Op-Ed: Alumnae Call for Sexual Assault Policy Reform

As alumnae who were very involved in addressing the problems and issues related to sexual violence at Swarthmore during our time on campus, we have been carefully following recent events at the school, including the articles in The Daily Gazette and the filing of federal complaints against the College. While at Swarthmore, we organized the Clothesline Project in its earliest years; facilitated Acquaintance Sexual Assault Prevention workshops; served on the SMART team; and facilitated the Swat Survivors group. In other informal ways, we supported many survivors on campus. In all of these capacities, we have worked formally and informally with the administration, thus appreciating the enormity of the task at hand.

We want to express to the Swarthmore community how proud we are, and always have been, to be Swatties. We admire the courage exhibited by those students who have shared their stories, and have collaborated to demand much-needed change in the policies and culture of a community we hold so dear. We also recognize and laud the equally inspiring survivors who have not come forward, but who are fighting privately in their own ways every day. They are no less brave.

In our experience working with survivors, we have always been so impressed by the determination that survivors at Swarthmore exhibit. This determination has emerged in public forms, as has been the case for the survivors filing the federal complaint or sharing their stories with The Daily Gazette; it also functions in more anonymous ways, such as making a t-shirt for the Clothesline Project, seeking counseling during a difficult time, or accomplishing the deceptively simple tasks of trying to keep up with schoolwork or getting out of bed following a traumatic event.

The trauma of surviving sexual violence is difficult to understand for anyone who has not lived through it. We want to affirm our belief that survivors should do whatever they need to do to take care of themselves following an assault. They are deserving of support, patience, counseling, and any and all other necessary resources as they begin to heal. We believe that it is imperative that survivors be given accurate information as to their options following an assault, and that they are empowered to pursue whatever path they choose; being able to make an informed decision is an important way to challenge the loss of power and control experienced during an assault.

When we first heard about the experiences of current student survivors who sought help from the administration, we were filled with sadness because these stories are so familiar: they sound like the stories of survivors from our time at Swarthmore. When we were students, we discussed these same systemic issues with a variety of deans; apparently, minimal corrective action was taken. The judiciary system and administration have failed so many survivors already, and it is shameful that this trend continues. We know that changes were made in response to re-interpretations of the law since we graduated, but we believe they are insufficient precisely because the College does not understand where it went wrong in the past. The College does not understand how it re-traumatized and hurt the survivor community. This failure has resulted in repetition of the same mistakes for over ten years. The depth and pervasiveness of these problems is symptomatic of a culture of complacency within the administration: these issues were not taken seriously because of a lack of accountability. Currently, the only recourse within the College for reporting issues with the administration is to talk to another member of the administration. However, we know several people who took this step were retaliated against, and treated poorly after they had made these reports. Clearly, this lack of accountability, which leads to sexual assault being swept under the rug, has gone on for too long, and has perpetuated survivors’ suffering.

One of Swarthmore’s biggest draws is its alleged commitment to an open, supportive, and accepting community. This community has let the survivors of Swarthmore down. Instead of finding a receptive and supportive administration, many survivors are discouraged to find the complete opposite. It often seems protecting the image of the College is more important than safeguarding the welfare of its students.

As this process goes forward, we hope that the Swarthmore administration will look deeply at how both current and prior practices have resulted in the mishandling of sexual violence issues. We hope that they will seek varied input on how to move forward. We hope they will earn back the trust of the survivor community, which has been almost completely eroded over the years. Finally, we hope that they will take to heart the chorus of voices from students and alums demanding that change must happen.

We know this is a painful chapter for everyone, but the current system did a disservice to all the students at Swarthmore – it failed to keep them safe. We all deserve a Swarthmore where students can feel and be safe, and can learn, collaborate, explore, and do wonderful things without the fear or trauma of sexual violence. Sexual violence affects us all and undermines the very fabric of the community that we love. It is time for this issue to be rectified, and for the administration to do more to safeguard and support survivors and all students on campus.

If you are a Swarthmore alumnus who supports an improved college response to sexual assault, please sign the Alumni Petition started by Trude Raizen ‘08. You can find it here.

Signed,

Nicole Belanger ‘08
Allison Grein ‘10
Layla Helwa ‘12
Jean Strout ‘10


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35 comments

  1. 0
    Swattie '08 says:

    thank you so much for writing this op-ed – i was hoping that there would be a session during the upcoming Alumni weekend to talk about this issue, but it seems like the only opportunity will be the President talk at 9am on Saturday, which isn’t very young alunmi friendly 🙁

    1. 0
      Swattie '08 says:

      they are adding a session at 2pm on Saturday of Alumni weekend with Rebecca Chopp and Timothy Burke as facilitators. It will be an opportunity for alumni to share their good ideas about moving forward, supporting students and the broader campus community.

    2. 0
      alumn2011 says:

      I guess it’s very unreasonable for you to get up a little earlier for an issue you seem to care about. Also – don’t take this personally, please – but what kind of job do you have that makes 9 am feel so late? I’m jealous and may consider a career switch depending on what your answer is…

      1. 0
        Swattie '08 says:

        I do plan on attending, as well as the Young Alumni Pub Night the previous evening (which I also value as part of my reunion experience). My main point was expressing a desire to have a special session on this important and timely topic rather than just have it be one question among many.

  2. 0
    Allison Grein says:

    As an author to this article, I welcome all feedback and criticism related to the message this op-ed is trying to impart. That being said, thus far the criticism seems to be directed at a specific author of this article, and not the article itself. While I confess to having an inkling as to whom Well… is referring to, my insight as to the meaning of the comment ends there. I will say that I have very much appreciated the participation of Nicole, Jean, and Layla in writing this op-ed, and that their contributions and input were invaluable. I enjoyed working with all of them, and I commend each of them for their support of the survivor community during this period of turmoil.

    Due to the ambiguous language of Well…’s comment, it is unclear to me whether, as eb2 stated, the comment seeks to criticize and judge one of the authors of this article for her lifestyle choices, or is alleging that one of the authors did not obtain consent from her partner prior to engaging in sexual activity.

    It is my position that while the former provides further evidence that the culture of our community requires change, the latter should not be dismissed or harshly criticized, because that would be antithetical to the purpose of this article. In either case, I hope we all strive to be respectful in our comments, even if we are denied that same courtesy.

    Furthermore, it is my hope that the subject matter of the debate in future comments shifts away from this particular author, and moves back towards the issues referenced in this article.

  3. 0
    Swarthmore 20X says:

    The hypocrisy of some of these comments is truly damning. While “Well…” picked an absolutely terrible forum to voice his concerns, the fact remains that there a lot of people in support of this cause that are being insensitive to male victims by coming to support of this (potential) perpetrator in such a grand scale. On the other hand, discussions that primarily speak of female victims, everyone looks to burn the male assaulter at the stake.

    This truly is an amazing sight. Seriously, everyone check yourself.

    1. 0
      Alum '10 says:

      I happen to identify as a male survivor… and the writers of this letter come a hell of a lot closer to speaking for me than “Well..” does. The sort of sensitivity I need as a male survivor is not the sort that goes around anonymously accusing survivors of being perpetrators, as a way to hijack the thread on a crucially important letter. And the support that I need sure as hell is not the kind of support that interprets survivors’ issues in terms of a zero-sum game, where showing sensitivity for female survivors necessarily means showing less sensitivity for male survivors.

      Supporting someone as a survivor, regardless of that person’s gender identity, means that you don’t hurl anonymous comments that demean or downgrade a survivor’s story. Using an open letter in which someone bravely claims a survivor identity to throw accusations is a form of silencing, and that’s a tactic that is a crucial pillar of rape culture.

      If supporting male survivors means silencing other survivors, please count me out.

      1. 0
        alumncis2011 says:

        Not sure if it is fair for you to extrapolate from your personal feelings to dismiss “Well…”‘s concerns. Regardless of the form “Well…” chose, it is hypocritical of you to dismiss this person who very well may be a survivor or a close friend of a survivor.

        Imagine for a second “Well…” is indeed a survivor and put yourself in his shoes. What would your reaction be?

        The responses from the letter writers, notably Jean and Allison, have been remarkable, however. These reactions should prove to any doubters that they care about issue advocacy, not about other conjectured motives that have been floated here and on other threads (e.g., desire to be in the spotlight, personal revenge).

        1. 0
          M. Crab says:

          …So that last sentence sounded suspiciously like you’re implying other survivors have “other conjectured motives” and don’t necessarily care about “issue advocacy.”

          qt

          real qt

    2. 0
      Cole Armstrong, '10 says:

      Supporting somebody in their experience as a survivor, no matter what their sex or gender, does NOT mean supporting everything they have ever done.

      Supporting somebody’s efforts to prevent future sexual misconduct and protect other survivors does not mean this either.

      Furthermore, so far NONE of the articles in the Daily Gazette, comments, or even petitions (that I have seen) have accused anyone by name, which “Well…”‘s comment comes dangerously close to doing.

      Sex and gender have nothing to do with this.

  4. 0
    Max Nesterak ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    While nothing is sweeter than a juicy DG comment thread, discussing the sexual history of a particular person is not tasteful. I want to encourage commenters to be respectful of those who signed their name to this letter and save the dish for long-distance phone calls and the alumni banquet.

    Thank you,

    Max Nesterak ’13
    Co-Editor in Chief

        1. 0
          Max Nesterak ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

          Dear Joseph,

          Nothing that was posted actually violated The Daily Gazette’s comment policy (it is a liberal one). Since I felt the conversation drifting into dangerous territory, I thought I’d try to redirect. We want to have as open a forum as possible and in order to allow that, sometimes we have to approve comments we don’t agree with or would rather not post. Have you read any of “parent”‘s comments? However, we feel the more we moderate, the more we damage the, dare I say it, integrity of an open DG comment thread.

          Thank you,

          Max Nesterak ’13
          Co-Editor in Chief

  5. 0
    Jean Strout says:

    @Well..

    Being a survivor and being a perpetrator are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, sex and consent are more complicated than that.
    If you feel comfortable, I urge you to directly contact the person you are talking about and confront these issues. Nobody is learning from veiled accusations.

    Jean

    1. 0
      eb2 says:

      Jean,

      In the spirit of keeping survivors safe and supporting all survivors…

      While I’m with you 100% that being a survivor and being a perpetrator are not mutually exclusive, it seems unreasonable to request that a survivor or a friend of a survivor confront an alleged perpetrator about a questionable consent experience involving alcohol.

      1. 0
        Jean Strout says:

        Please let me rephrase.

        Although I don’t identify myself as such in the letter, I am a survivor of sexual assaults at Swarthmore and elsewhere.

        As one of the signatories of the letter, this anonymous poster has potentially accused me of being a perpetrator. At the very least, my name is now associated with this accusation.

        If Well… is referring to me and believes that I have done something inappropriate with regard to consent, I would like to know who it was and what the circumstances are so I can learn from it. The only way that can happen is if Well… or someone else actually tells me. I am not suggesting that Well… out the person or the survivor in question on this forum. I realize the other signatories may not share my view, but that’s my perspective.

        I believe that in some cases, sexual assault can occur without the perpetrator recognizing it. If I hurt someone, I would want to know.

        If anyone would like to contact me in regards to this letter or any other issue, my email is jstrout@jd14.law.harvard.edu.

        Jean

  6. 0
    Lauren Stokes '09 says:

    I love all of you–thank you for your work in laying the groundwork for survivors at Swarthmore to support each other and to raise awareness, and thank you for continuing to support the survivors coming forward now. You’re all brave and wonderful in my book.

  7. 0
    Well.. says:

    I appreciate this article and I think you are all doing commendable job rallying support for survivors on campus and those who have graduated. At the same time, I notice a name that I feel is attached to some rather questionable behaviors surrounding consent after alcohol consumption. To that individual: If you are a survivor, I support you in that experience, but I would also urge you to evaluate your behavior in regards to at least one young intoxicated man your senior year, if not others.

    1. 0
      eb2 says:

      While your support and defense of survivors is noble, be careful not to make assumptions about what Well.. actually said.

      It seems you are reading this as if Well.. claimed one of the writers had drunk sex and is judging the person for that.

      On the other hand, when Well.. questions “behaviors surrounding consent after alcohol consumption” and urges the writer “to evaluate [her] behavior in regards to at least one young intoxicated man,” I read it as an accusation that one of the writers did not get consent from a drunk partner before engaging in sexual activity.

      I can’t tell which was the intention, but your response makes some logical jumps without considering the possibilities.

      1. 0
        Hannahg says:

        I also read it as an accusation that the individual did not obtain appropriate consent. Well.. should be allowed, like everyone else to report sexual misconduct and should not be blamed in this forum. That is the point of these op eds right? To promote survivor protection with respect to reporting and recovering from assault.

      2. 0
        Ok but says:

        I read it differently. But even if your reading is right, isn’t the bottom line that Swarthmore needs to have better policies for survivors? If Swarthmore were a safer place, that person could have been supported too.

        Let’s focus on the message, not the messengers.

    2. 0
      Kate '10 says:

      This is one of the most unhelpful and mean-spirited comments I’ve seen posted with regard to these articles. If you were really concerned about the individual named, you would approach her as a friend. Clearly, you’re more interested in publicly shaming her for unrelated sexual behavior. And worse, you’re doing it anonymously. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    3. 0
      Alum '10 says:

      It is obvious from this comment that you don’t support this particular survivor — or any others, for that matter. By turning the focus back onto a survivor’s previous, unrelated sexual behavior, you’re engaging in classic victim-blaming. One of the ways in which rape culture persists is by using survivors’ sexual behavior to denigrate and minimize their experiences as survivors, and this comment is a perfect example of that. This sort of attitude is why Swarthmore is not a safe space for survivors.

      I commend the writers of this letter for honestly engaging in crucial issues that Swarthmore needs to address. Let’s keep the focus on those issues, and not question anyone’s experience as a survivor.

      1. 0
        eb2 says:

        It’s not obvious. You’ve assumed that all these women signing the letter are survivors (something they did not explicitly state, so please do not write that they are), and you’ve also assumed that Well.. is using a signer’s “previous, unrelated sexual behavior” to blame her for her own traumatic experience. I see no victim-blaming in Well..’s post.

        Have you considered the possibility that Well.. was claiming that one of the writers was a perpetrator? Or at least engaged in some “questionable behaviors surrounding consent?” I don’t mean to say that any of them did something wrong, as I have no knowledge of the situation Well.. is referring to. I’m just saying that there are several ways to read the original comment.

        While this doesn’t seem like the appropriate place to make this accusation, as it potentially distracts from the call for survivor support that the letter writers and Well.. are all seeking, I think you have drastically misread Well..’s comment.

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