The Collegian
Saturday, February 24, 2024

Sexual violence stories shared at Take Back the Night

The many attendees of the Take Back the Night event Tuesday evening joined together at the end to light candles in the dark.
The many attendees of the Take Back the Night event Tuesday evening joined together at the end to light candles in the dark.

"I don't want to be scared. And I don't like that I am."

"I couldn't even tell you his name, but I remember the color of his shirt. And I remember saying 'no.'"

These statements were included in the stories that University of Richmond students told about incidents of sexual violence during the Take Back the Night event Tuesday night in the forum.

Take Back the Night, an annual nationwide event, seeks to raise awareness about sexual violence by providing a space for students to share their own stories and thoughts on sexual violence. The event was coordinated by Student Voices Against Violence and sponsored by the Panhellenic Council and the Interfraternity Council, which funded the event, said Kerry Fankhauser, associate dean of Westhampton College and the SVAV adviser.

More than 100 students attended the event, about 25 of whom were men, a fact that Fankhauser noted in her introduction. She said it had been the highest number she had seen at the event and praised them for their involvement in raising awareness.

Student a cappella group Choeur du Roi opened the event with a song, and after a few brief introductions the microphone was open for students to speak as they wanted.

"The speak-out is a way to shatter the silence many survivors experience after an assault," Fankhauser said.

According to the official University of Richmond policy, sexual misconduct is non-consensual contact of a sexual nature, which includes sexual assault, rape, harassment or stalking.

Students who are victims of sexual misconduct have the option to press formal charges against the accused through the university's judicial system and press criminal charges through law enforcement agencies.

But it is rare for victims of sexual assault to want to take action, said Juliette Landphair, dean of Westhampton College and associate dean of Arts and Sciences. Instead, victims often just wanted to be understood. Take Back the Night is helpful because it provides victims with a forum where they can tell their story, she said.

"It's incredibly liberating to tell the story," she said, adding that during the event last year, many sorority students were required to attend, but while listening to others' stories, some women remembered their own.

Because the issue of sexual violence is often not black-and-white, many victims do not always initially realize that they have been assaulted, said Dr. Lynne Deane, medical director at the Student Health Center.

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Dean said victims usually woke up the next day and realized something happened that should not have happened, but they would not consider it sexual assault. The realization might not come until days, weeks or months later when another situation, such as Take Back the Night or a conversation with a friend, would bring the situation to light.

Many times, because the sexual event that occurred did not match the victims' definition of "sexual assault," they do not consider it as such, Deane said. To combat students' preconceived notions, she said she liked to use the less-inflammatory definition of "unintentional or unwanted sexual actions." In this way, she said she hoped men and woman would be more likely to seek help.

Victims of sexual violence can seek help from many different outlets, such as Counseling and Psychological Services, the Deans' Offices, the Office of the Chaplaincy, the Health Center, UR Victim Witness Services and off-campus centers.

"There is no right or wrong answer," Deane said about where a patient should turn for help.

Peter LeViness, director of CAPS, said that victims would usually try to recover from a sexual assault on their own, but about half end up having trouble. This is when outside resources help, he said.

"I would encourage [victims] to make contact with us," LeViness said, explaining that CAPS was a confidential and knowledgeable source.

"People shouldn't suffer in silence. Don't suffer alone," he said, stressing that talking to anyone - a trusted friend, parent, faculty member or religious mentor - would be beneficial.

Landphair said she wanted the Deanery to be a place where students would feel safe to explore their options and feel understood.

"Believing is the most important thing, from our perspective," she said, explaining that it was harmful for victims' psyches to feel at fault or not believed.

One of the female students who spoke during Take Back the Night told her story about getting raped by a close friend during high school. Because the offender had been her friend, no one believed her the next day.

"The best thing is to just believe someone," she said. "All you need is someone to talk to. No one wants to make [a story about sexual assault] up."

LeViness also spoke about the importance of friends understanding the serious nature of an assault or a threat of assault. He spoke about one student who transferred from Richmond because all of her friends had ostracized her for pressing charges on her aggressor, a mutual friend of her group.

"That's really regrettable," LeViness said, explaining that friends should understand that sexual intimidation of any form is not okay. "We don't want this to happen to anyone else."

LeViness, Deane and Landphair said that alcohol often had a strong correlation with instances of sexual assault.

"In my 18 years [working at Richmond], I have yet to encounter a student who felt like a victim when drugs and alcohol weren't involved," Deane said.

There are a whole host of things that also impact the issue, such as pornography, how women dress, cultural attitudes, sexual and relational expectations and unclear definitions of when a person "consents" to a sexual act, LeViness said.

Although alcohol is often involved, one female student who spoke at Take Back the Night explained how it did not legitimize the assault.

The woman told her story of being sexually assaulted while at an apartment on campus. When she came downstairs after the assault, the offenders' friends tried to excuse his actions because he had been drunk.

"I didn't understand how his friends thought it was okay because he blacked-out," she said.

For sexual violence to stop, changes need to come from the students, because the university can only educate, cajole and encourage students so much, Deane said.

"It is my hope that when someone sees someone else in a potentially threatening situation, they will help them," Deane said, adding that in order to create safer environments, especially at parties, men and women need to step up and say stop.

"Speak up. Intervene. Call the police to come break up the party...Pull the fire alarm," she said.

Fankhauser also spoke about the importance of looking out for each other.

"If someone sees a woman passed out on a sofa at a party, don't leave her there even if you don't know her," she said. "Also, if a man sees another man going upstairs with a woman who is intoxicated, stop him or her. This can prevent an assault from happening and two lives from being upset."

It is important to always ask before engaging in any type of sexual activity, Fankhauser said, explaining that consent is a presence of a "yes" and not merely the absence of a "no."

Another female student who spoke at Take Back the Night said that coming to the event last year and hearing Fankhauser's explanation of consent helped her understand her own incidence of sexual assault during her freshman year.

"I didn't know that I could say no," she said. "I felt powerless."

But now, she said she had realized that she did have the right to say no and encouraged men to take the time to ask the woman for consent before engaging in a sexual act.

"If you respect a woman, take the time to make sure it is okay," she said.

Women are the victims of about nine out of 10 sexual assaults, Deane said, but noted that men would often come to her to talk about "regrettable sexual behavior" - a sexual act for which they feel remorse.

Because many of the victims of sexual assault are female, Richmond College typically handles the conduct side of the issue, said Patrick Benner, RC associate dean for Residence Life. Victims choose whether they want to press judicial charges against the offender, which could result in his suspension from the university.

"You always want to put the decision and power back into [the victims'] hands," Benner said about the process of pressing charges. The RC Dean's office also works with the offenders to make sure they can recover.

Landphair also noted the gender trend of the issue, and said that while trying to solve the issue of sexual violence, the university was also addressing sexual respect.

"Words, jokes and humor are some of the ways in which women are sexualized," she said. The defamatory Kappa Sigma e-mail last fall was fascinating because many students had not understood why it was a big deal, she said.

"It was a mapping out of sexual violence," Landphair said. Sexual respect would eliminate much of the problem.

Many men have friends that they would not allow their sister to be near, yet they fail to carry the same concern for their peers, Landphair said.

"But why is that acceptable for any woman?" she said. "That woman is somebody's sister. That is somebody's daughter."

Benner said that after the e-mail incident, they had increased the discussion on harmful words.

"We are trying to do things with respectful speech and respectful language," he said, explaining that their goal was to move students away from locker-room jargon toward respectful words. He also spoke about the White Ribbon Campaign, which occurs during the fall, as a way men can become better educated and aware of the issue.

One of the male students who spoke during Take Back the Night explained the way his girlfriend's sexual assault affected him. It had occurred at Richmond and he knew her assailant.

"Seeing him everyday on campus was really difficult," he said, adding that although he wanted to beat up the offender, it would not have helped the issue. Instead, his priority was to make sure his girlfriend got through her ordeal.

Fankhauser spoke about how men could be victims of sexual assaults too, and how the issue of sexual violence confines men.

"Rape puts you in a box to be feared," she said, explaining that the fear of the few affects the perception on men as a whole.

The university provides a number of resources for victims of sexual assault, but LeViness said the bigger challenge was reducing the occurrence and making everyone aware of the problem.

"It's a human issue," he said, "not just a woman's issue."

Benner said that because Richmond was a smaller school, there was a stronger support network for victims than a larger school could provide.

"A lot of our resources allow us to be more in tune, more helpful," Benner said, but added that the school could never go wrong with extra resources.

Landphair said she also saw room for growth.

"I would like to be able to have more time and energy devoted to these cultural challenges," she said. With the development of the Westhampton Center, Landphair said she hoped to hire a woman's resources director who could focus on the issues of sexual violence and sexual respect.

Contact staff writer Jill Cavaliere at

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