Enough bitching: Bennington Initiative to Counter Harm (BITCH) makes its inaugural appearance during event last Thursday
Lizzy Weal '17
“One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.” - Carol Hanisch
NB: Included in this article, at the very end, is the summary of all of the quantitative data used by BITCH during the event. For reasons of confidentiality and anonymity, the quotes presented on Thursday have not been included; submitters were explicitly told that their personal information would only be used during the event and would not be given to any outside parties for any reason.
This past Thursday night, the Bennington Initiative To Counter Harm (BITCH) hosted their inaugural town hall style event in the student center. The event was intended to solicit community-wide participation and conversation regarding what is arguably the most pressing issue not only at Bennington but on every American college campus: the pandemic of sexual violence that characterizes the experiences of almost every student, and a corresponding administrative response that shelters convicted rapists, fails to indict most abusers, and forces victims into silence, further compounding their existing trauma.
The core objective of the event was, put simply, to allow and empower people to speak, and to in turn to be heard. Like almost every other institutional or social venue, sexual violence at Bennington is rarely spoken about in anything but hushed tones in very private interactions, and has rarely (if ever) been publicly addressed in an explicit and collective manner. The atomized nature of sexual violence makes it almost impossible to generate any sort of effective protest of it and makes developing effective strategies extremely difficult: it is remarkably challenging to shoot at a target you cannot see. In order to address the issue of ignorance and silence, BITCH members actively solicited anonymous submissions from the Bennington community regarding their experiences with sexual violence on campus, and received roughly 30 submissions. The majority of these were submitted by self-identified survivors.
The event was divided into three separate sections to reflect the thematic similarities of the various submissions: survivor, abuser, and Bennington infrastructure. Each of these categories was structured in such a way as to first illustrate the thematic similarities between the 30 submissions using quotes as well as numerical data, and then opened up for community participation and dialogue. The turnout was, in a word, unprecedented. 170 people RSVP’d on the Facebook event, but one individual told a few BITCH members that they did a headcount at the very peak of attendance and that, at some point, more than 300 people were in the Student Center. This included not only students but professors, staff, and a handful of administrators.
Much of the conversation centered around the existing social culture at Bennington and specific false beliefs about Bennington’s exceptional status. There was an extensive exchange regarding this year’s Dress to Get Laid, and specifically how police intervention framed the school’s epidemic of sexual violence as a problem of outsiders. Numerous individuals stated that they feel there is an intense belief that Bennington is, in many ways, utopic and fundamentally different from other, larger schools, and that because of this, sexual violence simply does not happen here. The lack of institutions considered notoriously violent at other schools, namely fraternities and sports teams, coupled with the common “soft boy” archetype - the shy, gentle, artistic boy who is the antithesis of the stereotypically belligerent, openly misogynistic frat boy - lends itself to the depiction of known predators as simply “bad boys” who many people openly defend or, at the very least, never confront about their behavior. More than one individual stated that those who speak out about abuse are actively ostracized and their testimony derided, while known abusers retain their quasi-celebrity status and do not suffer in any regard. One student said that the difference between the manner in which all-male and mixed gender groups discuss sexual violence is stark and horrifying. More than one comment addressed the fact that many people at Bennington, including professors, frequently make sexual violence into a joke.
Another collective theme dealt with the seemingly total lack of information and dialogue surrounding sexual violence on this campus. Numerous students raised the fact that they had never once had an in-house conversation about the local nature of predatory behavior, and that people simply do not talk about their experiences. When it is discussed, many people said it is with a tone of extreme resignation and fear. A number of freshmen stated that they were terrified because of what they have been told by their peers about what to expect at parties from specific individuals, and many more students of all ages stated that they felt trapped by the ubiquity of “watch out for him” stories. One moderator paraphrased a freshman who had asked her “Should I expect to get raped here?” A few students spoke to the fact that people adopt a “herd mentality” to stave off the threat of becoming victims of sexual violence because it seems to be waiting around every turn. As one individual said near the end, it is the complete lack of communication and collective awareness of this issue that allows it to proliferate without abandon, and that it will only stop if we begin to actually talk about it.
A final common similarity between the comments addressed existing institutional realities that make specific scenarios of sexual violence that much more serious. The issue of wealth and predator immunity was brought up more than a few times, specifically in regard to administration refusing to expel convicted rapists or allowing them to return to campus over and over despite repeated verdicts of guilt. More than one person stated that they felt particularly disenfranchised by the existing structures at Bennington because they were not white, not straight, and not female, and that as a result their silence was compounded because they knew they would be taken even less seriously than an average white, straight, American victim.
Moderators stated that this was only the first of many events to come, but that all of the work they have and will continue to put into this issue and their work will be entirely pointless if people do not carry Thursday night’s discussion out of the student center and into their everyday lives and conversations. As one BITCH member stated at the very end, “This is not our job, but it is our problem.”
BITCH is currently accepting and encouraging anyone who wants to work with them to submit their name to an individual member or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The group welcomes any comments or questions regarding the event, especially in light of the fact of the overwhelming amount of labor that every member put into it in both productive and emotional capacities and a desire to improve upon events further in the future.
Sexual violence, trauma, and psychological reactions
National data shows that 95 percent of survivors develop PTSD-like symptoms in the weeks following their assault, and more than a third continue to exhibit these symptoms several months later.
28 of the survivor stories made some reference to the development of PTSD-like symptoms.
11 described how being assaulted caused them to develop a number of destructive, paranoid, and suicidal behaviors that significantly impacted their daily lives.
o Of these 11 survivors, 3 described the development of drug and alcohol dependence.
o 3 survivors explicitly stated that their assault had negatively impacted their basic emotional, social, and psychological states so severely that they attempted suicide.
o 5 survivors described how their assault caused them to develop a number of different physical and psychological traumatic responses including paranoia and flashbacks.
6 of these 28 submissions included detailed descriptions of the extreme self-loathing and self-blame that they felt regarding their assault and their subsequent reactions to the assault.
Age and power as factors of campus sexual violence
Existing research shows that roughly 84 percent of students who are assaulted are freshmen or sophomores at the time. More than 50 percent of all campus sexual violence takes place between August and November, and around 1 in 6 freshmen - 15 percent - are assaulted, and specifically while they are intoxicated.
13 of the 30 submissions we received stated that their assault had involved significant differences in age, power, and social status between the survivor and their abuser.
9 stated that they had been assaulted their freshman year.
5 of these described the perpetrators as upperclassmen, and mostly seniors.
8 of these 13 submissions described their abusers as popular, academically and institutionally powerful, and well-respected, and that their social visibility and presence terrified them into remaining silent.
Dynamics of reporting sexual assault
Existing statistics concerning reporting rates of campus sexual violence suggest that somewhere between less than 5 and 10 percent of victims file a report with their school, while roughly two thirds tell a friend or peer about their assault.
12 of the 30 submissions we received stated that even though they had been assaulted, they chose not to report it, or chose not to complete the process after initially filing a report.
o 6 of these 12 submissions described the reporting process as needlessly retraumatizing, as reporting was felt to be useless.
o 6 survivors stated that they chose not to report because they were convinced they were alone in their experience, or that their reaction to their assault was overblown because other community members appeared to not believe sexual violence was a problem.
Ignorance regarding the experience of sexual violence
8 of the 30 submissions stated that they had not even realized that what they had gone through was sexual violence until months or even years after it had occurred, and that they wish that they had had a more developed understanding of consent and sexual violence.
Culture of terror produced by continued abuser presence on Bennington campus
Of the 30 submissions, 23 explicitly described how they had significantly altered where they went on campus because of the likelihood that they would see their abuser, even if they had been kicked off campus or graduated.
16 stories referenced the threat or actual experience of encountering an abuser who still attended school in some public space on campus and the subsequent impact on their movement and mental state.
o 3 of these involved specific implications for survivor’s living spaces.
o 2 involved a violation of a no contact order by the abuser
5 specifically discussed their own terror in response to documented abusers who no longer attended Bennington but who frequently, and oftentimes despite their conviction, returned to campus.
13 described a general environment of terror caused by their abuser’s, or abusers generally, continued presence.
Typical abuser characteristics and serial nature of abuse
Though data is limited, what research does exist suggests that roughly two thirds, or between 60 and 65 percent, of self-reported male rapists on college campuses are repeat offenders
12 of the 30 submissions made explicit reference to the fact that abusers at Bennington serially assault female students; that a significant portion of students are collectively aware of numerous serial predators on campus; and that survivors tend to be completely unaware of their abuser’s serial behavior until much later.
Chronic administrative failure to expel procedurally verified abusers
Research is extremely scarce, but two national surveys of administrative reactions to convicted abusers suggest that only 10 to 25 percent are ever actually expelled, while the vast majority are suspended or given “educational sanctions”.
13 of the 30 stories made explicit reference to abusers being allowed to graduate, return to campus after time off, or simply leave despite being found guilty for serial abuse.
· 5 of these 13 statements specifically emphasized the role that money plays in protecting abusers from administrative retribution.
Bennington infrastructure data
Central role of parties and alcohol regarding campus sexual violence
Existing national data surrounding the relationship between alcohol, parties, and campus sexual violence suggests that the vast majority of sexual violence occurs at parties held in residential living spaces. Alcohol consumption and extreme intoxication are the most significant factors in campus sexual violence, particularly regarding freshman assault
12 of the 30 submissions made some reference to Bennington’s party culture and the role that alcohol, and specifically blacking out, plays in exacerbating the culture of sexual violence on campus.
11 of the 12 statements explicitly cited the role that alcohol plays in making parties into uniquely dangerous environments on campus.
Local cultural apathy and acceptance of sexual violence by students
21 of the 30 submissions referred to an established culture that protects rapists, terrorizes survivors, and teaches students that sexual violence is a joke.
9 of these 21 statements described instances wherein people remained friends with known abusers, or simply quietly accepted the regular victimization of students by serial abusers.
Another 9 of these 21 submissions specifically referenced the role that non-abusers play in protecting abusers and terrorizing survivors.
Out of these 21 submissions, 6 explicitly referenced the Bennington rumor mill as it applies to survivors, with the specific effect of humiliating and ostracizing them.
Existing sexual misconduct processes and procedures
20 of the 30 statements made some sort of reference to individual instances where the existing sexual misconduct procedures malfunctioned or were distorted.
6 described how a number of different designated sexual misconduct actors had no actual knowledge of how sexual misconduct procedure worked.
15 of these 20 statements described the manner in which the existing structures regarding sexual misconduct mistreated, alienated, or disempowered survivors.
10 of these 20 submissions described how survivors who filed reports had their individual reports and investigations distorted or otherwise mishandled as a result of behavior by individual administrative actors.
- Out of these 20 statements, 17 made explicit reference to the impact their experiences with administration have had upon their impressions of the school and its actual interests.