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‘If we don’t start taking care of each other, no one will’: how women started a movement that redefined how Brown handles sexual assault

1990 ‘rape list’ garnered national headlines, incited campus reckoning

By
University News Editor
Thursday, March 18, 2021

The creation of the Rape List in the 1990s led to a major reckoning on campus in the conversation around sexual violence.

In October 1990, a list of names appeared on the bathroom walls of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library. 

With growing concerns about the University’s inaction on sexual assault — Brown had been consistently unresponsive to criticisms about how it handled sexual assault allegations — women took matters into their own hands. 

The walls soon were covered with writing: not only the names of men who were alleged rapists, but also phone numbers for the Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center, lists of resources for victims of sexual assault and messages of encouragement and empowerment for women.

Women wrote on the walls of the bathroom for a variety of reasons, said Jenn David-Lang ’91, whose work on sexual assault brought her to the forefront of the campus conversation at the time. 

Some women had previously gone to the University with reports of sexual assault but had their concerns ignored. By writing on the bathroom wall, some wanted to warn their peers about specific men, while others wanted to connect with victims of the same perpetrator by leaving phone numbers. Some felt it was the only place they could tell the truth, and others did it because they felt powerless to do anything else. 

And in a time before social media or the internet, “the wall was the medium to have this conversation,” David-Lang said. “In some ways, calling it a ‘rape list’ is a bit of a misnomer … It really was much more of a conversation and dialogue.”

“If we don’t start taking care of each other, no one will,” one woman wrote on the wall. 

By November, Brown’s “rape list” had made national headlines. 

A culture of tacit acceptance

Before she left for Brown in 1987, David-Lang’s cousin warned her about date rape. 

David-Lang responded by asking, “What is that?”

Conversations around rape were very different in the 1980s and ‘90s, David-Lang said. Not only was marital rape legal in Rhode Island up until the ‘80s, but “even the term date rape was not known,” she added. 

Lack of vocabulary limited discussions about sexual assault on campus. “I’m not sure how well known (sexual assault on campus) really was,” David-Lang said.  “When you don’t have a term for something, people don’t talk about it as much.”

She served on a subcommittee made up of students and faculty on the Undergraduate Council of Students that was part of the disciplinary process for those who broke the student code of conduct. At the time, these offenses were split into two categories: major offenses and minor offenses. A major offense was anything that caused major harm or showed “flagrant disrespect for the well-being of others,” David-Lang explained. 

But sexual assault was never named in the student code of conduct.

“Whenever anybody went through the discipline process to deal with that sexual assault, it was often pushed off as a minor offense, or …  the woman was encouraged not to report it at all and to deal with it in some other way,” David-Lang said. “It was so highly problematic on many levels.”

The process for reporting sexual assault required a written complaint followed by an investigation, but “it was not very clear,” David-Lang said. Women were not told their rights, and the Office of Student Life didn’t even seem to know how the process worked. Sometimes women were given incorrect information about what avenues to pursue justice they had. 

Women who did try to report assault were often brushed off by deans or the Office of Student Life, whose staff had never received any form of sensitivity training. The women, David-Lang said, were met with a plethora of excuses for why they had been assaulted: 

“There was alcohol involved,” an administrator might have said.

“Neither of you knew what you were doing.”

“You just had different expectations than he did.”

“It was your boyfriend. Sometimes he forced you and sometimes he didn’t. You can’t have it both ways.”

When a woman did succeed in filing a sexual assault claim, any penalties incurred by the perpetrators did not match the severity of the crime. Often, the men would just have to write an apology letter, and other times, a dean would have “a father-son talk” or lead a mediation session, David-Lang said. Sometimes, the assault was instead tried as an “alcohol offense.”

One woman’s perpetrators, who admitted to sexual assault, just had to run extra laps at football practice.

Another woman who was talked into a mediation session instead of a formal complaint to the Disciplinary Review Board got nothing but an apology letter after being forced to face her rapist without an advocate. “The letter was an apology for a bad breakup, not a letter about sexual assault at all,” she said in a December 1990 article in The Herald. 

She also described inappropriate comments from the deans leading the mediation, who lauded her rapist as a “responsible young gentleman.” The incident was never put into the perpetrator’s file.

To another survivor, the same dean said, “Boys will be boys, and it’s early in the year. They don’t know the rules yet.”

Rape list sends shockwaves through campus

Frustration over the state of sexual assault on campus began to grow in April 1990 after the sexual assault cases of two students were “handled poorly by the University,” David-Lang said. 

Women began presenting proposals to administrators of how sexual assault cases should be handled that month. Their suggestions included standardizing the complaint process for sexual assault and creating both a brochure of complaint options and a student-created booklet presenting the perspectives of survivors.  

The University convened a panel after these cases to begin discussions of how to better handle sexual assault on campus. In one panel meeting in September 1990, members discussed the implementation of Campus Incident Complaint Forms and improved training of sexual assault advocates. 

“Women had no idea how the disciplinary system worked,” David-Lang, who was part of the panel, said in a September 1990 article in The Herald. “They were not able to make an informed choice about whether or not to press charges. And there are few people out there trained and sensitive in sexual assault areas.”

Panel members also mentioned a goal of listing sexual assault as its own offense in the student code of conduct, but others believed that such a policy change would not be accepted by the University general counsel. 

Women were unsatisfied by the results of the panel. The rape list was born from months of frustration. Though no one knows exactly who started it, many women began to add their contributions to the list. 

“They would have preferred to go through the proper channels to bring a complaint of sexual assault,” David-Lang said.  “This was sort of a last resort when women were not being taken seriously by the Brown disciplinary system.”

Though the graffiti was not limited to the names of perpetrators, the names were what the University found to be the most scandalous. 

“The administration did become deeply concerned about the men on the list,” David-Lang said, as did men who found their names on the list or feared that they might. They were all sent letters from a dean, who offered them the option of filing a complaint. Several men did file complaints with the University, but since the creators of the list were anonymous, there was not much that could be done. 

Many of the men who found their names on the list felt it was a “faceless indictment,” according to a November 1990 article in The Herald. Several professed they had done “a confused thing” while drunk or had a relationship gone wrong, while others found themselves on the list completely by surprise and maintained their innocence. 

“From now on when I meet a woman for the first time and she learns my name, I’ll look at her closely (to see if she recognizes my name from the list),” one man said. 

“I know the woman who wrote it, and she’s a very vindictive and unstable person,” said another. 

Other men created a counter-list of women who needed to be raped. 

The University began to paint over the list in dark brown, but women copied down its contents in their notebooks so they could replicate it the next day. It moved several times, appearing in the first floor bathroom of the former dining hall the Gate, Alumnae Hall, the Level A women’s bathroom in the Sciences Library and the basement bathroom of Pembroke Hall. 

University custodians explained to The Herald at the time that it was policy to paint over all graffiti found in bathrooms, regardless of its content. 

But women pushed back against this explanation. “Graffiti maligning women has persisted for years and years with no concern being expressed by custodians, students or administrators,” Jesselyn Radack ’92 wrote in a November 1990 letter to The Herald. 

Radack, who was another prominent organizer against sexual assault on campus, was a member of Brown Against Sexual Assault and Harassment. The organization had mixed feelings about the rape list, reflecting the division more broadly on campus. “People generally have the same problems with the list that they do with women reporting rape in general,” she said in a November 1990 article in The Herald. “Women who charge rape are seen as hysterical and oversensitive, which are the same criticisms being applied to the women who write the names of their assaulters on the wall.”

National attention catalyzes University response

“Your outrage at the administration is justified,” said Dean of Students John Robinson at a November 1990 forum. 

Forced to hold a discussion several weeks earlier than planned, University officials gathered with about 350 students on a Thursday night. A sea of women dressed in red filled the audience, holding signs with phrases male students and administrators had said to them about sexual assault: “You can’t have it both ways.” 

“The men you accused said security coerced them into making that confession. I believe them.” 

“People who were drinking put themselves in a dangerous situation.”

One survivor told her story of being assaulted two years prior. After she reported the incident, a dean said, “I think this can be all boiled down to a case of bad chemistry.” 

At the forum, the dean denied making the statement, so the woman stood and yelled: “Dean (David) Inman, you said that to me two years ago.”

A New York Times reporter sat in the audience of the forum, and the next day, an article appeared in the national section of the newspaper.

“This wasn’t a big topic, you weren’t reading about this in major newspapers, so it was a groundbreaking moment,” David-Lang said. “And then the phone started ringing off the hook, and different people wanted to interview us.”

David-Lang and the other members of the so-called “Committee of Four” were offered interviews on several different national talk shows, with hosts such as Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey. They eventually agreed to an exclusive interview with Donahue, who had the largest audience at the time. 

One day before the women were interviewed, President Vartan Gregorian released a statement about sexual assault on campus. In it, he condemned women for writing the names of men on the walls, but he also condemned sexual assault nationally and on campus. 

On the day of the Donahue interview, the show paid for several bus loads of Brown students to be in the audience for filming. Donahue invited members of the administration. Toby Simon, assistant dean and director of health education at the time, accepted. A set was built of mock bathroom walls with graffiti written out on it, some of which were actual quotes from the rape list. 

“He sensationalized it,” David-Lang said. But the women really wanted to go on national television to “help popularize the idea that it doesn’t matter if you know your perpetrator, but ‘No’ means no … That was a radical idea back then.”

Donahue asked the women questions about sexual assault on campus and the behavior of college men. 

“Finally, the administration starts to worry about whether men’s rights are being infringed upon, so now they start dealing with the issue of sexual assault,” David-Lang said on the show. “It’s a little ironic, but I think we’re thankful for that.” 

Sowing the seeds of change

The University began to make changes after the rape list gained national attention. 

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh, this is not like real life because these are a lot of changes that are happening quickly,’” David-Lang said. “Putting this issue on the national stage helped to accelerate the rate of change.”

The University agreed to meet with women on campus to draft clear sexual assault policies. They created sensitivity training for deans, counselors and advisors and created mandatory rape seminars for first-years to begin the next fall. The administration also appointed an ombudswoman to guide women through the sexual assault complaint process, as well as a coordinator of women’s concerns. They also worked to improve campus safety measures through new programs such as Safe Walk.

Men on campus also began to reevaluate their behaviors. Many reached out to women’s centers and groups to learn how to stay off the list, while others attended date rape seminars. Some men created campus groups to talk about the issue. 

While the rape list succeeded in bringing the issue of sexual assault to the forefront of campus conversation, it was not able to incite all the changes needed to comprehensively mitigate sexual assault. 

“While it was impressive that there were some initial changes, I graduated that spring and I heard things certainly slid back,” David-Lang said.  “It’s a spiral — it’s not a straight trajectory forward.”

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  1. Jane Kaufman says:

    Thank you so much for bringing this back in to the spotlight. I was involved in the movement catalyzed by the rape list, particularly with university policy and peer education. We were able to make changes, but obviously, almost 30 years later, there is still far to go. I applaud all the activists, from the 1990s through today; please keep fighting.
    Jane Kaufman ’94

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