another attack. It’s the most effective tool that exists to prevent future rapes," before weakly concluding, "In the end, though, whether or not to report is your decision to make."
At the time, I didn't understand that putting the onus on victims is backward and dangerous. It took me many years to reject the message that victims who report are brave and victims who don't are facilitating future rapes. When I told a TBTN organizer why the event had made me uncomfortable, she responded by telling me it wasn't too late to report my assault. "What if some other girl is living with that family now?" she said. "Don't you want to protect her?"
Did she think I had never thought of that? I had my share of nightmares about that man coming up behind another 16-year-old gringa while the rest of the family was at the market. On paper, I had no reason not to report the assault. Because I was part of an organized program, I had an easy way to get out of town immediately and forever. The program staff wouldn't have needed to conduct an intrusive investigation or involve the police before deciding against ever putting another teenager within a 10-mile radius of my rapist. Concerns that the perpetrator wouldn't be brought to justice or that I would be ostracized in the community—common reasons victims don't report—weren't part of my equation.
But no matter the circumstances, rape is as much a psychological assault as a physical one, and the reasons not to report aren't limited to fear of retaliation or justice not being served. Sexual assault is impressively effective at making smart, confident women feel like idiots—every other victim I've ever spoken with struggled to get over the idea that she could have avoided the crime, or that her assault even constituted a “crime” at all. And for women who pride themselves on being independent—those of us who have a difficult time asking for help or admitting weakness of any kind—embracing the role of "rape victim" feels particularly unnatural. When even victims’ advocates promote uncomplicated rape narratives, it only makes it easier for the majority of victims to slip into the shadows.
A lot has changed since I fell behind in that Take Back the Night march almost 10 years ago. I know now that having been raped doesn't mean I owe anything to anybody, and that there is no "righteous rape." Now it's time for society to get the message, too. We are ready to move on from being “aware” that young women are sexually assaulted at alarming rates to discussing what that really means. I hope campus speakouts across the country this month reflect that (my own school's inclusion of male allies and victims is a positive sign). But I fear that as long as Take Back the Night marches continue to set the tone for awareness efforts, we will continue to reinforce the idea that only certain rape victims should take the stage—and once they do, they owe us something. Sometimes screaming at the top of your lungs makes it easier for everyone else to stay silent.