This weekend the Student Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault organized its first symposium. It was wonderful to see so many people from different campus communities coming together in a common purpose.
As a participant at the symposium, I was particularly moved by Dani Levin’s ’12 closing speech. I asked for her permission to reproduce the speech here, on our blog, so that others who didn’t have the chance to be at the event would still be able to know the incredibly important things she said.
On a personal note, it has been my absolute pleasure to get to know Dani over the past few years. She has been an incredible activist and voice in this community dealing with topics like hazing and the policy to boycott fraternities that do not act in a timely manner after an assault has taken place. She is truly remarkable, and I know she will continue to have a meaningful impact on Dartmouth and the world even after she graduates.
~Stephanie, CWG Asst. Director
Danielle Levin ’12, January 28, 2012, Alumni Hall, Hanover, NH
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a few thank you’s first. First, to the people in the room. Simply by being here you are demonstrating a greater degree of selflessness and action than is the norm. So a round of applause for you. Second, to the administration, whose openness has made today possible. Lastly, to the students I’ve been blessed enough to work with. I can only hope I graduate with half as much fire and competence as you have shown.
Before I begin, I’d like to try something. Can I have maybe one or two people at every table stand up. Ok, let’s take a look around. That’s about 1 in 4 people in this room. Which is how many women have been raped at some point in their college career. You can sit back down.
I’m sorry that I don’t have the statistics on men being raped, but I think you get the picture. And before I begin, I would like to say, that if I slip into speech about female victims or male perpetrators, which is the first thing they tell you NOT to do in every training I’ve been to, it is only because constantly saying perpetrator is phonetically awkward. I don’t wish to undermine the significance of woman-on-man, man-on-man, or woman-on-woman assault, and I hope you’ll forgive me these imperfections of speech. As long as we’re talking about disclaimers, I have another. There are lots of ways to talk about sexual assault; some are in your face, some are censored; some are subtle, some are candid; some, as we’ve seen today, are even artistic. This is one of those in your face ones. I prefer to think of it as provocative and refreshingly blunt, but either way, I am unapologetic. Rape is not polite, and rape is not P.C, and I have no intention of being so either. I only ask that if you hear something that makes you defensive, or makes you recoil, that you acknowledge that and try to push through to stay engaged; for it is in our moments of discomfort that we stand to grow and learn the most.
What I want to talk to you about today is not bystander intervention programs, or victim counseling and advocacy, though all those resources are essential and are direct bandages applied to wound of sexual assault on this campus. What I want to talk to you today about are power structures. As anybody who’s been in a sexual assault responder training, or has watched an episode of Law and Order SVU, knows, rape is rarely about sex. It is almost always about power. Sexual assault is either a intentional and purposeful expression of dominance and a desire to reaffirm the perpetrator’s power, or, more “innocuously”, it comes about as function of one party having more power than the other and deeming his or her desires a legitimate reason to override the victim-to-be’s rights. So it seems to me, if we want to begin addressing sexual assault, we need to look at where power exists in this school. It’s my hope that you leave here and examine where power exists in your spheres, but more on that later.
It’s easy for me to talk about what I know best, which is the Greek system. It’s not that I think it’s the only power structure, or the most important one, or even that my interpretation of Greek power is the right one. It’s simply what my experience has been.
We constantly hear, “oh it’s unfair sororities have fewer houses, oh it’s unfair they can’t host parties,” but the implications of that refrain are never really extrapolated. In fact, if you’re in a fraternity, you might think you have the short end of the stick – after all, you buy all the beer for campus, you clean up our messes, you are responsible for our social lives. So allow me to explain.
The moment a non-brother enters a house at night, he or she is at a disadvantage. It is the basic power structure of being a guest, and it is not limited to the Greek system – it exists in the real world as well. As a guest, you are dependent on the hosts for continued extension of welcome in their physical space. You dependent on them for access to their privileges, like beers or whatever happens be going on upstairs in rooms. And that dependency defines the parameters of the unequal relationship between members and nonmembers, an inequality that is replicated and magnified as soon as you leave the scope of general social interactions and enter into sexual ones.
A dependent person is not one who can tell their provider of privileges “no”; after all, that is the extension of dependency – you have been given something, and now you owe something in return, in reciprocation. In case you think this isn’t exploited in a sexual manner, that it’s all theoretical, let me assure you, you don’t have to work as a SAPA to know it is. I have seen, in public, brothers demand that a girl “show us your tits” before letting her through the door. Same thing at the bar, waiting to get a beer. At the very least, you will wait until all the prettier girls have gotten their beer, yet another reminder that you have not paid your dues for being there, you have not made up the debt yet, so you had best come up with another way to keep the members happy if you wish to stay there and continue drinking. I have even seen brothers be instructed to either let women upstairs or not depending on her level of “fuckability”. I can only imagine what the units of measurement for that are. You can bet if these public exploitations are going on, there are a lot more happening in private.
I know there are probably a lot of men in the room feeling a little targeted right now, thinking “excuse me, I never intended to send the message that guests are dependent on me.” I know that, and I appreciate that, and this speech is not about making you into the bad guy. Sadly, that dependency is the nature of the system, structured as it is, that is the message non-members receive, whether we would like it to be or not.
The power structures in the Greek system don’t just take place at night. It is every single day, when alumni pour money into their houses, armor them with impunity and untouchable-ness. Over the course of my time at Dartmouth, several houses have come back after being banned for various seemingly unforgiveable behaviors, sexual assault related and otherwise. (For the record, I deeply respect the current men in these houses, but that is irrelevant to the pattern I’m pointing to.) Yet, their alumni are rather heavily invested, both financially and otherwise, in seeing the continuation of their houses’ existences at the College; in fact, they are heavily invested in the College, period, which I’m sure is the unspoken elephant in the room of many an administrative meeting, weighing heavily on the decisions of our College leaders, particularly in this time of financial insecurity. With $100 million to make up in the budget, how can we afford to deny some of our biggest donors?
And so here we are, reneging on our word, excusing what we previously said was inexcusable. What sort of message does that send to students? What incentive is there to change our behavior, if there is never any threat of repercussions for our actions, if we never need to worry that our sexual assaults, or our hazing as I’m sure is on the mind of everybody this week, will result in permanent consequences?
Why do I bring this up? Because it is not only one of the most entrenched and insidious power structures of our school, it is also one of the most unequal. Sororities have nowhere close to that level of connection and devotion from their alumnae. My own house has been saving up for the last few years to buy a flat screen TV – I can guarantee if we had one underage drinker too many, let alone hazing or sexual assault, we’d be out of here and there would be no alumnae to buy our way back, no advisor who’d go to bat for us with the administration. So again, the very definition of victim and perpetrator starts long before a student enters a basement; it is built into the very granite of this school.
Now, I know not all of you are Greek, so you may be asking what does this have to do with me? But it has a great deal to do with you. As I said, power structures are everywhere. I hope that today, and after that example, you will begin to examine and identify them in your lives. Because, more importantly, power structures can be USED to combat sexual assault at Dartmouth. I would go so far as to say they are the key to reducing sexual assault.
We can sit here, continuing to spin our wheels trying to come up with the best bystander intervention program, paying consultant after consultant, but what is the POINT, if we continue to only treat the symptom, and not the problem?! And the problem is those power structures, and the attitudes they engender.
What if we were at a school where captains, or the most respected members of the team hierarchy, intervened when they heard their teammates saying something in the locker-room or at practice? What if we looked out for younger players, rather than laughing at their blacked out freshman antics, or whispering about who they slept with and how many times? What about coaches? There are ways to dissuade students from certain behavior, and you would know better than I. The sexual assaults that I’ve seen prosecuted to completion at this school have resulted in an average two-term suspension – that’s plenty of time to get back for the season. What if all of you had a zero-tolerance policy, wherein assaulting a student would result in the player’s expulsion from the team? Professors, I know you hear more than students wish you did. What if you took it as an obligation to approach students in trouble? What if you made sexual assault the topic of the Committee on Priorities every year, not just once? What if we were at a school where students didn’t have to lobby the administration for one, let alone TWO, Sexual Abuse Awareness Program Coordinators? What if, in fact, we didn’t have a turnover rate of about 2-3 years of our SAAP coordinators, what if the workload and working environment was such that they weren’t literally driven from their positions by the sheer overwhelming volume of victims and responsibilities?
What if the default standard of behavior of students was to view each other as equals, and to treat each other accordingly, and most importantly, when we see that practice being violated, what if we took it as a personal responsibility to right that wrong?
GREEK PRESIDENTS, oh good god, all the “what if”s. We might be in the biggest position of undeserved power and influence that I have ever seen for someone under 22. Yet we rarely do anything with it. In fact, I once had a Greek president tell me, (and he’s in the room tonight, but please don’t feel pinpointed, you are not the first one to say this to me, just the most recent), tell me with regards to a taking a stand – on a position so painfully uncontroversial and obvious – that he wouldn’t do it, because it’s not his responsibility as president to police or affect his brothers’ actions. To anybody who also feels this way, I appreciate your opinion, but with all due respect…you are WRONG. What, I implore of you, is our role if NOT to set a standard of expectations? Uou are your brother’s keeper, as I am my sister’s keeper. When we vacate that responsibility, we become little more than figureheads presiding over a grotesque replication of the Lord of the Flies, replete with all the dangers that extreme privilege and intelligence bring. I once had a Trustee tell me, after I explained to her the sexual assault initiatives I’d been working on, that what I was doing was foolish. I needed to stop trying to engage men and administrators. That the problem would by solved by girls not wearing low cut shirts, or short skirts, or by drinking less and not allowing themselves to be alone with males, because, after all, “boys will be boys”… To the men in the room, doesn’t that make you mad? It makes me livid. It makes me livid that the moral compasses of our College expect you to be running ram shod through the community, like so many uncontrollable greedy toddlers. It’s insulting, and it’s unevolved. I think we’re better than that, and I hope you do too.
Now, you may say, Dani, you’re asking a lot of me. You’re asking me to stand up to my peers, go the extra yard in my already arduous day, when I have my own things, my own work, my own plans, my own family to worry about. Let me tell about the moment I knew it was worth it to go that extra yard.
Let me tell you about the experience of a student, an ‘11, who shared her story at Speak Out event I attended. She was raped when she was a freshman. For those of you who have ever heard a victim speak, and have wondered how it is that they get up in the morning, have wondered what could be worse than having your body violated and repossessed by a foreign entity, your very mind polluted…well, being trapped in a bubble in rural New Hampshire with the one who did it comes pretty damn close. Her attacker got a term, or maybe two terms of suspension, I can’t remember. Either way, he was back soon enough.
This girl spent the next three years of her College life focusing on him. You know, those very same years when the rest of us in this room have been getting drunk with our closest friends, occasionally making it to class in time to learn something mind-blowing, but, in general, focusing on ourselves and the pursuit of whatever it is we care about, whether that be excellence, enlightenment or a really, really good time.
There was not a facet of her day that her attacker didn’t penetrate. When she went to pick classes, she had to work with the Registrar to make sure she wasn’t in the same building as him, because to see him caused such a crippling recollection of what had happened that it rendered her mentally and physically incapable of the process of learning. When was the last time you worried about anything during course selection other than if you were on track for distributive requirements and whether you could push your way into that Pease or Astro class? So, her academics, ostensibly the core of our experience here, were defined by him.
When it came time for room draw, she had to work with ORL to make sure she wasn’t on a floor with him because the thought of being in such proximity left her in abject terror. And if she finally made it out of her dorm, and to class without an encounter, she still had to make accommodations to deal with the aftermath. She changed her eating patterns, eating at weird hours and at the locations he would be least likely to frequent, so as to avoid a run in, even in a public space. Speaking of spaces, her social experience, that other half of our four years, was completely upended; the rape happened in fraternity that her brother was a member of. If she wasn’t safe there, where would she be? She even altered her walking patterns, to ensure she didn’t see her attacker and unravel the progress of recovery she had made. Can you imagine? To have your body violently imposed upon, and, months and years later, have a daily reminder of that moment by having every step of your schedule imposed upon too?
Now, I am a firm believer in the altruistic nature of human beings. I don’t think there’s anybody in this room that could hear that account and not be stirred to help. But, I’ve also often been told I am alone in that opinion, so I will appeal to your more selfish sensibilities as well, and tell you to: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That’s right, all of this was building to a rule we learned in kindergarten.
That girl I just described is you. It is you it is is you it is you. Remember how many people stood up at the beginning. It is, statistically, a matter of time. And if it’s not you, it is your teammate, who for some reason has suddenly started underperforming. It is your little brother who is coming as a ’16. It’s your star student. It’s your mother.
I had a ’76 email me when the Panhellenic policy was announced last spring to tell me that she was assaulted in a basement, and if this policy had existed when she was at school, it would have made all the difference for her to know that the sororities stood with her. You think the impositions I mentioned last only a couple terms? Nope. They last, apparently, for 30 plus years, a lifetime, and they last strongly enough to compel someone to cold-email a student an emotional thank you message. She has children at this school. Just like your mother has children at this school. She is your mother. So don’t go the extra yard because someone got on a stage and told you too. Don’t leave here and change power structures for me. Do it because the victims are quite literally the closest people to you.