Students and faculty came together last Thursday to voice their concerns about sexual violence and rape culture at the University of Rhode Island.
The event, “Speak Up, Speak Out: A General Assembly on Sexual Violence,” was organized by Graduate Assistants United in response to a column published two weeks ago by The Good 5 Cent Cigar. Staff News Reporter Kelsey Santmyer shared her experience with sexual assault on campus in an effort to start a dialogue between members of the campus community.
Graduate Assistants United asked that people share their own experiences or offer words of support, while also letting others know that they would not make excuses for perpetrators, or let events like this be normalized.
“We will not wait for the culture to change,” said grievance chair for Graduate Assistants United Michaela Cashman. “We are changing it ourselves.”
If the culture is ever going to change, however, people first need to be willing to admit that sexual violence is a real and ongoing issue, according to Santmyer.
“Not only does it happen, but we allow it to be swept under the rug and normalized in our society through direct actions and often indirect words,” Santmyer said. “Our community promotes rhetoric that blames the victim, never the rapist.”
Many sexual assaults, both on-campus and off, never go reported due to a culture of victim blaming. Others don’t report out of a fear that they won’t be believed, according to Santmyer.
“Survivors are someone,” Santmyer said. “Someone who deserves to be listened to and believed.”
None of the students who chose to physically stand up and speak on Thursday were sharing personal incidences of sexual assault, but some did send in written accounts to be shared. Others chose to speak to the fact that sexual assault doesn’t just happen in Greek Life. Senior Textile, Fashion Merchandising and Design major Cassie Baner, a Greek Life members and Greek 101 instructor, stood in support of Greek Life on Thursday. In her opinion, Greek Life does not get enough credit for the efforts they take to prevent sexual assault or how it’s handled after the fact.
“Greek Life is dedicated to this,” Baner said. “They teach and they are taking responsibility for these things. Nothing goes under the rug that I’ve seen.”
As a former member of the Panhellenic Council, Baner said she’s seen first hand evidence of the effort that goes into supporting members of Greek Life.
“I’ve seen the faculty of Greek Life at URI take these situations and handle them in ways that I couldn’t even imagine,” Baner said. “They are so dedicated to these students.”
Similarly, Rebecca Rappel said that this is an issue that extends far beyond just Greek Life, and that Greek Life does take part in educating students on the matter.
“Sexual assault can happen to anyone, anywhere,” Rappel said. “There is no club or organization, Greek Life or athletics that is solely responsible for this.”
Sophomore Meghan Ellis chose to speak against stereotypes surrounding rape culture, directly addressing event organizers specifically. Part of the guidelines set out by organizers prohibited students from identifying assailants by name or by any other identifying factors, like what classes they’re in or what sports teams they play on.
“As a female athlete and as someone who works with the men and woman in the athletic department every day, it’s hard to read that in print,” Ellis said. “I understand that there are incidents that occur, but I encourage all of you to have the strength to not stereotype, because it’s hurtful to those it does not apply.”
Ellis and many other students who spoke also stated their commitments to be part of the solution, and to be an ally to those affected by sexual assault.
Chief Diversity Officer Naomi Thompson said she was proud of the event and the students involved in organizing it.
“I am inspired that students are taking the lead and are being responsible for engaging a dialogue and taking preventative measures to raise awareness,” Thompson said.
Adding to Thompson’s comments, Women’s Center Director Penny Rosenthal also said it takes more than just students or faculty to help end sexual violence.
“It takes the whole community to stand up and respond and speak up,” Rosenthal said.
Assistant Coordinator for Violence Prevention and Advocacy Services Rachel Dunham, also from the Women’s Center, said she was glad that students were reaching out the community.
“Being someone who’s done violence prevention on this campus for more than six years now, it’s really cool to see this community have this outreach, have this outreach and put it to good use,” Dunham said. “I think this is the first of many conversations.”
Political science professor Danielle Dirocco, who helped organized the event, said the most important thing is that people don’t stay silent.
“It’s an important start to an even more important conversation that we need to be having about waking our community up,” Dirocco said. “This is happening here and it’s really easy to think it’s not – to put yourself under the impression that it happens ‘somewhere else,’ or ‘it’s really uncommon.’ It’s not. This is something that we as a community need to pay attention to collectively.”