‘Rape List’ Returns: 25 years of Sexual Assault Activism at Brown

Students at Columbia University recently made headlines for posting the names of accused sexual assault violators who were allowed to remain on their campus on bathroom stalls. As University custodians quickly scrubbed down the lists, students adapted and created flyers with the list printed for distribution around campus. These actions were in response to their university’s inadequate response to and punishment of sexual assault violators. First spotted the week of May 5th, a similar list was posted in a women’s bathroom stall in the basement of the Rockefeller Library at Brown University. Entitled “Brown Survivors Speak,” the list is a space for students to list the names of their sexual assaulters and the dates of their assault. Five names were added to the list at the time of this publication.

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These bathroom lists are not without historical precedent and have a 25-year history originating in the same Brown University basement bathroom. In 1990, the bathroom list began as an ongoing conversation between women about unsafe experiences that they had as well as who to stay away from. The original poster wrote,“Beware of _______, he doesn’t take no for an answer” and other women added to the list. The list on the wall of men that women said had sexually assaulted them eventually grew to about 30 and began to gain the attention of Brown administrators. As custodians began painting over the list, students constantly reproduced it and the process inspired heated discussion and debate on campus. As time passed, administrators were forced to stop simply painting over the list and instead hold a student forum to discuss the actual issue of sexual assault.

The forums and speak-outs that took place subsequently enabled students to speak freely about their personal experiences with sexual assault and the administration. Soon, university policies and officials came under attack. Students stood up to speak about the rapes that they reported to the university and the infuriating responses that they received. One student said she had been raped by a man she was previously dating and when she reported the incident to the dean of student life, she was told, “I think this can be all boiled down to a case of bad chemistry.” Women stood up to share similar responses from an administration that was not genuinely concerned about the rape of students on their campus. The uproar surrounding what was termed ‘the rape list’ and the student activism that surrounded it, gained national attention and was reported in The New York Times and most major newspaper and media outlets.

The administration responded to the activism and media attention with significant changes to on-campus sexual assault awareness and response. These results took the form of a Sexual Assault Task Force to create a formal forum with which to deal with issues of sexual assault, creation of the Sexual Assault Peer Educators program, mandatory class meetings about sexual assault, and a revised Non-Academic Disciplinary System that dealt more stringently with instances of sexual assault. In1991, during the aftermath of a busy year of activism, students pointed out flaws still within the updated systemic approach to sexual assault on campus. Those who reported sexual assault still had to go through long periods of invasive and traumatizing review, those accused were often able to remain on campus during reviews and return after, and many survivors of sexual assault still felt unsafe on campus.

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Fast forward to April 23, Brown University student Lena Sclove held a press conference outside of the iconic Van Wickle gates to share her story of sexual assault on campus and her experience of the University’s disciplinary process. The response was swift. The same day, students wrote a petition calling for Brown to prioritize the safety of sexual assault victims and demanding “that anyone found responsible for sexual misconduct be suspended until the person they have assaulted graduates, or until two years have passed.” The petition was distributed on the Main Green, where A Day on College Hill, an event for prospective students, was taking place. Over 2600 signatures, including at least 70 by prospective students, were collected by 4pm, according to a post by organizer Daphne Xu on the ‘Justice for Lena & Survivors Everywhere’ Facebook group. It now has almost 11,000 signatures.

Later that day, students attended a Brown University Community Council meeting, presenting the petition and voicing their concerns and issues with how the University handled Sclove’s case and sexual assault on campus more broadly. According to coverage by the Brown Daily Herald and summaries on the Justice for Lena Facebook group, one student asked what is sufficient reason to expel a student if rape and strangulation are not; another pointed out that by focusing on ‘penetration,’ the student code relies on a definition of rape in the student code is heteronormative and ciscentric. Recommendations, as well as criticisms, were discussed.

Three days later, on April 26, President Christina Paxson sent an inflammatory email to the Brown community. In it, she claims (falsely) that “sexual assault at Brown is not tolerated,” and cites “drug and alcohol abuse” as an important contributing factor to consider. Her reference to alcohol can either be read as victim-blaming or as attributing responsibility for sexual assault to intoxication rather than to the perpetrator, a problematic and inaccurate approach.

Refusing to lose momentum as Sclove’s case increasingly gained national media attention, the organizers—who formed a campaign called ‘Imagine Rape Zero,’ playing off of the slogan for Brown’s 250th anniversary, ‘Imagine Brown 250+’—created a second petition with a more extensive set of demands and released it on April 30. Included among the sixteen demands on the ‘Petition to Reimagine and Restructure Brown University’s Sexual Assault Policy’ are calls for the University to “require that all decisions, including appeals, regarding the adjudication of sexual misconduct be evaluated by a panel that includes students rather than by an individual administrator,” and to “develop relationships with Sojourner House, Day One, and other local institutions.”

Two days later, President Paxson sent another letter to the Brown community that gave the illusion of responding to the on-campus activism while actually responding more specifically to the recently released recommendations in the White House report on sexual assault on college campuses, ‘Not Alone.’ In her letter, Paxson writes that a Brown Univeristy Task Force on Sexual Assault, consisting of faculty, administration and students, will be created and begin working in Fall 2014, that the University will hire a single full-time Title IX coordinator, increase resources for sexual assault education during fall orientation, and conduct a ‘campus climate’ survey about sexual assault. The following week, responding specifically to the April 30 petition, Paxson sent a disappointingly similar letter to a subset of the Imagine Rape Zero organizers, responding to virtually none of its demands: “these are exactly the issues I expect the Task Force to consider… for this reason, I do not want to get ahead of the Task Force by accepting recommendations on these issues,” she writes.

The Imagine Rape Zero activists refuse to be placated by these vague promises, and have organized more immediate actions in response to the University’s handling of sexual assault. This Friday at 3:30pm on the Main Green, there will be a Rally Against Sexual Assault: Together Let’s Imagine Rape Zero to show support for and solidarity with survivors and to remind the administration that this is far from over.

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While some have heard about the on-campus activism in the 90s, it seems to be less known that similar conversations around sexual assault at Brown took place only a few years ago. The photo below was created by student activists in 2007 to illustrate the sad reality that almost twenty years later, the University’s sexual assault policy was still insufficient for preventing assault and protecting survivors.

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In an op-ed for the Brown Daily Herald on April 2nd, four of these students—Amy Littlefield, Allison Pappas, Amelia Plant and Lily Shield—expressed their disappointing déjà-vu:

“We too organized a Sexual Assault Task Force to promote awareness and improve resources and support for survivors of sexual assault. We developed a list of demands for the University and spent the next few years working to accomplish our goals: a sexual assault resource center, a support group for survivors, a peer education program aimed at prevention, a full-time sexual assault staff person, a 24-hour on-campus sexual assault hotline and most importantly, a review of campus policy.

[…]

Was Brown’s willingness to work with us simply a means to placate our public vocalization of the problems that we saw on campus so that we stopped drawing negative attention? Or is advancement on this painful issue simply so slow that each new generation of students is forced to start from scratch? We are not willing to accept either explanation.”

The reappearance of the ‘rape list’ reflects a collapse in space and time, illustrating not only that time is not equal to progress, but also that to define ‘progress’ is to limit it. Both in the 90s and the mid-2000s, the student activism led to significant and measurable gains. But do these ‘wins’ cause us to lose sight of the bigger picture? What do they mean if today, still, rapists on campus are given mere slaps on the wrist, and survivors are given insufficient support?

We tend to believe that when a conflict is resolved that the resolution of the conflict puts us somewhere ahead of where we started, that we have progressed. But this is clearly not the case—unless we can find a way to make it so. ‘Progress’ cannot be defined by getting what we want, by having demands met. It must be defined by unrelenting and ceaseless resistance to the systems that create and perpetuate rape culture, that blame and silence victims, that bar students from protest and justice.

Every five years, the University reviews and revises the Student Code of Conduct, a process that will take place this summer and provides an opportunity to change the way in which sexual assault is handled. Will the demands outlined in the Imagine Rape Zero petition be met? Will Paxson make good on her alleged goal “to move Brown to a position of national leadership for prevention, advocacy, and response to issues of sexual assault”? Will we, the students, the survivors of sexual assault, the allies, friends and family, the community members, be heard? Or will history keep repeating itself?

 

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