Katherine Hazen '18 News Editor Around 100 college students gathered at Smith this past weekend to participate in workshops and panels addressing a range of complex issues surrounding campus assault at the “Beyond Title IX Conference.”
Smith alumna Lena Budinger ’15 and students Kayla Foney ’17 and Sarah Orsak ’16 were hired by the study of women and gender department and advised by professor Lisa Armstrong to create an event that spoke to the gaps in the national dialogue on sexual assault and create connections between student activists.
The conference started Friday night with a panel consisting of Armstrong, Emma Sulkowicz — the Columbia University grad known for her year-long mattress performance — and Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who founded of the group UBUNTU in response to the Duke Lacrosse Scandal. The panel, moderated by Orsak, began with stories from the panelists about their experiences as survivors, student activists or both, which was an appropriate start as it became a prominent theme.
“It’s not really just my story; it’s the story that became the face of everyone else’s story — I didn’t ask to be that representation,” said Sulkowicz.
Despite the emphasis on campus activism, the conference challenged attendees to think beyond the media-conceived perception that rape is a phenomenon of prestigious universities, which erases the experience of survivors without “class privilege or a certain level of perceived intelligence,” said the conference organizers.
Organizers speculated that “perhaps what is particular about campus-based movements is that we are supposed to have clear recourse to an institution required by the federal government to take steps to eliminate sexual violence [as gender-based discrimination].”
“I believe that every institution — especially white, elite schools — exists to perpetuate [itself],” said Gumbs. However, she later added, “The university is not the universe.” Armstrong and Gumbs emphasized the importance of an intergenerational fight against assault and building on the history of campus activism.
“I began organizing as a college senior against a gang rape witnessed and perpetrated by college students against a 14 year-old girl whose parents worked at the college,” said Armstrong in a later interview, “An issue that takes on ongoing historical norms and attitudes about gendered sexuality will be geographically vast and ongoing.”
During the panel, Armstrong talked about finding the “joy in the movement,” usually by, “crossing the lines you weren’t supposed to cross,” in reference to the Five College consortium.
The way in which the media and administration envision sexual assault profoundly influences the policies, which was especially demonstrated in a Saturday workshop entitled “‘Women Don’t Hurt Other Women,’” concentrating on the lack of accountability and visibility for sexual assault and intimate partner violence at a women’s college.
“We are responsible for the culture we create on our campus,” said workshop leader Sofia Monterroso, sophomore at Mount Holyoke College.
Nuanced policies and definitions addressing sexual and partner violence at women’s colleges would help survivors be able to comprehend and talk about their experience in addition to making it easier to identify, Monterroso claimed. It seemed during the workshop that students are not always aware of the resources available on campus, which could also be the case at Smith as organizers revealed.
Smith only updated the online list of recourses this past year and has not publicized that beyond the website.
“All last year Smith’s hired lawyers examined our existing sexual violence policies, gave a list of what needed changing to be in compliance with the law, and said that the next step in policy change was to get the pulse of what works best for our campus community.”
“These lawyers consulted with a handpicked group of maybe 15 students for a total of two hours, over two different lunch meetings,” said conference organizers.
Smith receives reports of one or two assaults per year consistently as one member of the organizing team learned during the lunch meeting. Smith created a private committee to create a new policy, asking only students living on campus for the summer to give their feedback.
“We were told that Smith was rushing through the feedback because they wanted to settle on a policy so that they could implement it for incoming students. Meaning, institutions are required by law to hold sexual-violence prevention trainings that make explicit the policies. We have no knowledge of such a compliant program being run during orientation this year, nor during any other year,” organizers shared in a statement to The Sophian, then alleging that the rush for a new policy “was [the] reason that such minimal student input was sought.”
The conference brought many issues to light but also managed to encourage students to find joy in their work, as organizers said, “What if the next step is a dance? Joyous movement of students working together, supporting ourselves, demanding change—as we have for generations.”