Content/Trigger Warning: mentions of sexual violence and sexual assault, cultures of harm
We, as the authors of this collection of thoughts, have both worked in sexual violence prevention groups and organizations throughout our time at Dartmouth. Our thoughts largely stem from the conversations and experiences we have had while doing this work. We are both white. This collection was originally submitted for the Dis-O guide for 24s and resubmitted for the 25s with minimal edits.
Throughout, sexual violence is used as a term that encompasses sexual harassment, sexual assault, domestic and dating violence, and stalking as well as other power-based harm.
A discussion of sexual violence on college campuses begins and ends with consent. While we usually think of consent as meaning a clear “yes” or “no” in sexual encounters, the need for consent stretches beyond hook-ups and into nearly every relational encounter in our everyday lives. In order for there to be mutual respect and clear, emotionally intelligent communication between members of our community, consent must be present. This means that yes, you should ask your roommate, your friend, your sibling, or anyone you’re interacting with, before touching them, or before bringing up something triggering, or posting a photo of them on social media, or borrowing their clothes, or in any number of situations that require the mutual respect of two or more parties.
Generally speaking, consent should be freely given (not coerced), reversible (retractable at any time), informed (with full understanding of the circumstances), enthusiastic (actively engaged), and specific (particular to a given activity). Consent for one activity does not extend to consent for another, nor does consent given at a particular time extend to consent for future activities.
On the concept of safety
When talking about sexual violence on our campus, many people try to put both people and spaces into categories of “safe” or “unsafe.” Oftentimes, these labels or designations are passed down from upperclassmen to first-years in an attempt to advise them where to go out, or how to socialize. For example, an upperclassman might say, “you shouldn’t go to that frat, their brothers are creepy,” or describe a space as a “nice guy frat.” First, this specific example contributes to the false narrative that sexual violence looks exclusively like heterosexual, male-on-female, violence. Second, dichotomies such as this ignore the fact that, as humans, everyone is capable of causing harm. If we recognize that everyone can cause harm even if they do not intend to, we can understand that no space can ever be completely free of harm, and therefore completely “safe.”
In well-intentioned attempts to address violence, organizations sometimes try to remove people who have committed harm in order to render their space “safer.” While this often begins with the goal to reduce harm, this process is often done in a way that neglects the concept of accountability and merely allows the individual to occupy other spaces. Accountability, in its truest form, comes from within an individual and is supported by others within their community. Fostering accountability within communities is not easy, and requires constant reflection on and acknowledgement of harm that occurs. By focusing on the removal of one sole individual, we often forget to reflect on the ways that the other members of that community are complicit in the harm that occurred. Without reflecting on our complicity, we will never be able to confront the cultural and systemic nature of sexual violence, and we continue to perpetuate the idea that harm is entirely a result of individual decisions.
Power-based violence exists along a continuum, which starts with harmful underlying attitudes and beliefs (like homophobia, sexism, ableism, racism etc.) and leads all the way to physical violence. Along the continuum there are verbal expressions (e.g. r*pe jokes, bragging, harassment) and physical expressions (e.g. harassment, sexual assault, dating violence) of the underlying beliefs. These verbal and physical expressions contribute to a larger normalization of power-based violence and harm that then further perpetuates the beliefs and attitudes. In order to break down this normalization of violence we need to identify, understand and dismantle the underlying beliefs in ourselves and our communities that support cultures of harm. Seeking to create “safety,” while desirable in theory, ultimately ignores the fact that we are all complicit in a culture of harm that manifests physically as sexual violence.
Questioning the role of those who engage in sexual violence prevention
At Dartmouth, many students on campus are involved in sexual violence prevention, response, and policy work. Just as anyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, or religious affiliation, can commit an act of violence, anyone, regardless of what organizations they are affiliated with, can perpetuate rape culture and white supremacy. While acknowledging the important work these organizations do on campus, it is equally important to understand that individuals who work in the landscape of sexual violence prevention and response are not the arbiters of good and evil, nor should we sanctify or attribute a higher level of “wokeness” to these folks. Even those involved in prevention work can cause harm, protect others who have committed harm or invalidate other people’s experiences. Everyone commits harm.
Who contributes to a culture of harm?
A lot of conversation tends to focus exclusively on students’ role in sexual violence on our campus. Focusing on students’ role suggests that only students can intervene and change the culture of harm. In reality, while students play a crucial role in reducing harm at Dartmouth, other members of our community also contribute to and have the power to combat harm. More specifically, professors, staff and administrators can contribute with both their action and inaction. Action and inaction can manifest in a variety of ways, from professors failing to push back on harmful comments in class, to the lack of structural prioritization of violence prevention and response at the administrative level at Dartmouth. When engaging in conversations about sexual violence on our campus, it is important to consider our role as students, while also recognizing and calling attention to the fact that we are not the only ones that commit or are complicit in violence at Dartmouth.
On public disclosures of sexual violence
There exist platforms for survivors at Dartmouth to share their experiences anonymously. Speaking out publicly can be an empowering action for individuals who experienced harm, though it may not be a component of everyone’s processing of violence. If you choose to submit a disclosure to a public platform, you may want to consider the following questions: If I want my story to be anonymous, are there mechanisms in place to ensure my anonymity? If I want my story to be removed or deleted, are there mechanisms in place to do so?
Every few terms or so, an effort to doxx known assailants on campus takes place, sometimes in the form of a Google doc, or a Twitter thread, or on other, similarly public, platforms. In the past, these efforts have sometimes caused harm by outing survivors, despite efforts to retain anonymity, and triggering folks who come across these posts. If you choose to submit a written disclosure to these accounts or groups, you may want to consider the following questions: Are you writing your own story, or someone else’s? Who is the mediator? What are their intentions? Does this person, or people, have the capacity to mitigate potential harm? Are you considering the idea that you may be retraumatizing people?
Additionally, sometimes public or even private disclosures are made in an attempt to elicit an organizational response. For example, a person may request to an exec board member that they want someone who has committed harm to be removed from that organization. This can be challenging to navigate, especially if the disclosure does not come from the survivor themself. In fall of 2019, members of the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault (SPCSA) developed guidelines for such situations which are now included in the Greek Leadership Council constitution. While not all encompassing, these guidelines are a good place to start if trying to determine what an organizational response to a disclosure should be.
Many people who cause harm have experienced it themselves. Trauma is cyclical, and societal reluctance to address trauma makes breaking that cycle all the more difficult. At Dartmouth, there are people who harm other people, there are people who have been harmed, and there are people whose experiences contain both. Recognizing that many people who commit violence have been harmed themselves does not absolve them in any way of the harm they cause but rather elicits questions: How can we create communities that are accountable, yet compassionate? That allow for the processing of trauma as well as self-interrogation of complicity in or causation of harm? How do we reimagine what justice looks like after harm has been caused? How do we center the needs of the person who experienced harm?
Talking about violence in the Dartmouth community can be overwhelming and discouraging. Much of what we said above may be difficult to contextualize as a first-year. We do not, however, want to leave you feeling hopeless. As a new member of our community, you have more power than you think. The organizations, leaders and spaces you choose to affiliate with and occupy are only as powerful as the number of people that align with them and accept the norms established within. It is not your sole responsibility to dismantle the culture of harm on campus. However, we all need to be mindful of the ways that the power we hold and the space we take up actively influences campus culture. Onwards.
The Dartmouth Radical