Taking back the Diag: on Michigan rape culture, Schlissel, and Title IX

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On April 2nd, I was honored to work the Take Back the Night rally for What the F Magazine. I watched as people milled around the tables. There was a table for Companion—the new app that lets you get home safe, developed by U of M students; there were tables for SAPAC, Planned Parenthood, I Will, and other organizations around campus and Ann Arbor. The keynote speaker was former Michigan Democratic Senate Leader, Gretchen Whitmer, who, in 2013, came out as a survivor of rape in order to bolster support for female reproductive rights—saying she wanted to put a face to the women the other Senators were holding back.

The event also featured singer and songwriter Hope Thomas, Salto Dance Group, and Léim Irish Dance.

Take Back the Night has been a movement in the States since 1978, when women in San Francisco protested against pornography. According to the TBTN website, the roots may go farther back—to 1877 in London, England, when women were protesting the violence they were experiencing. Since 1978, though, the rally has spread, taking on many forms, but most importantly featuring the voices of survivors. It is a night to have the conversation that is so hushed in today’s society. It is a night to have our voices heard. For some, it is a night that they so desperately need; it is difficult, and it is painful, but they need it. Ultimately, it is a night of empowerment. According to the TBTN website, “The unifying theme throughout these diverse topics is the assertion that all human beings have the right to be free from violence, the right to be heard, and the right to reclaim those rights if they are violated.”

One in five women and one in thirty-three men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. But college-aged women are four times more likely to be assaulted. I remember graduating from high school—the anticipation for college I was feeling. My parents bought me a cutesy little can of pepper spray before I left—for “nights I was walking alone.” For “just in case.” I remember seeing identical cans of it hanging from the wallets of almost every girl at orientation, like it was that season’s hottest new trend. I remember getting tips from almost everyone on how to stay safe—never walk alone, don’t wear short skirts, don’t get too drunk, don’t take drinks from strangers, don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t, don’t, don’t. I never heard “don’t rape.” And I never even stopped to consider how messed up that was.

Last night, former Senator Whitmer said, “Sexual assault should not be thought of as a ‘part of campus life’.”

This is no exaggeration. Just think of all the pepper spray cans. Think of how many times you’ve gotten crime alerts at four in the morning. Think of walking through the diag alone. Think of rape jokes. Think of one in five women. One in thirty-three men. Think of your roommate, your sister, your classmate. Think of yourself.

Think of Whitmer’s statement about her sexual assault: “My assault took place when I was a freshmen at Michigan State. It took place in a fraternity house and yes, I knew my attacker. And unfortunately, my assault is in no way unique.”

Too many girls know this experience all too well. Too many girls also know the utter incompetency of the University as well.

Halfway through the rally last night, a volunteer took to the stage and announced that normally, at this point, U of M’s president or some other official would take to the stage to discuss the University’s sexual assault policies. When TBTN contacted President Schlissel, however, said he could not attend the event, but would send someone along in his stead. Sadly, however, he never did. No University representative was there to discuss the policies set in place to handle sexual assault. And, maybe, that’s because those policies so often fail us.

I know it all too well. I’m sure you do, too. How many times have you heard of girls reporting their attackers, only to find out the University “couldn’t do anything”? When Schlissel was given a list of demands from an anonymous group pertaining to these policies—demands including the expulsion of rapists—Schlissel responded that by calling them “demands,” “makes it really difficult to have discussions.” Now, of course, Schlissel also said that he was impressed by the writers of the demands, saying he was impressed by “people that develop this passion.” I guess it is admirable that people would object to sexual assault, right?

According to a Michigan Daily article by Becky Weiland, written in November of 2014, “Schlissel acknowledged that steps are currently being taken to improve the campus community and work toward preventing sexual misconduct, as well as an examination of the current rules regarding sexual misconduct.”

You know what group has been working for decades to improve the campus community? Take Back the Night.

Words can’t express how deeply saddened I felt when it was announced that Schlissel hadn’t kept his word to TBTN. It felt like a stab in the back. It felt as though Schlissel was saying that all of those survivors gathered in that room were unimportant. They were incredibly disregarded by the University they call “hoMe”—the University that has no doubt already let them down countless times before. I cannot imagine the amount of disappointment those strong and brave survivors were feeling in that moment.

Even though I was disappointed, I wasn’t surprised. The University might be “taking steps” toward improved campus safety, but let’s not forget that it’s because of the Title IX investigation done early last year that the U is taking these steps. Title IX is a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 laws in order to end discrimination based on religion, race, color, national origin, or sex. According to an MLive article by Brian Smith, the U.S. Dept. of Education launched the investigation of the Title IX compliance at U of M and MSU after thirty complaints were made in 2013. Both schools require employees to report assault allegations to campus law enforcement and the Title IX offices for investigation, but, because of the amount of complaints, it’s clear that they haven’t been doing a great job.

I don’t want to demonize Schlissel. I’m sure he is doing his best. But when you fail to show up to something as important as Take Back the Night, it sends a clear message to the students you’re serving. And I can definitely say that this student is incredibly let down.

I long for the day that girls will leave home for the University of Michigan, and their going away presents won’t be cans of pepper spray. I long for the day that orientation teaches the best way to prevent rape—don’t rape. I long for the day that girls (boys, too) feel safe walking alone. God, I long for that day for myself.

If you haven’t been to a Take Back the Night rally before, I urge you to go next year and support the survivors on this campus (looking at you, Schlissel). Change will happen, I know it. With or without help, we will take back the night.


Hannah Gordon

University of Michigan
College of Literature, Science, and the Arts ’16
Communications
Creative Writing Fiction

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