Students React to Banners Condemning Sexual Assault Policy

Georgia Lyon, News Editor

Two large posters reading, “Whitman Only Punishes Victims” and “It Has Been 3 Days Since The Last Reported Rape” in red letters were hung up on the tennis courts on Fall Visitors Day.

On Wednesday Oct. 26, the Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) sponsored an event that gave students time to talk about the posters. In this event, titled “Space to Talk About Whitman & Title IX” event, Director of Student Success and Disability Services Rebecca Frost moderated the discussion of the posters. There was a consensus at the event that the posters re-traumatized many sexual assault survivors.

While the person responsible for hanging the posters remains anonymous, many agreed that the person seemed very angry with how sexual assault is handled at Whitman. The responses to the posters varied, but many struggled to understand the person’s motives for putting the posters up.

The hanging of the posters highlighted Whitman’s lack of a space where people from across the Whitman community can discuss sexual assault safely. One potential problem with establishing that space is encouraging survivors to participate in these conversations without compelling them against their will.

As a survivor, Panhellenic president junior Molly Unsworth, who works as a sexual violence prevention intern, knows well how difficult it is to find this balance.

“I think that is important to not feel silenced but also to feel like you’re not dragged into conversations that you don’t want to have,” Unsworth said.

Many survivors felt that the posters managed to both drag survivors into the conversation while silencing them.

“As a survivor—I feel like I would love to be able to participate in this conversation, but the way this banner was put up just made me feel like I wanted to go home and go back to bed,” Unsworth said.

Junior Dan Lovato, who is also a survivor, agreed that the posters re-traumatized many survivors. He spoke directly to the anonymous person about how their actions disempowered survivors.

“Great job…using fear tactics and actively discouraging victims of sexual assault on this campus from coming forward, while simultaneously reminding every victim on this campus of their own respective assaults,” Lovato said in a Facebook status.

Survivors were not the only ones who expressed concerns with the posters. Many administrators and students who have been working actively to prevent sexual assault were frustrated by the display.

“If the way the posters were presented detracted from the actual message about sexual assault on campus, [then] I think that whoever put them up was very negligent in thinking about the feelings of survivors on campus and those who have been involved in the Title IX process at the school,” Student Academic Advisor sophomore Lauren Wilson said.

“Because the demonstration was anonymous, it makes it difficult for conversation to happen. And that’s not even conversation within the administration, but also conversation among students…A lot of the students’ frustration was that the banners silenced an opportunity to have a conversation about sexual violence prevention, education [and] support on campus,” Frost said.

The administration should not be sheltered from criticisms on its handling of sexual assault, yet many seemed to feel presenting these criticisms in such a public space was inappropriate.

“I think [sexual assault] deserves to be talked about. It deserves people to be angry about it. The administration needs to be getting asked hard questions, but I don’t think necessarily think that those are the larger, broader, public questions we need to bring to the entire campus because I don’t really think they are productive,” Unsworth said.

Although many students and administrators seemed to agree that the posters did more harm than good, fewer had ideas on how to have constructive conversations about sexual assault within the Whitman community. It is challenging to establish spaces for this discussion because no one wants to re-traumatize survivors.

“I think we need more spaces to talk about sexual violence in a constructive way at a whole campus-wide level because I know that conversations happen on an individual level, but those aren’t necessarily going to change anything…It’s a challenge to figure out how to have those conversations with the population at large, especially considering the mental well-being of survivors,” junior Resident Assistant Kiana Henny said.

Whether survivors choose to participate in these conversations, it is important to have these conversations as a way of acknowledging survivors pain. With this support, it may be easier for them to begin the process of healing.

“Validation of a person’s pain is probably the most critical piece for those who have experienced sexual violence, harassment or discrimination to start a healing process…That comes through support systems,” Frost said.