Amherst College’s sexual assault policy has been in the news quite a bit since the publication of a former student’s account of the school’s horrific response to her rape. Yet despite this tragic start to a national discussion, the story of violence on the small Massachusetts campus isn’t just about how terrible assault can be: it’s a story of empowerment that conflicts with our standard narrative of helpless victimhood.
I spoke to two Amherst survivors and student activists (who, full disclosure, are friends of friends—it’s a small campus sexual violence advocacy world): Dana Bolger, who was credited with leading the effort by the New York Times, and a woman, who I’ll call Jill here, who cannot publicly disclose her name due to a confidentiality agreement with the school. Both explained the last year of anti-violence activism on campus as the demand for justice by women driven by their own experiences with assault and harassment.
Dana and Jill are both members of a small survivors’ support group, “Breaking the Silence,” which they identify as the catalyst for their organizing efforts. In the spirit of traditional feminist consciousness raising, the women were politicized by their recognition of repeating patterns. Many women’s concerns had been dismissed by administrators, and many of their rapists still walked the campus. “I learned that I was not alone in having been urged to go home and not pursue disciplinary action,” said Dana. “I also found out who some of the survivors’ assailants were. One of them sat behind me in class. This anger drove me to action.”
And this action has had tangible effects. Despite disappointment that it took a public scandal to spur the administration to action—the school largely ignored private appeals for change for decades—the survivors are encouraged by Amherst’s recent response to their complaints. A large part of their success, Jill believes, can be attributed to their own experiences with violence and the extensive knowledge of Title IX law their frustrations drove them to seek. The campaign has harnessed “a perfect combination of having a bunch of really well-educated survivor-activists and a community that’s incensed by really visceral accounts and images,” she explained.
Not only did their experiences as survivors inform their activism, but both women explained that organizing has been personally empowering. “In many ways, my activism was a crucial part of my healing process,” Dana told me. “Speaking out and demanding change gave me the opportunity to take back my voice after being so utterly silenced by my rapist.”
At a recent community discussion about sexual violence, Jill spoke to a group of fraternity brothers who had designed a misogynistic t-shirt last year. “I told them that I had been assaulted and talked to them about what trauma felt like,” Jill recalled. “I’ve never felt stronger or more like a survivor,” rather than merely a victim. She is now considering a career in legal advocacy.
The survivors’ empowerment through activism challenges popular portrayals of assault as, to use Jenny Diski’s words, “spiritual death.” Often, to prove to rape denialists that violence against women must be taken seriously, we’re driven to paint a picture of this violence as self-shattering, reducing the wounded to empty shells of their previous selves. In doing so, we are de facto accomplices to the crime, silencing and revictimizing those we seek to support. The Amherst activists’ experiences with violence and administrative cruelty were painful and inexcusable, but these survivors prove no rapist could threaten their brains, passion, and will.