Solomon: Fighting Back

We can do more to rid this campus of sexual assault.

by Ioana Solomon | 5/30/17 12:45am

I have never felt unsafe on this campus. The weathered buildings straight out of the 18th century, the scenic mountain views and the vivid blades of grass on the Green never posed a threat to me. This space has always been a space of beauty, of quiet comfort, of deep self-reflection. It has always been a space of security. Until now.

The burglaries, intrusions and gruesome threats directed at Dartmouth women over the last few days have done more than instill a sense of disgust and outrage in all of us. They have made every woman on campus afraid to walk home alone, keep their doors unlocked and even enter their respective Greek organizations, the places that are supposed to be safe havens where they can take refuge from the stress of the daily grind.

This week has been difficult and terrifying for many of us. It has also been a rude awakening to the kind of fright millions of women live with every day of their lives. I have rarely felt the need to look over my shoulder when walking home at night. I have been catcalled but never frightfully harassed. I have always heard stories but was never the subject of one. Especially here, in Hanover, a sheltered small town with a particularly low crime rate, I have always felt protected. In 2012, the Center for Disease Control reported that one in five women will be raped during her lifetime. On college campuses across the United States, two women are sexually assaulted for every robbery. I have never had to live through one of those experiences. I was never one of those women.

Students on this campus have to live through this fear every day. Some of them have to see their rapists walking around. Some of them may spend hundreds of hours on therapy. The small dose of their panic I have felt over this last week is a daily nightmare for them which I never truly understood. I never thought so sensibly and so tangibly about the people for whom this kind of violence is forever engrained in memory, for whom fear is permanent.

I also came to register something disturbing about my own way of dealing with each piece of news. After the initial waves of shock and disgust subsided, I spent more time thinking about the perpetrator than about the victims. I wanted to know who could have done this, whether it was one person or a group, whether the events were connected or independent of each other. I wanted to know what could have caused anyone to snap so violently that they would do what they did, whether out of hatred for women, hatred for themselves or another reason. The attention I gave them, the vast amount of headspace I allowed them to occupy, does nothing but encourage such behavior.

My desire to mentally investigate seems to have overshadowed my empathy for the women to whom this violence was directed. I want whoever is behind these acts to be caught more so because I want this to stop and less so because I want the women who were threatened to receive retribution. I do want both — I can only imagine what those women are going through, and I feel so much sympathy for them and so much anger on their behalf. But the person, or people, who are responsible for this have received more of my mental time and space in the past week than the people that I care about have. I do not know if I have been conditioned to think this way or if I am solely at fault, but these events have given me a disturbing wake-up call. They have also given me an opportunity to reflect on my own faults, on the way I am inadvertently a participant in the culture that normalizes sexual violence, and on how I can shift my thoughts and actions to be a better classmate, ally and friend.

We can do something as a campus. Most obviously, we must stay safe, watch out for each other and communicate with one another. But communicating goes two ways. We need to do more than just talk. Sharing our stories, our fears and our words of wisdom can keep us sane. It can give us comfort and strength. But we also need to listen, not just to our friends and to people we agree with or with whom we have something in common. We also need to keep an ear out for those around us who perpetuate the kind of derogatory, offensive, sexist dialogue that gives others the license to harass. We cannot stop something we ignore, tune out or let pass. Verbal violence is far closer to physical violence than we often realize.

I doubt anyone finds any of this amusing, but just because we think of it as unacceptable does not mean that we did not play a role in permitting it to happen. I am not blaming every person on this campus for what has happened this past week. But in the horror and revulsion I feel, I know that we can do more for one another. Keeping each other safe needs to be less of a reactive response and more of a proactive, deeply ingrained and self-enforced conduct.