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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Survivors rally to fight assault

Assaulted and supporters Take Back the Night

At this time last year, sophomore Jessica Hollander wasn't looking forward to "Take Back the Night," an event that brings together survivors of assault, an event she had a major role in planning. But it wasn't organization, banners or fliers she was worried about - it was what she would say about her own experience.

"The week before Take Back the Night I was writing three research papers on sexual assault and writing about my own story, reading other accounts, and I just felt so overwhelmed," said Hollander, who now coordinates the event. "And I was really dreading Take Back the Night, which no one knew. I knew that I needed to do this and that it was important, but I was petrified of what would come out of my mouth when I got up there because for the first time, it wasn't structured for me, it wasn't a speech."

Hollander has spoken publicly about her experience for almost four years to raise awareness about dating violence. But giving a testimonial, a personal account of her experience and her feelings, at last year's Take Back the Night was very different. The first time she cried when telling her story in front of an audience was her junior year of high school, when administrators censored the speech she gave to students about one month after her ex-boyfriend sexually assaulted her. The second time was at Take Back the Night, when Hollander was the first of 22 people to give testimonials in front of a room of about 200.

"Giving a testimonial at Take Back the Night was probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to do because it was just like staring at yourself in the mirror when I hadn't done it for so long," Hollander said. "[The assault] affects me still in terms of trust - these are things you don't want to admit ... so you hide it away and keep smiling and say, 'I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine,' when in reality you're dying inside. [Take Back the Night] was the first time I'd really come to terms with that. It had been 2 1/2 years at that point, and I was not fine."

It is breakthroughs like these and the support that follows that show the importance of Take Back the Night, which has been held in cities and on campuses nationwide since the late 1970s, according to Melva Jones, who brought the event to AU last year. As a survivor of domestic violence, Jones said she has experienced Take Back the Night's effectiveness firsthand, as well as through other students.

"One of the first Take Back the Night events I went to I didn't even speak from my experience, I spoke for someone else, but being in a room with so many survivors - I have never slept as well as I did that night. It was as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders," Jones said. "After [AU's] Take Back the Night I got e-mails from about 20 people - some who spoke, some who had not - and they said it was a weight that had been lifted, saying they were going to tell their family, or they were going to get therapy - they were taking the next step. That's the power behind this event - you leave the room knowing that you can move on, that you're not alone in this."

Jones' ability to empathize and her familiarity with many AU students, which she gained working in the Multicultural Affairs office before leaving AU March 13, enable her to read signals from people in the crowd that indicate they're ready to speak.

"Melva's a really effective emcee in that people aren't exactly raising their hands, but she's very effective in reading body language so people don't have to single themselves out, which I think is a natural gift that she has," Hollander said.

Jones, who now works for a trade association in Alexandria, Va., remains the adviser for the program, and she recently received the Alice Paul Award from the Women's and Politics Institute and Women's Initiative for her work with Take Back the Night.

This year, Women's Initiative is co-sponsoring the event.

"[People] should come and see how this event can put faces with the issue and to realize that it's not just an issue that happens in the city or that happens at other schools. It happens here; it is an issue at American University," said Director Sarah Mashburn, a graduate student studying public communication.

Hollander also acknowledges this, which is why she often speaks about what people can do for those who experience a form of assault.

"All of us stand the same chance of being a friend or caring about someone it's happened to and the statistics are too high for anyone not to ever be affected by this," she said. "[What you do] doesn't have to be revolutionary. It can be small; it doesn't have to be perfect. But doing something small is a million times better than doing nothing at all and it also can have a much bigger effect than you realize. Just letting someone know that you're there is probably the best thing you can do."

Women in college are at high risk for sexual victimization, including date rape, which is the least reported form of sexual assault, according to the Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology.

"We do not get a lot of these that are followed through with," said Sara Waldron, associate dean of students. "I think many people are embarrassed, they're ashamed, some of them may know who their attacker was, they feel ... there are so few convictions."

The dean's office is working to prevent assault on campus and to make students realize the link between assault and alcohol, as is the Student Health Center.

"Remain in control. The majority of rapes include alcohol or other drugs; when you lose control of your abilities to make judgments you're putting yourself at risk," said Kathy Haldeman coordinator of health promotion.

Hollander said another reason students may be more at risk is because they may have a false sense of security.

"I was sexually assaulted by an ex-boyfriend in my house in August, two weeks before I turned 16. And one of the things that I find ironic about this is that we always think of it happening by some guy in an alleyway and it wasn't. If I had been asked before that time who I trusted most in the entire world it would have been him. And it happened in a familiar situation, it happened in my own house."

Also, it happened in Newton, Mass., the safest city in 2003, according to FBI statistics.

"It just goes to show that we try to take comfort in these little things without being realistic about what the warning signs are ... a lot of the testimonials we heard last year said 'something didn't feel right' and because of my relationship with this individual I could very well tell that something was off about that night, but I ignored it," Hollander said. "If we did not ignore those things and really trusted ourselves we'd be way ahead of the game."

Hollander said she doesn't want to promote paranoia, but rather trust, especially between people who have been assaulted and those in whom they confide.

"One of the things that I think gets talked about the least that could be one of the more prevalent problems is verbal and emotional abuse. There will be situations where a partner is devaluing their other partner, humiliating them, manipulating them ... A lot of times people feel like they aren't going to be believed, and unfortunately sometimes they aren't," Hollander said. "That can have very damaging effects, which people don't process because there are no scars [but] there are often scars that we never see."

Thanh Ly, a sophomore in the School of International Service who has dealt with verbal abuse said that because it's not seen, it's often misunderstood.

"I didn't even realize I was being verbally abused through my childhood ... when you see it on T.V. it's someone punching you. When someone you love is telling you you're stupid every day or worth nothing every day ... it's wrong," she said.

Ly said she first realized this last year. Though she hadn't planned on it, she gave a testimonial at Take Back the Night.

"Last year was the first time I ever told anyone about it," Ly said. "I felt really safe and I felt that there would be no judgment made on me if I said something that'd been bottled up inside of me."

Ly called the experience the most amazing she's had.

"It just changed my whole life around," Ly said. "It was so empowering ... all these emotions came up when I was there."

Another aspect that can empower those who attend Take Back the Night is the realization of what it means to be a survivor, rather than a victim, said Hollander.

"[Although] there is a stigma to being a survivor, like 'oh, you've got baggage,' or 'you've got problems,' so it might not always feel [empowering], but to claim that title for yourself and to call people survivors rather than keeping them in that place of being a victim gives them that power back," Hollander said. "That really and truly is the whole point of the night, to take back the night, to take back the power and the voice, the strength, whatever they lost that night, to give that back to them. For one night we can come together and take those emotions that you felt and feel liberated by getting up and sharing your story and feel supported by marching with your friends and community. You take that with you even though it's one night."

Jones agreed.

"I have a problem with the word 'victim.' A victim is always in this negative mindset and it's hard for them to move on. A survivor takes the experience as a part of their history, part of their source of strength and they share that ... and are able to move on and realize they're not alone, When they leave with the event, even if they haven't spoken, they understand what it is to be a survivor," Jones said. "Years ago, I was very much in a victim mindset. Now, I say it loud and proud that I'm a survivor," Jones said. "I'm still alive, there are many people who aren't, and I'm still in my right mind most of the time, so yeah, I've survived that. And the message Take Back the Night gives is yeah, you can too."

AU's second annual 'Take Back the Night' Wednesday, April 13

Students, faculty and staff will gather at the Glover Gate (Massachusetts Avenue) entrance to campus between 8:15 and 8:30 p.m. Participants will march the perimeter of campus chanting, and volunteers will be positioned along the way to direct and cheer on the crowd. After the march a musical interlude and candlelight vigil will be held in Kay Spiritual Life Center for victims of assault. Those who have signed up to give testimonials will start by sharing their experiences with sexual, physical or verbal assault. Then the floor is opened to anyone else who would like to share personal experiences.

Participants can give a testimonial by standing up and speaking in front of the other participants, typing their story and giving it to the emcee or a friend to read, or by going down to the basement of Kay. The latter option allows a person to speak without being seen. Those who plan to tell their stories are encouraged to sign up, though it is not required. Last year testimonials lasted from two to 10 minutes, but there are no specific limitations.

For more information, contact

Resources for those who are assaulted:

Counseling Center, x3500

"Any student who has been raped or assaulted is invited to come to the Counseling Center for a confidential meeting with a counselor. They can reveal as much or as little about the assault as they wish. The counselor is there to listen, provide support and help the individual determine what services would best meet his or her needs. The student may request to speak with a male or female therapist."

-Rachel Freedman, clinical intern

Student Health Center, x3380

If students who were sexually or physically assaulted went to the Student Health Center, they would get a physical exam and talk to one of the doctors, nurse practitioners or physician's assistants, who all have some training in counseling. However, the health center does not have rape kits, which must be used if a person wanted to collect evidence to press charges.

-According to Kathy Haldeman, coordinator of health promotion

Judicial Affairs and Mediation Services, x3300

"If [an assaulted student] files through the Judicial Affairs office, then the same process would go through as with any other complaint. The person who had allegedly committed the assault would go through the hearing process ... and a panel would make a decision. If the student does not want to file charges off campus, then it does not go through the criminal system, but for the person found responsible for the attack it would stay in their student record, and the student might have to face suspension from the university."

-Sara Waldron, associate dean of students

Public Safety, x3636

Public Safety can take a report if a person would like to file with JAMS or the Metropolitan Police Department.

Off-campus resources

Metropolitan Police Department, (202) 727-3700 regarding sexual assault, (202) 727- 7137 regarding domestic violence

Sibley Memorial Hospital, (202) 537-4000

Georgetown University Hospital, (202) 444-2000

Regarding sexual assault:

D.C. Rape Crisis Center, (202) 333-RAPE

Rape Abuse & Incest National Network, (202) 544-1034.

Regarding dating violence:

Break the Cycle, (202) 654-4039.

D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence Center, (202) 299-1181.

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