Content warning: References to rape and sexual assault

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This week, the student Sexual Violence Prevention (SVP) Team has organized a series of events and activities to educate the Whitman community about consent, sex positivity, sexual health and sexual assault. The full schedule can be found here. One of the signature events this week is Take Back the Night, an annual event where survivors of sexual assault have the opportunity to share their stories publicly, as part of their own healing process. As the SVP Team organizers note, “Survivors are often shut down and dismissed.” Take Back the Night is a powerful event, held on college campuses across the country, where the voices of survivors are centered and serves as an indictment of rape culture on college campuses and around the world. 

The words rape culture are difficult to read, but even more difficult to refute. Jessica Valenti, co-editor of the book “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape,” asserts that “There’s no arguing that America has a rape problem: Someone is sexually assaulted in the United States every two minutes. But the problem extends beyond the crimes themselves to the culture that allows rape to thrive.” According to the 2021 Whitman Annual Security Report, there were 29 reported rapes at Whitman or on property adjacent to campus between 2018-2020. This statistic does not mean 29 rapes occurred on campus during that three-year period; it means that 29 rapes were reported, but incidents of sexual misconduct are notoriously underreported. 

In the words of Thomas MacAulay Millar, “It takes one rapist to commit a rape, but it takes a village to create an environment where it happens over and over and over and over and over with such frequency that ordinary people throw up their hands and treat it as a part of the environment instead of as violations of fundamental human rights.” Last semester, the college secured the services of RVCC, a survivor-centered, non-profit organization that provides content and resources to assist organizations in developing sexual violence prevention and consent education campaigns. This was not part of an effort to replace the Green Dot bystander intervention program that previously existed on campus, but a recognition that additional work in this space was necessary. RVCC stands for Recognize Violence, Change Culture. RVCC is similar to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, which provides research and tools to those working “to end sexual harassment, assault, and abuse with the understanding that ending sexual violence also means ending racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression.” 

Today, Wednesday, April 27th, is Denim Day. If you are unfamiliar, Denim Day is a campaign organized by the non-profit Peace Over Violence in response to a rape conviction that was overturned by the Italian Supreme Court back in 1999. The justices believed that because the victim was wearing tight jeans she must have cooperated with their removal, thereby implying consent. The following day, the women in the Italian Parliament came to work wearing jeans in solidarity with the victim. We can envision a world without rape, but we must resist the urge to look away or deny the violence in our communities. To quote #metoo founder Tarana Burke, “There has to be a shift in culture. We have to have conversations about systems that are in place that allow sexual violence to flourish.”