Intersectionality and Assault Five Years After Epifano’s Testimony
Issue   |   Wed, 11/29/2017 - 00:01

Warning: This article contains references to racial and sexual violence that some readers may find upsetting.

We encourage you to read Part I of this two-part series before reading this article, as the basis for many of our critiques can be found in those collected testimonies. This follow-up piece on Angie Epifano’s “An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College” will address the desperate need for a more intersectional approach to sexual respect policies, support services and adjudication processes. We would first like to note that the Title IX Office, Office of Student Life and Health Education Department reached out to us shortly after the publication of our first article in order to gather further information regarding student concerns. We are satisfied with the college’s attention to these important campus community discussions and look forward to their response in the form of policy alterations. We were surprised to find poor communication between different branches of campus, as these offices had not heard many of the student-voiced concerns previously.

After the response to our last piece, we want to clarify that we do not — and did not intend to — attack or blame the Amherst administration for sexual misconduct cases in a world that consistently undermines and dissects survivor’s testimony. Rather, we want to advocate for continued dialogue surrounding how to better support survivors and reimagine the fight against sexual violence and its intersections with ableism, racism and gender discrimination.

Sexual violence finally reached the public eye after journalists and women in the film industry exposed Hollywood rapists for their assaults, and the #MeToo campaign echoed across many social media feeds. Yet, much like in the currently viral movement, our campus’ understanding of sexual violence lacks intersectionality, leading to ignorance regarding how sexual harassment is racialized. While the college often boasts of its high ranking in terms of racial diversity, social power on our campus is still overwhelmingly white, wealthy and male.

Last month, we wrote about Nick, a varsity captain and serial harasser on our campus, who told Claudia, “You may think you’re from the West, but you’re really from the East.” While Nick targeted both women of color and white women, he reserved explicitly racist verbal abuse toward women of color. At least four people filed reports against him with the Title IX Office over the course of his time at Amherst, but administrators still failed to address the racism implicit in his predatory behaviors. Other survivors noted that the college’s alarming failure to recognize the role of race in the reporting process left them feeling invisible.

If you don’t quite believe that “this is a race thing,” the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics says that “African American girls and women 12 years old and older experienced higher rates of rape and sexual assault than white, Asian and Latina girls and women from 2005-2010.” Native American women are even more at risk, as “[they] are at least two times more likely to experience rape or sexual assault crimes compared to all other races of women,” according to the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center. This reality becomes even more harrowing: the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reported that “57% of sexual assault perpetrators are white.” Clearly, white supremacy transgresses often segregated social groups.

Women of color are far less likely to be believed and receive justice after reporting their cases and far more likely to be sexualized because of racist stereotypes. Take actress Lupita Nyongo’s testimony after producer Harvey Weinstein intimidated and sexually harassed her. Hers was the only case that Weinstein outright denied, continuing the trend of doubting black women’s testimonies. Because Amherst doesn’t exist in a vacuum, these larger societal disparities are palpable on our campus.

Recognition of non-cisgender identities is another glaring category that current college misconduct policies and campus culture fail to adequately address. There is so much silence surrounding the violence queer, trans and QTPOC experience that compounds the exhaustion of reporting. In 2015, RAINN reported that 64 percent of trans people will experience assault in their lifetime, and 21 percent of trans or gender nonconforming students will be sexually assaulted in college. The Human Rights Campaign reported that 48 percent of bisexual women will be raped. Our own college has been complicit in the erasure of trans, non-binary and queer folks from discussions regarding sexual misconduct.

In the less-widely-known case of Trey Malone, an Amherst student who committed suicide in 2012, his suicide note pointed to his sexual assault and the administration’s mishandling of it as a source of profound anguish. This further affirms that we center these discussions on heterosexual rape towards straight, white women. The accounts finally reaching the mainstream press today will hopefully make space for deeper collective reflection, even if such spaces already existed without structural support between women, women of color and within the LGBTQI community. Yet, we as a broader society undoubtedly lack or co-opt a vocabulary for encountering sexual violence within marginalized communities.

Additionally, in 2009, the Bureau of Justice reported that people with disabilities are twice as likely to be a victim of sexual assault than their peers without disabilities. As Title IX Coordinator Laurie Frankl wrote in her letter to the editor, published in The Student this month, “Survivors of sexual violence have intensely personal responses to their experiences and distinctly different needs moving forward.” In order to adequately assess such personal responses, the college must recognize students’ nuanced and multifaceted identities along with how they intersect with unequal power dynamics.

The stories shared with us are a compassionate warning in hopes that another woman won’t have to tell a similar story about the same predator. How can we appreciate survivors for doing the emotional labor of retelling their stories in a way that is not triggering? As one of our respondents noted, “Nothing will ever undo what has happened to you. Nothing is ever going to be enough.”

We’ve heard countless survivor accounts from close friends, roommates and even strangers. We’ve listened to our sisters and teammates try to piece together their night, searching for an explanation to their waking up in a random bed, maybe feeling a mixture of guilt, confusion and disgust. We’ve watched men we love roll their eyes at accusations towards their friend accused of rape and shrug when we question why someone would report an assault for no reason.

Five years after this silence-shattering testimony, the Office of Residential Life still does not have a system in place to ensure that survivors with no contact orders aren’t placed in the same resident halls as their attackers, which has happened to at least three women we know. Today, there are male students on campus who have been accused of sexual misconduct at their previous institutions. Women of color must listen as administrators tell them that their campus experiences with racial violence are not “severe” enough for the college to take disciplinary action against their aggressors. The Title IX Office and the Department of Health Education still do not have any women of color or trans women working as coordinators.

How much longer will our harassers and rapists walk comfortably into Valentine or Frost while we devote immeasurable time and energy to protecting ourselves?