Under most circumstances, bathroom graffiti is an ubiquitous, harmless fact of life. But in 1991, scribblings on the Rockefeller Library’s bathroom doors ignited a campus-wide controversy that would revolutionize the University’s sexual harassment policy – or lack of one.
In April 1990, four female students presented their complaints and proposals for a new disciplinary process for handling sexual harassment. One of the students that filed the proposal, who chose to remain anonymous, told the Herald at the time that she was sick of deans saying “‘Oh – well I met with (alleged offenders) and they seem like fine upstanding members of the Brown community.’”
“A woman doesn’t need to hear how fine her attackers are,” she said.
Real change came too slowly for the women involved. For the rest of the academic year, there were meetings and discussions about the policy change, but no tangible progress.
“It was sort of like the Dark Ages on college campuses when it came to date rape and sexual assault. Even I didn’t really know what it exactly entailed or implied. The deans just tended to laugh it off,” said Jenn David-Lang ’91, who was one of the original women who advocated for the policy overhaul, along with Jesselyn Brown-Radack ’92, Christin Lahiff-Semprebon ’91 and Elizabeth Billowitz ’91.
By September, some women at Brown were frustrated enough with the administration’s response that they began writing the names of alleged date rape offenders on bathroom walls at the Rock. Brown-Radack said none of the four women who formally complained to the University participated in the graffiti.
The University tried to remove the inflammatory graffiti as soon as it appeared, but new lists kept popping up. Soon they spread beyond the Rock to bathrooms on Pembroke campus and at Faunce House.
For a while, it was just graffiti. Then the Anita Hill scandal broke. Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, came forward with accusations that Clarence Thomas, then a nominee to the Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her years earlier while he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. The media frenzy that arose around Hill’s allegations and Thomas’ denials initiated unprecedented, open dialogue about sexual harassment in the American workplace.
It wasn’t long before this national fever hit Brown.
After a Herald columnist wrote about the rape lists, debate about the graffiti and Brown’s attitude toward sexual harassment was suddenly all over campus.
At an open campus discussion, at which Dean of Student Life John Robinson hoped to lead an organized discussion about sexual harassment, a group of women silently took over the affair. They arranged for a different woman to stand up every 30 seconds, to represent the frequency that a woman is raped. By the end, according to then assistant dean of student life Toby Simon, about 40 people were standing.
Such creative activism attracted the attention of a New York Times reporter who was at the event, and subsequently brought the rape lists national press coverage. The four women who had initially complained to the administration appeared with Simon on the Phil Donahue show, promoting the case for policy reform.
“That’s what really got us into (President) Vartan Gregorian’s office,” said David-Lang. “After that, it became clear that we would have a sexual misconduct policy. And soon.”
Gregorian published a statement in The Herald immediately following the show’s airing that promised swift action. Meetings were held almost on a weekly basis between deans and groups of passionate, angry women, led by the four who appeared on Donahue.
But many of the accused men and their supporters said the rape lists were inexcusable, generating false accusations that ruined innocent lives. One male student, who wished to remain anonymous, said he almost transferred schools because of the social ostracism he faced.
He vehemently denied any kind of sexual assault, saying his accuser was simply disgruntled with their relationship and wanted an outlet.
“There was definitely a mob mentality with the whole thing,” he said. “Many women started jumping on this bandwagon, publicly accusing men just because they could get away with it.”
Although President Sheila Blumstein said she recognized that policy changes regarding sexual harassment were in order, she said the graffiti at the Rock presented a message lacking strength and integrity.
“I do not believe in any means to an end,” she said. “If students wanted to make accusations, they should have done so officially to the institution. We were working on a new policy, and were growing more sensitive to student needs without these unfair accusations.”
In the end, the University initiated a multi-step policy that for the first time explicitly defined sexual misconduct as a punishable offense in the disciplinary code, allowed for separation measures between the accuser and the accused and provided counseling for all parties involved, regardless of the outcome of disciplinary procedures.
Administrators also designated a one-hour section of first-year orientation to sexual assault education, and Safewalk was initiated for additional student safety. Professor Barbara Tannenbaum was appointed as the official ombudsperson for women’s concerns on campus. These changes were a landmark victory that set a precedent for other universities, Blumstein said.
Between 1991 and 1997, Simon said that confidence grew in the new system, and more and more students felt comfortable coming forward with cases of sexual harassment. She attributed this confidence not just to the policy change, but also to a more educated campus population.
Simon said she is a staunch believer in the power of student advocacy groups. After the 1991 events, she became the driving force behind SAFE, a student-run peer education program of about 100 students that led the orientation discussion of sexual harassment by performing an interactive theater skit all over campus to educate students about how to handle uncomfortable situations. Word of SAFE’s witty performances traveled throughout universities in the Northeast, and eventually became a national model for creating a more sophisticated consciousness about sexual harassment on college campuses.
“People needed to know that sexual harassment was not the same type of offense as forging checks. It’s a lot more blurry, but still a crime,” Simon said.