narratives of brown’s sexual assault reform
Three years ago, she ran into him at a party in the basement of a house: a tall man from her history class with bushy eyebrows, a wry smile, and a biting charisma. His smile was slightly slanted off-center, but amidst the smoke and haze of the room, the cloud of her own inebriation, and his animatedly witty demeanor, she was beginning to see his mouth as perfect, and the world as crooked. We’ll call her Kara.
Three years ago, his hands were coating her body in their sweat so quickly that her rational mind was falling further and further behind. Three years ago, she felt the air around her grow heavier and heavier, and found it harder and harder to make herself breathe. The more territory his hands covered, the more entangled with him she felt herself become. Three years ago, she felt the mattress beneath her growing cold, felt her world begin to sour, realized that she wasn’t sure what she was doing, but was sure she didn’t want to be doing it. Three years ago she asked him to stop, begged him to stop. Three years ago, he didn’t.
One year ago, Kara began her final semester of college. That semester was also his first semester back on campus.
“I still don’t know what I’m going to do,” she told a friend on the phone on the last night of her last winter break, blinking back long-suppressed, rebellious tears. “I still don’t know.”
In the fall of 2013, Emily Schell ‘16 was conversing with fellow Women’s Peer Counselors (WPCs) about the taboo surrounding conversations about sexual assault on Brown’s campus.
“There has been a lot of great work in the past, long before Imagine Rape Zero,” she explained in the middle of a bustling Starbucks, in a rushed but impassioned tone of voice, clearly in just one stage of a bustling, prolific, diesel-powered day.
“The problem was, the same people were coming out to discussions, the same people who already knew about most issues. The conversation was moving forward, but leaving behind 60 percent of the student body.”
The early movement’s need to reach the greater student body was particularly necessary from an intersectional perspective. Though the existence and harms of sexual assault and relationship abuse themselves would presumably not have been news to the typical Brown student, Schell and the other WPCs were concerned by the overwhelming prevalence of the mainstream (heterosexual, cisgender, and white) sexual assault narrative with which most students were familiar, and around which all dialogue they’d encountered within the Brown community tended to center. Schell related to me, in clearly frustrated tones, the differences that often overlooked sexual assault cases involving people who are non-cisgender, non-white, or non-heterosexual display. The specific needs of queer-identifying individuals, for example, are not reflected in most university or governmental sexual assault policies. Lack of dialogue around such issues would certainly support the longevity of such narrow definitions.
This was the motive behind StandUp, an initiative which Schell founded that semester to facilitate and disseminate dialogue around these issues. “Getting people caring is incredibly hard,” she explained. In addition to conversations, StandUp holds educational panels and other promotional events surrounding sexual assault, with a focus on intersectionality. “StandUp’s big thing is accessibility, inclusivity, and bringing out marginalized voices.”
Throughout the following year, Schell, StandUp, the WPCs, and others continued the work, spreading awareness and pressuring the administration. On their side was a battalion of statistics: National surveys report one in every five women experience sexual assault, a statistic that, though frequently and rigorously reevaluated at various universities, has remained stagnant for the past decade. The problem is that statistics like this are almost never an accurate reflection of sexual assault rates, as the biggest problem with data collection on college campuses is—as most activists will tell you—underreporting.
Brown’s sexual assault statistics are collected by Brown Health Promotion, a subset of health services. The official reports go through the Office of Student Life, while Health Promotion collects evidence and incidences unaccompanied by reports. But Brown has not done a campus-wide survey since 2001, and while another one is in the works, students involved in sexual assault reform tend to display varying degrees of confusion about its nature and time frame. But underreporting is a problem nationwide as well. When Schell founded StandUp, she was astounded by the number of people who came forward as survivors who didn’t report—even among her own friends.
This anecdote has instilled a certain skepticism in her regarding the “one in five” statistic. “It’s probably more than one in four,” she mused. “I would say one in three.”
The system into which a survivor is thrown if she chooses to report is rough, to say the least. In the status quo, the process of setting up a hearing is often arduous, and the appeals process can last multiple months. Instructions on how to approach the appeals process are hard for survivors to come by, and reports of insensitive treatment from involved officials are discouragingly common from those who have attempted the process, and very often (again, the statistics aren’t great, but the anecdotes are plentiful) the journey ends in little recompense for the victims. The decision not to report certainly seems like a reasonable one, given these factors.
Targeting these problems was one of the goals of the press conference that sexual assault survivor Lena Sclove ‘15.5 held in April of 2014, right before A Day on College Hill (ADOCH). “She had to take that semester off because of a medical injury resulting from the rape that occurred, and her respondent was going to be let back on campus in the fall,” said Justice Gaines ‘16, a member of Brown’s new Sexual Assault Task Force. “She decided to hold a press conference in front of the Van Wickle Gates about what had happened … and how she felt the university process had failed her. There was wide support, and students started mobilizing on campus. It got widely disseminated and distributed.”
While the efforts of Schell’s Stand Up and other activists continued on their strong trajectory, student activism exploded after the press conference. Justice for Lena, a Facebook-based discussion space, garnered thousands of likes in the weeks after. The campaign called Imagine Rape Zero sprung up shortly after as well, and its influence spread like wildfire: It was the first movement focusing on tangible change to sexual assault policy rather than settling for dialogue around it. Its members distributed fliers and information to pre-frosh during ADOCH, compiled research from both the government and academia, collected hundreds of signatures in person and through Change.org, and brought a list of demands to the university administration: banning convicted offenders from campus unless survivors requested otherwise, more awareness of intersectionality, time limits on the appeals process, and a greater focus on the comfort and agency of survivors in the overall hearing process, all within the span of one semester. As Schell explained to me, “Imagine Rape Zero was a watchdog group, to make sure the university wasn’t bullshitting what it said.”
Ultimately, what Imagine Rape Zero brought to life was the Sexual Assault Task Force. Since then, the Task Force consisting of faculty, staff, and students has been reviewing the original demands brought forth by Imagine Rape Zero members, and has officially endorsed many of them. Next year, sensitivity training will become mandatory for all students, staff, and faculty. Hearing processes will be more transparent and more clear. The medical school will hire a Title IX coordinator, and the administration has 12 more pages of recommendations from the Task Force to sift through in the coming months. Imagine Rape Zero has faded into the background since Brown began to make these legal strides and formed the Task Force but, as Schell assured me, “If Brown goes back to saying something and doing something else, you’ll see it come back.”
Kara graduated one year ago. She walked through the gates talking and laughing with her friends, while Imagine Rape Zero handed out fliers around her. “This isn’t the time for that,” a Brown employee muttered as someone tried to hand him a flier.
There is a long road ahead of the sexual assault reform movements. Kara hopes that amidst all the political discussion, the lawsuits, and constitutional interpretations, people will remember to focus on the love that drives their work, the strength of the survivors, and the universality of the experience across identities.
“I think it’s a critical moment for a lot of folks, and it’s really a beautiful time,” said one member of Imagine Rape Zero. “I certainly think people should be celebrating. But the idea that we can somehow seal this off in a vacuum that is somehow separate from sexual assault or sexual violence is absurd to me. I remember watching the big screen on the main green, seeing the folks walking through the Van Wickle gates, in their caps and gowns and laughing. But I remember thinking, ‘You know, one in five, right?’ As they walk through the gates, that is part of what they’re leaving with.”