[CW: This article makes mention of sexual violence.]
On Thursday, Oct. 25, Vassar students gathered in the College Center Circle for the third annual Take Back the Night rally. Women’s Center organizers intentionally scheduled the event on this date due to October being Relationship Abuse Awareness month, as well as due to the proximity to Halloweekend and the correlation between intoxication and increased rates of sexual assault.
Take Back the Night is an international organization committed to reducing relationship abuse and sexual assault worldwide. The on-campus rally is a yearly component of the organization’s programming brought to Vassar in 2016 by Darci Siegel ’20, who was a Women’s Center Intern at the time. This year, current Women’s Center Interns Cecilia Bobbitt ’19, Vanessa Rosensweet ’19, Adesina Brown ’22 and Vandana Dronadula ’22, along with SAVP Intern Sylvia Peng ’20, organized the Take Back the Night event.
This year’s rally followed a similar trajectory to those of years past. It began with tabling by the Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention Office (SAVP), CHOICE, Vassar Voices for Planned Parenthood, Health Education, VSA Health and Wellness, Big Night In, Project.Period and the Traditions Committee, accompanied by empowering feminist pop music hits from Ariana Grande, P!nk and Adele.
Bobbitt and Rosensweet then began the event with opening remarks, reminding attendees that Sexual Assault Response Team advocates were present and that, in attending an advocacy-centered event on campus, Title IX representatives or any responsible employees in attendance were not required to report. Bobbitt’s opening words were followed by a speech by Director of SAVP Nicole Wong.
In an interview, Bobbitt emphasized the importance of ensuring that students were aware that experiences shared at the event did not mandate reporting, saying, “We like to include that so people can feel comfortable sharing their stories. We don’t want anyone to be penalized…[or] force interactions with Title IX just because someone wants to attend this event.”
Following the introduction, a student sang and played guitar and another gave a spoken word performance. Bobbitt then opened the floor to any attendees who wished to speak. Next, two students performed on guitar and vocals.
A salient feature of the rally was its emphasis on artistic expression, characterizing the rally both as a healing ritual and an informational event. As Bobbitt said in an interview, “This event is holding the space for [discussions about assault or abuse], providing the resources that people may need to feel supported. That’s why we’re focusing more on music and art, instead of calls to action, because we’re inundated by calls of action at Vassar, but it’s also important to just hold the space to feel supported.”
Wong elaborated on this point in an interview: “Art heals. I think we saw it yesterday … [T]here’s something to be said for this type of rally, which seemed to be more a moment to show support and solidarity to those who were impacted by sexual assault and relationship abuse as opposed to letting people know what it is.”
Bobbitt also spoke to the goal of depoliticizing the rally in the midst of an increasingly politicized view of and approach to assault: “[With increased media attention] we’re talking about [sexual violence] more, but…I don’t think it’s anything new. We’ve tried to depoliticize [Take Back the Night] by inviting administrators in to be in solidarity with survivors, but not to speak.”
Vassar Counseling Service Staff Therapist Dr. Constança F. Vescio, who runs the “Phoenix Rising” support group for students who have experienced sexual violence, explained the impact of increased media attention on survivors in an email interview: “It can cause discomfort to those survivors who feel they can’t come forward for a variety of reasons, leaving them more guilt and shame and feeling not worthy of a sympathetic ear if they don’t choose to be very public with their pain.” Because of this potential discomfort, excluding political events from the rally helped create a safer space for its attendees.
Take Back the Night opened the campus to broader conversation about sexual assault and relationship abuse. Vescio emphasized the importance of discussion in facilitating healing: “Many times survivors feel very isolated after such an experience, which may create feelings of ‘differentness’ from others and perpetuates the perception that something is ‘wrong’ with them. [Group work provides] an environment for survivors to realize that they are not alone and gain support from others who have also been victimized.”
Since many of the on-campus resources available to survivors and supporters tabled at Take Back the Night, Wong spoke about how these different resources offer the opportunity to achieve justice in whatever capacity survivors want. She stated, “I think that justice is so determined by the survivor. Sometimes justice might be going through the Title IX office … Sometimes it might look more like community healing. Sometimes it might be supporting survivors, and turning that wheel of reciprocity. So Title IX is one of those options, but there are so many others, and they can have just as much weight and impact.”
Wong also elaborated on the importance of conversation in breaking the cycle of violence by creating rifts in social norming that perpetuate rape culture: “[SAVP does] a lot of programming with athletic teams enforcing anti-compliance and providing the tools to help bystanders intervene. We talk a lot about intervening even with more implicit types of violence. A [large] component of the prevention model is creating a lot of culture change…because ultimately, if we can break down the foundation, we can start to break down that rape culture pyramid.”
The event concluded with Bobbitt’s remarks on the importance of continuing the conversation, followed by attendees walking to the front of Main behind a banner that read “Take Back the Night, Break the Silence, End the Violence,” carrying lighted candles.
Wong reflected on the rally in an interview: “It was a platform for just knowing that there are other individuals in the space— and we don’t know that everyone there was a survivor—but we do know that everyone there was in solidarity. Healing could look like that rally.”
[Editor’s Note: Due to the highly personal nature of this event, The Miscellany News did not report the specifics of what speakers shared during the rally. All quotes in this article are from interviews.]