Respect Works: Student Panel Discusses Sexual Assault

Moving Dartmouth Forward

Moving Dartmouth Forward

“Freshman fall I, like too many other women on this campus, was raped,” said a member of the Respect Works panel at Bones Gate, co-sponsored by the Inter Fraternity Council, Student Assembly, Greek Leadership Council, Bones Gate, Psi Upsilon, Phi Delta Alpha, Alpha Delta, and Beta Alpha Omega.

Eight students spoke on a panel about some of the most intimate details of their lives. Their experiences with rape, sexually transmitted diseases, gender queerness, homosexuality, molestation, harassment, and more. Everyone in the audience was sitting up and visibly attentive.

“I bet she sleeps with everyone,” another panel member said, quoting the instigator of a confrontation that would end with a physical fight, broken bones, and a police report.

Each speaker, whether commenting on his or her own emotionally visceral encounters with sexual assault or their opinions on how to stop it, connected with the audience. After all, we know them. They are real people. They share our classes, our social spaces, and our dining halls.

When confronted by sexual assault there’s “fight, flight, and freeze. People don’t talk about the last one as much,” said another member of the panel who had been inappropriately groped at a dance party in a fraternity basement.

The student panel, the beginning of a series of talks that ended with a candlelight vigil in front of Dartmouth Hall, set the standard for Respect Works. Everything afterwards felt weaker by comparison.

Professor Barbara Will teaches English at the College and followed the panel discussion by bringing the conversation back into abstract terms. Sheets were distributed with various scenarios ranging from questionable to clear instances of sexual assault. These paragraph-length stories star gender ambiguous characters like “Vic” and “Taylor” and almost immediately Professor Will’s talk felt like an unintentional foil to the student panel. Now a step removed from the source, in abstractions and possibilities about assault, the connection between the speaker and the audience started to fumble. The eyes in the audience glazed over a little bit and people who weren’t slouching before began to.

Jen Sargent, a writing professor and Heorot house advisor, followed. She began by telling the audience of men that “scare tactics don’t work,” and then handed out sheets explaining the legal definitions of sexual assault and what it’s like to be prosecuted for it. Though Ms. Sargent grounded her talk in her experience as a public defender and judge, your correspondents spent no small amount of time trying to figure out exactly in which ways her talk differed from a scare tactic. If there were some sort of rhetorical sleight of hand at play here, it’s unclear what benefit it brought to the table.

Respect Works ended with comedian and activist Cindy Pierce. Pierce pointed out early on that she had note cards to keep her on track, but it became apparent that these cards were largely symbolic as she weaved from topic to topic, doubling back and wandering off on some serious tangents. Though she billed her talk as an explanation of how to have “excellent sex,” she ended up covering topics of varying relevance including her experience as an elementary school teacher, her experience as an elementary school student, masturbation, masculinity, Colby College (“the heart of change!”), pornography and much, much more. All the while she said things like “ “NO lateral movements in the vagina,” “flaps and folds, flaps and folds,” jing jangle spring sprangle,” and made, what your correspondents would describe as, a surprising number of sound effects and noises with her mouth. The talk connected at moments, and the crowd let loose genuine and loud laughs, but by the time we reached an explanation of what makes excellent sex fifteen minutes past her time slot’s end, it becomes certain that Pierce’s talk was the fizzling end of Respect Works four hours after it began.

It’s here, we submit, the lesson of Respect Works emerges. The comparative hollowness of the talks following the student panel demonstrates the panel’s greatest, most indelible strength: it’s something altogether different to be told of scenarios in which one’s vulnerability is taken advantage of, where such basic trust is broken (more than broken: violated), than it is to hear it in someone’s voice. Or to see it in their expression as they look up, averting their eyes slightly from the faces in the audience staring back, while recounting a rape or assault.

This is something that defies replication in short paragraphs in handout sheets involving “Vic” and “Taylor.” The student panel brought with it the kind of emotional weight that went wholly uncommunicated by talk of legal repercussions by a former judge or orgasm by a comedian. Professor Will and Ms. Sargent and Ms. Pierce surely play a role in the dialogue on sexual assault, but it is at once removed and several orders derived from the issue itself.

Yet even in the cases where student panel members were not assaulted, one affiliated man spoke about the importance of keeping in mind the often unreported male survivors of sexual assault while another spoke about what he thought to be the “obligation of affiliated men” to stop sexual assault, the student panel remained far more gripping than the speakers that followed. Though these students stand in a relationship similar to Will or Sargent or Pierce, in that they were not themselves survivors, their perspectives are contextualized in our common experience as students at Dartmouth. For all the implications that carries, it meant, at the very least, that there was something overwhelmingly sincere about their contributions. There’s an undeniable feeling of power in talking through such a relevant and distressing subject with your peers and to have the meaningful sense of working through it.

The speakers were followed by a candlelight vigil, which is more work to walk in than it sounds. You need to walk at a slightly slower clip than the typical late-to-class power walk to keep your flame from going out. You need breath a little less heavily and talk a little more quietly to keep your own carbon dioxide from suffocating the flame. It helps to cup your hand around the burning wick and not to flinch when hot melted wax falls on your hands before it cools and hardens.

Someone said, though it sounded at least half joking, that he has “a lot emotionally invested” in keeping his candle a lit. It sounds at least a little true, as we walked to the front of Dartmouth Hall, all slower than usual, with most of us holding a hand cupped around our candles.

It was not exactly night just yet, though the sky is getting dark with twilight. As everyone stood outside the Hall, someone in the crowd offered that the display of students was good and promising, but that he had hope that this could translate to meaningful action in the future.

It feels like a reasonable hope as now we stand to ascend into the ranks of upperclassmen and take on meaningful roles in our institutions. With sophomore summer coming to a close we stand to gain a real position of ownership in the College today and where it will go tomorrow.

And the falling dusk, though dark, serves as a reminder that there are far darker places in the world with, it would seem, fewer hopeful, sincere, and capable individuals looking to make their spaces better than when they found it.

Or at least it looks that way, among this group of students holding candles in front of Dartmouth Hall. From here, it’s hard not to hope.

Alex Libre contributed to this report.