Breaking the Silence
A microphone stand wobbles in the breeze on the paving stones of Perelman Quad. A young woman approaches it, then turns toward the people sitting, patient and still, on the steps in front of her, their faces lit by the glow of hundreds of vigil candles.
“We love you!” someone shouts down to her. “We support you!”
She removes a wrinkled piece of paper from her pocket and unfolds it with shaky hands.
“One year, two months, and 21 days ago … ”
The audience is not just listening; they are with her. A few minutes later, her face is tear-stained as she walks back to the group, into the arms of her friends.
One by one, more women step up to that microphone—mostly they are undergraduate students, but they represent a panoply of ethnicities and cultures—and share their experiences as survivors of sexual assault.
“I wasn’t planning on speaking tonight, but your strength inspires me … ”
Some stories are from childhood, some from just months ago. Some speakers are quiet, others animated, their amplified voices ricocheting around the chilly courtyard of Wynn Commons.
“I can’t believe I’m actually saying this out loud … ”
The devastating parade of narratives creates an emotionally kaleidoscopic experience: there is heaviness, grief, and anger—but also power and triumph.
In the midst of international conversations about sexual violence in India, political debates over “legitimate rape,” and the intensive media coverage of the Steubenville rape trial, Penn’s annual Take Back the Night creates a space for survivors to speak for themselves and on their own terms, free from punditry and victim blaming.
“Part of what is so transformative about being present at Take Back the Night for victim survivors, whether they’ve disclosed or not, is that everyone there believes and trusts their reported experiences, no matter the details,” says Deborah O’Neill, a clinical social worker in the office of counseling and psychological services (CAPS), who closed the survivor speak-out portion of the event.
Ali Castleman C’13, editor-in-chief of Penn’s feminist magazine The F Word, calls it “one of the most supportive environments on campus, ever.”
Take Back the Night at Penn takes place in the first week of April—a time chosen to commemorate the anniversary of the “Stop Rape” campus sit-in that began on April 2, 1973, when a group of Penn faculty, staff, and students began a multi-day occupation of College Hall. Their demands led to the creation of the Penn Women’s Center, a women’s studies curriculum, special services, and other advances on campus.
In the four decades since, the spirit of the sit-in has been preserved and extended by a growing number of feminist-centric groups and through a variety of related activities during the spring semester. Penn’s seasonal upswing in sexual activism begins with Women’s Week and performances of The Vagina Monologues in February; followed by numerous activities associated with Women’s History Month in March; and culminates in April with Sex Week, Take Back the Night, and Penn Monologues, Penn’s own Vagina Monologues-inspired show.
Of these, Take Back the Night is the year’s most powerful event, according to a founding member of Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP), the student group in charge of organizing the event. “Sometimes you still hear people say, ‘If you do X, Y, and Z, you won’t get raped.’ Take Back the Night is a reminder that this problem is real and affects so many people—people you care about and respect and admire,” says the current senior (who didn’t want her name used in this article).
After struggling with shame, secrecy, and self-blame after being raped in high school by an acquaintance, she was drawn to the Women’s Center during her first year at Penn. There she met a group of students who were angry about the sexual assaults happening to them and their friends and who bonded by educating themselves on how to become better equipped as active bystanders and citizens on campus. While she wasn’t ready to disclose her personal trauma back then, the group’s weekly meetings were like therapy for her.
Take Back the Night has been happening in cities around the world since 1975. Penn adopted it starting in 1989. The tradition lapsed here in the mid-2000s, however, until this group of students took on the task of reviving it in 2009, in collaboration with Women’s Center staffers Jessica Mertz and Lauren Willner GrS’09.
Out of that successful effort, the student organizers formally joined to found ASAP.
Supported by campus organizations and departments including CAPS, the LGBT Center, One in Four (Penn’s all-male peer education and rape-prevention group), and the Department of Public Safety, Take Back the Night has been growing every year. In 2012, with funding from the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women, ASAP was able to invite Leslie Morgan Steiner W’92, author of the book Crazy Love, a memoir about her experiences with domestic violence.
This year’s event began with a gathering of 200 people on College Green with banners, megaphones, and matching T-shirts. Amy Richards, the activist and author of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future, was the rally’s keynote speaker. She shared lessons learned during her coming of age as a feminist, and emphasized the power and importance of Take Back the Night. “That’s the greatest gift that you’re giving to people tonight. You’re saying [to survivors]: ‘I hear you, I see you, and I’m here to affirm you.’”
Then, in the violet light of dusk, the group marched exuberantly through the most visible parts of campus, bolstered by a driving drum beat provided by the Penn Band and chants led by ASAP members. Bystanders took photos on their cellphones, or waved in support from the windows of academic and College House buildings.
The physicality of the march sets Take Back the Night apart from passive performance or lecture-based events, says Penn Women’s Center Director Felicity (Litty) Paxton G’95 Gr’00. “What’s powerful about this is that people shout, they move and engage bodily, physically. Their bodies are moving around in space, which is really powerful. In terms of that combination of activism and literal bodily engagement, it is unique.”
The march ended at Wynn Commons, for the speak-out vigil. The energy shifted as candles were passed around and lit, and the group quieted and sat down. There was a lull—until the anonymous ASAP founding member mentioned above came to the mic and told her story.
She had come a long way from her first Take Back the Night as a freshman, when she couldn’t even entertain the idea of getting up to speak. Her hands were shaking so badly then that someone else had to hold her candle. But she says her breakthrough came later that night. As she was walking home, still reeling from the speak-out, the friend walking with her shared a favorite quote from the writer James Baldwin:
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that had tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
In 2012, as a junior, she decided to be one of those to share.
“The disclosure of truth reminds us of our shared humanity,” she says. “Giving voice to an experience that was so shamed and hidden for me made it real, but also made the fact that I was healing real. And I don’t think that I could have done that if I’d just pretended that it never happened for the rest of my life.”