Warning: Sexually Violent Content
Students drifting into Valentine Dining Hall last Wednesday night were targets of a hard-hitting poster campaign organized by the Men’s Project in an effort to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus.
Posters with statistics and explicit personal stories about sexual assault were taped to tables and drink dispensers, making it difficult to avoid seeing them. One read, ‘Most men aren’t rapists… But 98% of rapes are committed by men. How do you want to be represented as a man?’ Another read, ‘Sometimes when I kiss my girlfriend and take off her pants, I see her start to tear up. When she has bad dreams and wakes up in the middle of the night, I am there for her. I wish I could have been there for her that night.’
“People think that certain communities are immune from [sexual violence] because of a very high academic reputation or some other circumstance,” said Jareb Gleckel ’12, who reactivated the Men’s Project this semester. “They think it doesn’t really happen at a place like Amherst. I want people to realize that this is an issue that’s close to home, and that it affects both men and women.”
The goal of Wednesday’s campaign was to spark conversations among students to engage them and change their views on sexual assault and to end the ‘culture of silence’ surrounding the issue.
By placing posters in Valentine, the Men’s Project aimed to create enough buzz to press the student body to confront messages about sexual violence. While the Student Health Educators (SHE) and Peer Advocates (PA) organize programs that address sexual violence, Men’s Project member Shamari Sylvan ’13 believes they only reach students who already have an interest in taking action: “There are men walking around campus who have committed sexual assault. Those people aren’t going to go to PA workshops. Those people aren’t going to SHE workshops. They aren’t going to any of these things where they’re going to make any progress.”
In 2010, 14 forcible sex acts, which include both rape and sexual assault, were reported to the College. According to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, one in five women have been raped in their lifetime, 80 percent experiencing their first rape before the age of 25, while one in four have experienced relationship violence. One in 71 men are raped in their lifetime.
“The number of [sexual assault] reports we have is probably 10 percent of what actually occurs,” said Assistant Director of Health Education and Sexual Assault Counselor Gretchen Krull. “People think they don’t know anyone [who has been assaulted], when chances are, they do.”
Most students who were interviewed were aware that sexual assaults happen on campus, but they did not believe they knew anyone who had been affected.
“I don’t know how prevalent it is, what the school’s response is, what the disciplinary committee does,” Eric Sullivan ’13 said.
Krull believes that low awareness about sexual assault is the result of the ‘culture of silence’ surrounding sexual violence.
“People either don’t want to believe it happens or would believe it if they knew it, but they don’t know it. People oftentimes don’t even tell their close friends because they’re really afraid of being judged or not understood, which can be isolating.”
Others may not immediately define their experience as assault or rape, in part because they do not wish to consider themselves ‘victims.’
One survivor explained why it took her months to report her rape to the College. “For a long time, I didn’t know – or I didn’t admit to myself – that what he did was rape,” she said. “I knew I’d screamed at him to stop and that he hadn’t. I knew he’d made me bleed. But he was my boyfriend. He was not a strange man in the bushes who raped me at knifepoint. He was someone I loved and trusted. He didn’t fit the rapist stereotype, and I didn’t feel I fit the victim stereotype. But the stereotypes are wrong. Our society just doesn’t recognize these people as rapists.”
“Reporting rape means having to talk about it. I had to describe over and over the disgusting, painful things he did to me, in scientific detail,” she said. “I had to open up my entire sexual history to the scrutiny of everyone — my college deans, professors, parents, the police. At the disciplinary hearing, I was going to have to sit at the same table as my rapist and testify.”
“I want everyone to know that rape happens here at Amherst,” she said. “There are so many of us survivors. There are a lot of different forces acting to keep us silent — shock, disbelief, denial, shame, grief, fear of being judged or disbelieved. Many of us have been silenced. That’s why you might not know that we’re here, or that you know one of us, or that you know many of us. But we are. And you do.”
Several survivors of sexual assault reported being triggered by Wednesday’s posters, illustrating the delicate balance of raising awareness among the general population without retraumatizing those who have experienced assault. When triggered, a survivor reacts with the same intensity of emotions as experienced during the traumatic event. Although the Men’s Project covered posters with ‘trigger warning’ sheets, some were removed over the course of dinner.
Gleckel regretted that survivors were triggered by the posters and offered his sincere apologies. “I would never think that it was justified to hurt people to get a message across, no matter how few people were hurt and how many people got the message.”
The Men’s Project received many positive responses from students who were happy to finally see the issue of sexual assault being addressed. However, others saw the posters as unduly heavy on the shock factor and an intrusion into their eating space. Remarks such as, “This is depressing — I don’t want to eat next to this” were overheard.
“All of [the posters] challenged what we consider rape,” Oblaise Mercury ’13 said. “I talked to a friend who made rape sound like a ‘he said, she said’ thing. He made it seem like it isn’t real, when it happens. If more people came out and talked about it, people would know that it is real. I see it happen a lot at parties. People kind of brush it off and belittle it, which is a problem.”
The Men’s Project aims not only to stand up against sexual violence but also to empower men to feel that they are doing the right things. Gleckel said, “It’s easy to get defensive about it as a male because you don’t want to be seen as a potential perpetrator. Yes, 98 percent of sexual assaults are committed by males, but not every guy is a rapist and in fact, most of us aren’t. It’s important for men to know that not only are we taking a stand against sexual violence, but we’re not guilty of anything.”