Schnader Theater was packed to capacity, so much so that the stage and stairs were lined with students as the campus gathered at Take Back the Night on Wednesday.
Take Back the Night is an international organization that began in 1975 to stop sexual violence against women. According to the organization’s website, “Take Back the Night has focused on eliminating sexual violence, in all forms, and thousands of colleges, universities, women’s centers, and rape crisis centers have sponsored events all over the country.”
F&M’s Take Back the Night event was hosted by S.A.V.E and the Alice Drums Women’s Center but received support and sponsorship from organizations all across campus including 1 in 4, the office of the president, I.M.P.A.C.T., several fraternities, and the office of Greek life, to name a few.
The night began with opening remarks and introductions by S.A.V.E. co-presidents, Jade Risser ’13 and Danielle Roth ’13, followed by an opening speech by Jan Masland, director of sexual misconduct services at the College. In her speech, Masland focused on the importance of equality between the genders in preventing sexual violence, stating that sexual relations must be wanted and pleasurable for both parties in order to have a healthy relationship. She also focused on the role men play in the development of these relationships.
“Men must be equal participants in preventing sexual violence,” Masland said.
Notably, Masland also pointed out that Take Back the Night is an event to talk about and honor survivors of sexual violence of both genders.
“We are also here to take back the night for men,” Masland said, before stating startling statistics about sexual violence against men on campus.
“In a survey passed out across campus, it was found that, in the past year, eight men have been sexually touched without their consent, two men were almost penetrated without their consent, and three men were actually penetrated without their consent,” Masland said. “And since this survey was conducted on only half the campus it is safe to assume that we can double these numbers.”
Next, Masland focused on the fact that no one is safe in the current atmosphere of sexual violence that permeates society and called on the students present to take a stand and “Take Back the Night” to end the culture that allows sexual violence to happen.
Once Masland finished, Mark Harmon-Vaught ’15, president of 1 in 4, the all-male sexual assault prevention group on campus, spoke about the role men play in preventing sexual violence and removing the bystander culture. He challenged the student body to intervene and help stop the violence.
Up next came Beth Graybill, director of the Women’s Center, to introduce the night’s keynote speaker, Kayla Harrison, the first American to win a gold medal in judo and a victim of sexual violence. Graybill gave a biography of Harrison’s experience with sexual violence and path to recovery.
“[Harrison] is a testament that our lives do not need to be defined by our abusers,” Graybill said.
Through a rousing round of applause, Harrison took the stage. She began on a casual note, emphasizing her nerves as this was the first time she had ever spoken on a college campus. Harrison also quickly broke the tension — “threatening” to perform a demonstration of her judo skills on students if the audience did not laugh at her jokes — before turning to the solemn topic of the evening.
“Hopefully by the end of the night, we cannot only take back the night but we can own it,” she said.
Harrison began judo when her parents signed her up so she could defend herself later in life. From the very first moment, she fell in love with the sport. However, it was not until her first victory and the satisfaction she got from her success that she began to put her whole heart and soul into the sport. As she invested more time, she moved to a more competitive gym, which would prove to be the decision that would change her life. Harrison remembers spending more and more time at the gym with her coach and less time with her family and friends.
The conversation then changed drastically, as instead of telling the audience outright about the violence she experienced with her coach, she explained it through the changes in her personality.
“During this time, I changed…a lot,” Harrison said. “I stopped being that bubbly little girl and started wearing only sweatpants. I became suicidal, and I hated my mother and my father more than anything else. After I couldn’t take it anymore, I told my mom that my coach Daniel had been abusing me for years. After that, everything changed.”
Harrison then recounted the long path to recovery that began a month later when she moved to Wakefield, MA to practice judo far away from friends and family.
“For the first year, I was numb,” Harrison said. “I was at rock bottom. It was because of the people around me, my family and friends, that I can even be here today.”
Even though her coach pled guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, Harrison continued to struggle with what happened to her for years. She felt empty and alone, until a talk with her new coach convinced her the experience did not define her. After the talk it still was not easy, but Harrison was determined to make the best for herself — and she did, rising through the ranks of judo and eventually becoming the first American to win the gold in judo at the 2012 London Olympics.
Even though she is a gold medalist, Harrison confessed that hearing how her story had a positive impact on the survivors of sexual violence made her feel even better than standing on the Olympic podium.
Harrison ended her talk with words of inspiration.
“It is not only my voice,” she said. “It is the voice of all survivors and those who support us. The only way we can stop [the violence] is by taking a stand and using our voice. I think we are going to own this night.”
From here it moved on to questions from the audience, which mostly focused on the specifics of her reaction, including the athlete-coach dynamic that leads to so many acts of sexual violence.
After Harrison left the stage, Angie Epifano, a former student at Amherst College who became famous for revealing its culture of repressing survivors, took the stage to speak about how it is important for colleges to support survivors and to not victimize or criminalize them.
“When I reported [the sexual violence] to the administration, they treated me like the perpetrator and reminded me of the incident every day,” Epifano said. “I was convinced for a year and a half it was my fault.”
Epifano then pointed out the statistic that every minute a woman is raped in the U.S.
“I hope events like this can prevent at least one of these rapes and stop one more survivor from being created,” she said.
Once Epifano left the stage, Sweet Ophelia, one of the all-female a cappella groups on campus, took the stage to perform “No More Silence” by the Burns Sisters, a moving song representing the theme of the night, which was to end silence about sexual violence. The group performs this song every year specifically for Take Back the Night due to its resonant theme.
The event was ended with a candlelight vigil from Roschel Theater to the Brooks House Great Room, where attendees listened to testimonials from survivors of sexual assault and a closing by Susan Minasian, College chaplain. Attendants reported it was a perfect way to close the event because of its intimate and moving nature.
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