Activists Combatting Sexual Assault Make Strides as Semester Concludes

Sarah Cornett

It has been three weeks since 19 women protesting sexual assault disrupted the April 29th Board of Trustees meeting. In the time since, significant progress has been made in resolving the three demands they posed at the meeting. These included the creation of additional positions to combat issues of sexual violence, and the cancellation of off-campus fraternity trips.

The group of activists are now working under the name the Vigilante Feminists. They have met with President Murray twice, spoken with Greek leaders, and have held open meetings with students to brainstorm ideas for a new Gender & Sexuality Coordinator position. Though the semester is winding down, Vigilante Feminist leaders are encouraged by the progress they have made.

“We’ve gotten President Murray’s attention and we’ve established credibility,” said senior Katy Wills, who spearheaded the protest. “But we still have a long way to go.”

Addressing Demands

Wills said that significant progress has been made on their first demand: separating the position of Sexual Assault Victim’s Advocate from the position of Greek Advisor; both are currently held by Barbara Maxwell. President Murray and other administrators said that they had reached this decision before the protest, but it was not yet public.

“We had reached that determination through our Title IX external review before that demonstration happened,” said President Murray. “We were able to tell [activists] immediately that we had recognized those two roles were incompatible and needed to be separated.”

Junior Maia Watkins, a leader in the group, said that a working group is being created with students, faculty and administrators to allow the process of hiring a Sexual Assault Victim’s Advocate to be a quick and efficient one.

The group said that administrators were responsive to the second demand, creating a position for a  Gender and Sexuality Advisor. Watkins and sophomore Kyla Rapp, another leader in the group, said that administrators have asked the group to put together a vision for this position, and compile thoughts on gender and sexuality resources the college currently lacks. The Vigilante Feminists have held two open meetings with students to brainstorm ideas for what this position would look like.

Watkins and Rapp are in contact with Whitman’s peer institutions to see what resources they offer and gather ideas.

“We’re reaching out to other student groups and compiling a list of needs the campus has in terms of resources and institutionalized support so that we can figure out where that person would fit in and interact and what their duties would be,” said Rapp.  Groups involved in this process currently have so far included Feminists Advocating for Social Change, (FACE), All Students for Consent (ASC), and GLBTQ.

Activists also saw partial  success in their third demand: the cancellation of the end of the year fraternity weekend trips. Tau Kappa Epsilon and Phi Delta Theta announced the cancellation of their trips voluntarily over the weekend following the protests, and fraternity leaders cited concerns of activists as significant motivations. The Sigma Chi and Beta Theta Pi fraternities continued with their trips as planned.

President Murray and Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland additionally met with fraternity leaders last week to discuss their current efforts to combat issues of sexual violence.

“We talked about the scrutiny that they face right now, and my expectation for their behavior and their guidance of the behavior of those in their organizations, and I offered support as they try to confront those issues,” Murray said.

Institutional vs. Student Work

Since their initial protests, activists have questioned the line between institutional and student responsibilities in educating students about sexual violence.

Though the college has staff members that work on issues of sexual misconduct prevention and Title IX, a number of student groups also do similar work. The activity of groups like All Students for Consent (ASC), Greek Sexual Violence Prevention leaders (SVP) and students trained in the Green Dot program also support efforts to create a safe campus environment.

Activists challenge the idea that educating fellow students on consensual sexual health should be a student responsibility.

“Sustainability and long term solutions are things that we’re after,” said Rapp. “Positions that are here for the long term would ensure that, if student groups are doing amazing things, they can be continued. This has been a burden that students have been totally willing to take on but also shouldn’t have to.”

President Murray agrees that the college is responsible for ensuring a safe environment. This includes educating incoming students on healthy and consensual sexual relationships, maintaining an efficient and fair reporting process, and providing resources to survivors.

“It is first and foremost an institutional responsibility. Everybody on my staff believes that,” said Murray. “We must do everything we can to continue the educational process and the interventions and the response when all of those other efforts don’t work and we’re faced with a crisis.”

Understanding Rape Culture

Leaders of the Vigilante Feminists stress that an essential part of combating sexual violence includes an acknowledgement of rape culture by both administrators and students. Rapp says this is uncomfortable, but the discomfort it creates is evidence that significant change is needed.

“That is not something that’s easy to accept right away regardless of your positionality in that rape culture,” said Rapp. “It completely changes the way you see all of your interactions.”

The group is using the psychology thesis of Sayda Morales, ‘15, “Bringing Blurred Lines into Focus: The Relationship Between Rape Culture and Gendered Subcultures at Whitman College,” to define rape culture at the college. Morales writes that rape culture is broadly defined as “a celebration or normalization of rape in any given society.”

In her thesis, Morales used a survey completed by over 500 Whitman students to examine perspectives around issues of sexual misconduct and sexual violence on campus, and determined that the college’s dominant campus culture does normalize rape.

In conversations with President Murray, activists say that she has been hesitant to use the term “rape culture” to describe the college’s environment. She said she plans to read Morale’s thesis, but that for now she is “not willing to use that phrase.”

Dialogue, Activism, and Anger

In the time since the disruption, activists say they’ve often been questioned about their approach by both students and administrators. Much of this criticism has come from a strategy that some on campus see as overly confrontational.

In an interview with The Pioneer, and at the initial protest itself, President Murray said that she is “not responding to demands.”

“My preference would be that we begin with the dialogue,” she said. “I wish we would have started with the dialogue we’ve had subsequently.”

Vigilante Feminists say that they’re now toeing the line between making change  within and outside of the system. Watkins says the confrontational nature of their initial protest pointed out that this kind of advocacy makes people uncomfortable in a way that can be challenging and productive.

“It’s not part of our conditioning to accept a group of nineteen women, many of us victims or survivors, who are concerned about sexual misconduct at Whitman,” she said. “It’s very uncommon for us to have a voice, and to yell. It’s important for us to address that discomfort.”

Watkins and others in the Vigilante Feminists group have stated that the anger they expressed at the protest, and the reactions since, is indicative of a larger problem.

“Anger is a secondary emotion. It’s due to one of your needs not being met. This social injustice is the need that’s not being met for us. How do you explain or justify that I’m making you really uncomfortable?” said Watkins

Activists say that they hope to go beyond the administration and reach students in their work, challenging norms about campus culture. To support the extent of the problem, activists cite the fact that there are 45 Title IX cases on file with the college.

“We’ve become visible advocates for this work on campus, and we’re talking to our peers as well as the administration,” said Rapp. “That is heavy and important work. A lot of our peers don’t know what rape culture is, it’s not on their radar. Having to explain these things everyday to pretty much everyone at Whitman, and also explain our anger and why it’s powerful, has been trying, and it’s been a privilege.”