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Out of the Classroom, Into the Streets

By Sarah Benckart and Reed E. McConnell

Over the past few months, headlines and op-eds across the country and at Harvard have captured the growing frustration with a persistent apathy and inaction around sexual violence and harassment. “Rape culture” has become a widely used term to describe societal attitudes around sexual violence, which include the slut-shaming and victim-blaming we’ve seen in the wake of several high-profile rape cases. The term’s explanatory power lies in its understanding of sexual violence as systemic and institutional. It locates sexual violence in a system of sexual oppression that is characterized not only by violence against women, but also by the promotion of heteronormativity, attacks on reproductive justice, and unequal pay for women in the workforce. Such a system depends on the dehumanization of women, on the belief that our bodies are not our own, but instead exist for others’ enjoyment. Women are forced to carry the shame of their perpetrator’s sexual crimes. The anger and threats directed towards women who dare to speak out against their perpetrators clearly demonstrate this.

Legislation and policies that affirm and protect the bodily autonomy of women and better meet the needs of survivors are urgently needed. Those alone, however, won’t bring about the massive shift in how we as a society think about and treat women. We need a mass mobilization of people—in the workplace, on campuses, in the streets—comprised of those who refuse to live under the threat of sexual violence and oppression on a daily basis. That type of organization and resistance has the ability to generate enormous political power, not only influencing courts and legislatures, but also pushing forward discussions and shaping attitudes.

Rape is happening on college campuses across America, and it isn’t a recent phenomenon. But what is new is the current drive toward activism, the amazing organizing and advocacy work that students across the country are doing in their communities to fight against something that, in many cases, their college administrations are effectively ignoring, or not doing enough about. To ignore these calls for change is to maintain a campus culture that condones sexual violence.

The organization Harvard Can Do Better has been a part of this nationwide drive toward activism around issues of sexual assault. Last semester the group organized a rape culture speak-out and proposed a referendum on sexual assault that received over 80 percent of student support calling for Harvard to adopt a policy based on affirmative consent. This semester the group has been in conversation with the administration as part of a sexual assault working group to rethink University policies around sexual assault. Other student groups, such as the Harvard College International Women’s Rights Collective and the Harvard Socialists, have been actively organizing discussions and forums throughout the year on rape culture, intersectionality, women’s oppression, and sexual violence. It is crucial that we engage critically with the sources and nature of oppression and violence so that we are able to most effectively challenge them. This week will mark the end of Take Back the Night month at Harvard, and we hope to see the same sort of desire for change from the student body at these events.

Take Back the Night has a long history of empowering women across the country, of creating spaces for people to come together and reclaim something that should never have been taken away from them in the first place. Survivor stories and speak-outs have been at the core of Take Back the Night since the 1970s. Indeed, speak-outs are crucial to breaking the silence that still exists around sexual violence in this country. The power of creating space for survivors to share their stories, and for all of us really to listen to those stories, can’t be underestimated.

We think that this needs to be coupled, though, with a visible, vocal, unapologetic demand for solidarity and for action. Boston was home to some of the most influential voices and effective organizing of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and Harvard as a strong history of feminist activism. It is time to re-invigorate that feminist tradition here. To that end, we will be hosting a poster-making session on Tuesday, April 23, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the PBHA Shepard Room. Our rally and march will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 24, in the Science Center Plaza.

Feeling anger about sexual violence is socially acceptable, but when that anger gets loud and public, people get uncomfortable. It is hard to ignore. It distracts us from our daily work of pretending that everything is okay. This is exactly what we want to do.

We believe that it’s time to take back Take Back the Night, that we’ve been quiet for too long, that rape culture should—and does—make us angry, and frustrated, and that this is the perfect opportunity to let that anger out. So this week we will be marching, for the first time in recent memory, through Harvard Square. We will have signs, and we will be loud. Our message will be clear: Sexual violence is unacceptable, period. And we’re not going to pretend that being quiet about it is okay any longer.

Sarah Benckart is a 2012 graduate of Harvard Divinity School. Reed E. McConnell ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social anthropology concentrator in Quincy House.

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