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Silenced no more: Survivors of sexual violence turn to Instagram, demanding to be heard

Voices of Brown, started as a safe space for survivors, has surged into a movement to prevent future harm

By
Metro Editor
Monday, November 2, 2020

In the fall of 1990, the names of alleged rapists began to appear in marker pen on the walls of female bathroom cubicles in the Rockefeller Library. The so-called “rape list” made national headlines. Janitorial staff scrubbed only for the names to reappear. 

Students were frustrated with the University’s inaction on the issue of sexual assault, believing that senior administrators were more concerned with protecting the rights of male students accused of sexual assault than with supporting sexual assault survivors and making campus safer.

Three decades later, much has changed. The University has a Title IX Office. Sexual assault and harassment are explicitly mentioned on the Code of Student Conduct. Incoming undergraduate and graduate students are required to participate in an online tutorial that covers bystander intervention as well as University rules, regulations and resources regarding sexual misconduct.

But much, some say, has remained the same. And now, instead of taking pens to bathroom walls, students are turning to Instagram to share their experiences, find community and advocate for change. 

More than 100 accounts of sexual violence on campus have been shared in recent months on Voices of Brown, an Instagram page founded in June by Arianna Ferretti ’21. Students and alums are invited to submit their accounts of sexual assault and harassment to be posted anonymously on the page. 

For campuses nationwide, Brown included, few issues are as pressing as preventing and responding to incidents of nonconsensual sexual contact,” University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald. 

“Brown has taken a strategic and sustained approach to confronting sexual misconduct and encouraging a culture in which community members report incidents, seek assistance and trust in a fair, impartial process to investigate and resolve complaints,” Clark wrote.

But Voices of Brown offers insight into students’ experiences of confusing or inaccessible University resources and a persistent fear among survivors that they won’t be heard or believed. 

‘Community need’

It was after learning that yet another one of her friends had experienced sexual assault that Ferretti decided to launch the page this summer. 

Ferretti is a survivor. And, like many survivors, she hasn’t formally reported her assault. “I wasn’t looking for any disciplinary action,” she said. “I just wanted the harm that was done to be acknowledged.” 

Galvanized by the Black Lives Matter movement’s use of social media in recent months, Ferretti envisioned a dedicated space where survivors could share their stories and find solidarity, while evading the suffocating scrutiny that many survivors face if they attach their name to their allegations. 

Since its inception, the page has amassed more than 3,500 followers. It is one of dozens of similar anonymous accounts set up by students at academic institutions across the globe. As well as the experiences of survivors, Voices of Brown has posted educational resources about transformative justice, summaries of University assault statistics and information about the shifting federal Title IX policies

Until last week, the entire Voices of Brown team was anonymous to the broader public. Now, though two new anonymous students will continue to manage the Instagram page, Ferretti and other members are making their involvement publicly known so that they can more freely and vocally contribute to Voices of Brown’s organizing efforts, which include partnering with student organizations and coordinating with the Title IX Office.

What began as an effort to offer survivors a space to share their experiences has since grown into a movement, led by a 13-member team to improve sexual violence prevention education on Brown’s campus and prevent future harm. “We expected to remain an account that was just posting these stories,” Woodruff said. “But it quickly became clear that there was more community need than that.”

At first, followers and submissions to the page trickled in during the summer. Then they surged in what seemed like a tidal wave. 

A couple weeks after Ferretti created the account, Carter Woodruff ’21.5 messaged Voices of Brown to offer a helping hand when it dawned on her that only one person was sifting through submissions and posting them on the account. “Neither of us could have really anticipated the chaos that was about to come,” said Woodruff, who is also a survivor.

Seeing that their experiences were seemingly so ubiquitous, the first few weeks were traumatizing, they said. Reading story after story was “like I was being hurt all over again,” Ferretti recalled.

“As a survivor, you hope with all your heart that this isn’t happening to other people,” Woodruff said. “And it is.”

Though Ferretti and Woodruff have spoken to national media outlets about the Instagram account and the broader movement to center and support survivors, their conversations with The Herald are their first times speaking publicly without anonymity.  

The majority of the posts on Voices of Brown detail alleged assaults committed by partners, friends or friends of friends. Many involve verbal coercion. This, Woodruff and Ferretti said, speaks to persisting misunderstandings, on campus and nationwide, about what constitutes sexual violence. People understand that physically violent rape is wrong, Woodruff said. “But I think a lot of people don’t really know what manipulation means.”

‘Out of fear’

Voices of Brown exists amid the reality that more than a quarter of female and 6.8 percent of male undergraduates in the United States experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, incapacitation or violence. 

Between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019, the University’s Title IX Office received 104 allegations of prohibited conduct or inappropriate behavior, an increase from 92 for the 2017-18 year and 59 for the year prior. The 2019-20 report has yet to be made publicly available.

But the actual number of sexual assaults — on College Hill and nationwide — is almost certainly much higher, because many cases are never reported. Reporting rates are suspected to be particularly low on college campuses because of the likelihood that survivors and perpetrators will know each other or interact with each other in the future in a lecture, at a party or walking through a hallway. 

“I think many individuals hesitate or do not connect with the Title IX Office as a resource out of fear that we will force them to submit a complaint or that we will share their stories broadly,” Rene Davis, the University’s Title IX program officer, wrote in an email to The Herald. 

But understanding that a report is different than a formal complaint, which entails an investigation, is vital, Davis wrote. “Individuals can make a report knowing we will listen without judgment, handle their case with care and confidentiality, focus on support and provide options on how we will work through their experiences.”

‘More work to do’

Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972, prohibits “discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity that receives federal funding.” 

The Trump administration has redefined sexual harassment to a narrow range of actions that are “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive,” limiting the types of sexual assault universities are required to investigate. Alleged misconduct must also have happened either on campus or “in conjunction with an education program or activity.” 

This introduces new barriers for survivors coming forward with their allegations and makes it more difficult for students to understand their legal rights, students, women’s rights and education groups say

The University is in the process of developing a sexual and gender-based misconduct policy to address behavior that falls outside of the Trump administration’s narrower jurisdiction of Title IX. This policy is in the final stages of review and will hopefully be available before the end of the semester, Davis wrote.

In recent years, the University has worked to better educate the campus community about Title IX, she added. Results from the annual Association of American Universities Campus Climate Survey at Brown demonstrate that these efforts are gradually improving students’ perception of sexual assault as a problem on campus, knowledge of resources and confidence in the University’s approach to supporting individuals. Still, in 2019, just over a fifth of students reported having little or no knowledge about where to find help with issues related to sexual misconduct.

“While we have made improvements since 2015, we recognize there is more work to do,” Davis wrote.  

Her office is revamping the Title IX website and will be implementing an online reporting form as a mechanism to distinguish the differences between submitting a report and filing a complaint. She is developing a brochure on seeking help and a set of FAQs about the reporting process. 

Though Davis does not have a formal advising relationship with any student group, she has been in communication with Voices of Brown to answer questions about University and federal policy. 

‘A safer place’ 

In September, Voices of Brown launched a year-long partnership with the men’s crew team to form an anti-sexual violence accountability plan. A crew team member reached out to the Instagram page about a potential collaboration in the summer. Not long after, the team’s captains were on a Zoom call with Voice of Brown staffers “talking about our team culture and figuring out ways in which we could make it a safer place,” said Gus Hirschfeld ’21, co-captain of the team. 

Across time zones and via webcams, the students got to work brainstorming ideas: having sober monitors at parties; clearly labeling coolers that may hold alcohol; and routinely checking in with Voices of Brown to address progress. While the pandemic has put the large gatherings that necessitate these measures on pause, the team remains hopeful that when typical college nightlife resumes, they will be better equipped to foster a safe environment for all. 

But Hirschfeld was quick to foreground: “Doing this work doesn’t absolve us of any past wrongdoings.” His team is not perfect, he added. “This doesn’t give us a free pass on harms that might have occurred before.”

For Woodruff, partnering with student organizations especially those that may have been linked to misconduct in the past is about opening space for questions such as: “What do you love about your parties? What do you love about your culture? And given all that, what can we do to mitigate the harms that those things you love are causing, while still preserving the fun environment?”

Creating lasting change

While Instagram is a relatively new tool in an organizer’s tool box, conversations about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses and the inaccessibility of resources to support survivors through their recovery are not. 

“It’s inspiring to see how this generation of student activists is fighting back against an issue that seems to be timeless,” said Amy Littlefield ’09, “and using a platform that we didn’t have available to us when we were students.”

Littlefield is a founding member of Brown Alumni to Stop Assault, a group which hopes to harness the power of the alum community to hold the University accountable to lasting change. 

“We wanted to make sure there was a way to create institutional memory that would prevent the kind of amnesia that is so intrinsic to student activism,” she said. “Because that amnesia allows the institution to continue getting away with failing its students on the issue of sexual violence.”

Woodruff and Ferretti hope that the public-facing nature of the Instagram page will awaken the broader University community to the persisting scale of sexual assault on campus and stir lasting cultural change. Voices of Brown has joined an ecosystem of efforts to make campus a safer place for all, such as the University’s Transformative Justice Program and BWell resources including Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and Education advocates and Sexual Assault Peer Education

The Instagram page is only the start, Woodruff and Ferretti said. It is an ever-growing digital scrapbook through which survivors at Brown have raised their voices, a chorus calling for change. They hope people are listening.

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