by Tara Marin
In the last few months, the #MeToo movement has changed the national conversation around sexual assault and harassment, but legislation that mandates how we confront these issues remains uncertain.
Here on campus, there are multiple organizations and people who are promoting awareness about sexual assault and harassment.
Samantha Monfils, a junior sociology major, is the president of Take Back the Night (TBTN), a campus organization that honors those who have survived sexual assault and works to combat sexual violence on and off campus. The club has a yearly event in Smith Auditorium.
Monfils joined TBTN’s committee as a freshman and is passionate about its cause.
“Take Back the Night is so important to me because I simply cannot tolerate the existence of rape culture any longer, and for me this event is a way to raise awareness that we are in fact living in a culture where women walk home at night with keys in between their fingers, where women get asked what they were wearing the night they got assaulted, and where 1 out of 5 women students on college campuses will experience sexual assault,” she said.
Monfils also feels that the current political climate intensifies TBTN’s mission, as sexual assault is so prevalent in the news, on college campuses, and on social media.
“This year our committee is adjusting to this environment by coming up with more promotional opportunities and more mini events to increase campus consciousness and let people know that this is why we have Take Back the Night in the first place,” she said.
Title IX, a federal law which requires schools that receive federal funds not to discriminate on the basis of sex, and requires schools to address sexual violence among students. Since the law’s passage in 1972, it has been popularized by equal opportunity, most notably within athletics, and has also gained traction in the last two decades as an assurance to victims that their assaulters will not go unpunished.
In 2011, the Obama Administration released the Dear Colleague Letter which highlighted the measures that an institution of higher education must take to protect students. The letter itself was not a legal obligation, as it was issued without the process of public comment that would allow its statements to be legally binding. Yet in investigations and enforcements, the Department of Education treated the letter as if it were law.
In September, Education Secretary Betsy Devos delivered a much anticipated policy speech in which she promised to rollback many Title IX enforcements. Devos acknowledged that sexual misconduct must be confronted, the due process must “incorporate the insights of all parties.” Devos, who has held low profile meetings with men’s rights groups, is essentially rescinding Obama-era policies but has not named what they will be replaced with, only that they will pay attention to the accused, not just the victim.
Monfils, who is well informed of these practices and policies, she explains that this change is driven by the fear of false rape allegations ruining someone’s life, but false allegations are “exceptionally rare” and the people who do make them are “destroying the credibility of true sexual assault victims.”
Monfils also includes that men are actually more likely to experience sexual assault than be accused of it, in a study conducted by the Huffington Post.
“While false allegations do happen, women who are raped are even more frequently accused of making it up or are shamed into silence. Rape victims are constantly blamed and undermined, and accusations of rape are at this point almost necessarily questioned and seen as potentially false. So if we want to talk about ‘men’s rights’, we don’t have to talk about their reputations after being accused of sexual assault because more often than not, their reputations remain intact and unchanged. The best example I can give of this is our president, who has several sexual assault allegations against him, but yet he was still elected president,” Monfils said.
Devos also announced that she will be reducing the budget towards Title IX, which will directly impact TBTN, which exists not only on Manhattan College’s campus, but on campus all over the nation.
“This will gravely impact our Take Back the Night committee as the majority of our budget comes from Manhattan College’s Title IX Office and Vicki Cowan,” Monfils said.
Vicki Cowan, Assistant Vice President for Human Resources and Title IX, also spoke with The Quadrangle about these changes.
“We understand there is concern about the latest statements from the Department of Education regarding sexual assault legislation and Title IX. However, we at Manhattan will do everything in our power to keep our students safe and secure. In addition, we continue to be compliant with New York State law regarding all areas surrounding sexual assault and Title IX. We are continuing to increase our programming each year, regardless of any laws,” Cowan said.
This assurance is crucial, especially at a time when we are realizing the frightening scale of sexual assault. What has elucidated this most is the #MeToo movement, which flooded social media in October and has remained just as powerful since. In its first week it received over 3 million impressions on Twitter alone. The campaign was created years ago as an effort to support victims of sexual assault and provide them with resources to cope. It has united and amplified the voices of millions of women.
Monfils believes that the #MeToo narrative is critical to both the healing process and in provoking a bigger conversation about the magnitude and seriousness of sexual assault.
“MeToo has also sparked another hashtag trend, #HowIWillChange, which is used mainly by men on social media to show solidarity with women and survivors of sexual assault by explaining what they will do to address rape culture,” she said.
Aside from TBTN, the Green Dot program exists on campus to prevent violence as well.
Ryan Bunts, who is an Area Coordinator for Horan Hall and runs the GreenDot program, thinks that GreenDot’s presence on campus is important now more than ever.
“These events occurring in our greater society have underscored how pervasive sexual assault and harassment has become in our society. It is more important than ever that we work together to change the climate on our campus and in general to prevent this from becoming the status quo,” Bunts said.
Bunts reflects on how shocking the #MeToo campaign has been from his perspective.
“For me personally, it was absolutely heart wrenching to log onto social media and see the sheer volume people posting their stories who are close to me yet I had no idea had gone through these experiences. This is reflective of the statistic that many cases of sexual assault still do not end up being reported,” he said.
#MeToo has also incited a great deal of victims who were assaulted by male celebrities to come forward. The list includes Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Jeffrey Tambor, Ed Westwick, Dustin Hoffman, Matt Lauer, and Roy Moore, who is currently running for Alabama’s senate. Yet we know that this isn’t just a problem with high-profile men. There are thousands of everyday women who have also come forward about their experiences of sexual assault by a family member or friend when they were a child, as a student assaulted by a peer, a teacher, professor, or coach, as a working professional assaulted or harassed by a colleague or boss, as a member of the military — the list goes on and on.
“It’s not enough to just wake up to the fact that this is a problem, but to actually start doing something about it,” Bunts continues. “GreenDot seeks to change the social norms on campus to reflect two major points: that sexual assault, dating and domestic violence and stalking are not tolerated on this campus, and that we all have a part to play in ensuring everyone stays safe,” Bunt said.
Bunts explains what GreenDot is doing to ensure this happens.
“This is done through active bystander trainings which are lead by myself, Assistant Dean Tiffany French and Residence Director Ron Jovi Ramirez. These trainings are geared towards helping students recognize barriers which might prevent them from helping someone in harm’s way and finding ways to overcome those barriers to get a peer help if and when they need it. We also have the GreenDot action committee which is a group of students who work towards running promotional events on campus to help spread the message that this program exists and is available to students, faculty and staff,” he said.
To date, GreenDot has trained over 1,000 students and staff with the goal of creating a campus where everyone has the knowledge and tools to prevent sexual violence.
“We don’t get paid extra to do GreenDot, we do it because there is a need for it and we want to make this campus a better and safer place for everyone,” Bunts said.