Candles flickered in the dark as students wept softly and huddled for warmth. Victims of sexual assault trudged up the steps of Green Hall on Wednesday night, tearfully recounting the time their boyfriend pushed a pillow over their face and raped them, telling of the bruises their mother hid or simply offering support and encouragement.
This was the scene at the 13th annual Take Back the Night, a rally held all over the world to fight sexual assault and domestic violence, to make the streets safe once more for both women and men of any race, age, class or sexual orientation. The event was sponsored by the Women’s Center in conjunction with various fraternities, sororities and other campus organizations.
More than 100 students gathered at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday to fight the chilling statistics that students read aloud: a rape occurs every five minutes; 76,109 cases of domestic violence were reported in New Jersey in 2004; and 75 percent of males who are sexually assaulted are under the age of 18.
“Thank you for all those great statistics,” speaker Susan Switlik, director of Womanspace, a nonprofit agency that assists victims of domestic abuse and violence, said. “The reality, however, is that they’re not great – they’re sad, horrible.”
College students are most often the victims of rape – one in four women will be raped during college, as opposed to the national average of one in six women and one in 33 men.
After listening to these statistics and speakers like Switlik and Jackie Deitch-Stackhouse, coordinator of the office of Anti-Violence Initiatives, students lit candles and marched around campus, shouting words of empowerment and warning would-be predators that they were “taking back the night.” They chanted, “2-4-6-8, no more violence, no more rape!” and “racist, violent, anti-gay: you can’t take our night away!”
“Let’s take away the myth of ‘she was asking for it,'” Switlik said. “Let’s dispel that myth – no means no.”
Heads turned and attention was drawn by the large group of both men and women who linked arms, marching and chanting in unison as onlookers stared and listened.
The night took a decidedly poignant turn as students took to the podium amid tentative yet encouraging applause to tell of their experiences with sexual assault. Whether it happened to them, their mothers, their friends or girlfriends, these students broke the stigma and code of silence that all too often accompanies sexual violence.
“No one’s afraid to admit they’ve been mugged or their car has been stolen,” Tom Sales, junior political science major, said. “People are afraid to admit they’ve been assaulted and that has to stop.”
Statistics often fail to capture the gravity of such horrifying experiences, yet the sheer number of students who stepped forward to tell their stories was shocking, as were the accounts of violence and the ostracization and lack of support many victims faced.
Due in part to the shame and misunderstanding that accompanies sexual assault, fewer than five percent are actually reported, a number that Take Back the Night hopes to increase.
In 2004, 17 sexual assaults were reported at the College, up from nine reported the year before, which College officials view as a positive sign of the supportive atmosphere the campus promotes.
According to New Jersey law, sexual assault is any unwarranted or unwanted touching or penetration of intimate body parts by the same or opposite sex, a definition that encompasses much more than the traditional understanding of “rape.”
“People get caught up in the word rape. It doesn’t have to involve intercourse,” Deitch-Stackhouse said.
Take Back the Night has roots all the way back to 1877, when women in London protested the violence they faced on a daily basis, although it didn’t occur in the United States until 1978 in San Francisco.
According to Christi Downey, president of the Women’s Center and junior women and gender studies and anthropology major, “Our main purpose in continuing the tradition of Take Back the Night here at (the College) is to give those affected by this violence a chance to speak up and those not directly affected an opportunity to become more aware and begin to do something positive about it.”