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Editorial: Voices Still Unheard

In late June, Voices of Brown launched among a wave of similar accounts sharing anonymous submissions from sexual assault survivors. The purpose of the account is to serve as “a safe and dependable space for survivors within the Brown community to be heard and validated.” Today, more than 100 horrific accounts of rape, assault and other forms of harassment have been published on the Instagram page, underscoring the structural violence embedded in the culture of our campus. 

We hear echoes of grief, guilt, confusion and self-blame in every single one of the account’s posts. Each and every survivor inspires us with their strength in sharing their story. But their stories also haunt us. As much as Voices of Brown grew out of a desire to empower survivors, it also emerged out of urgent necessity. The very need for accounts like this one is the inherent problem, stemming from a campus culture that both overlooks occurrences of sexual violence and fails to provide survivors with adequate systems of support and reparation. Furthermore, existing systems are often only a source of re-traumatization. 

From this harmful environment and its root causes — histories of racism, sexism and class privilege embedded in our University, older than the nation itself — Voices of Brown has emerged the only way it can: through anonymous stories of lived experiences, pleading to be heard by a system that has failed to truly protect them in the manner it claims to. In the context of a broken system, it is our collective responsibility to take this platform and these stories seriously, and consider how we can help heal a culture that causes so much harm. 

Despite the likely misconception that, as the “progressive” Ivy, Brown is immune from this repugnant, oppressive behavior, the stories published are a sobering reminder that this  misconduct pervades and is routinely legitimized by our campus culture. In the 2018-19 academic year alone, there were 104 incidents of “prohibited conduct or inappropriate behavior” reported to the Title IX Office, with over 65 of those constituting sexual assault or sexual/gender-based harassment. But the number of reported cases is nowhere near representative of the true rates of sexual violence and harassment experienced on Brown’s campus, based on the volume of experiences shared on Voices of Brown and broader studies that have found far greater prevalence of sexual assault at universities like ours. 

Our campus, like most college campuses around the country, faces an institutional history of sexual misconduct and a disappointing track record of acknowledging and addressing it. This has led survivors to resort to drastic measures, such as publicizing lists of alleged perpetrators on the bathroom walls of the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library in 1990 and, most recently, on bathroom walls throughout campus and on an anonymous Facebook page in 2017. While we do not necessarily condone these lists as a means of recourse, they are a cogent reminder that the same issues detailed by survivors on Voices of Brown have plagued this campus for decades.

But as much as we laud this account for providing the necessary safe space for people to share these experiences, we are also deeply troubled that this seems to be the only outlet many of these survivors have. While we commend the University for making progress in increasing accessibility of systems for reporting sexual misconduct, these stories underscore the reality that those systems still fail so many. Posts on Voices of Brown have expressed the belief that their perpetrators often have a level of privilege that allows them to get away with doing harm, and that the University “doesn’t reprimand perpetrators so they can go on and live.” The page’s moderators have even publicly expressed their view that Brown’s response to sexual harm on campus has been woefully insufficient. And with the federal government’s recent changes to Title IX requirements, which require survivors to endure live hearings, official avenues for justice are now even less accessible. Currently, the University is working to develop a policy that addresses misconduct that falls outside the Trump administration’s narrower scope of Title IX, but even the most comprehensive approach won’t be able to undue certain damages associated with the new federal law. 

Yet the University does not bear sole responsibility for addressing these failures: Our culture desperately needs to change, too. Sexual assault and harassment are clearly pervasive and persistent at Brown, and we all play a role in perpetuating a culture that normalizes these particular violences. It’s a widespread misconception that perpetrators are rare and easily identifiable through their everyday demeanor — never the neighbor in our halls or the classmate in our seminar. The reality is that the vast majority of people who experience sexual violence do so at the hands of someone they know. Many of the posters on Voices of Brown noted that one of the main sources of self-doubt and unwillingness to reach out for support was the fear that others would refuse to believe their perpetrator in particular could do such a thing.

The stories shared on Voices of Brown underscore the fact that sexual misconduct rarely manifests itself in immediately visible ways like the most infamous examples do. Rather, it comes in the form of this aforementioned culture that legitimizes and even respects sexual harassment — a point that multiple posts emphasize about the culture of many sports houses on campus, where people are routinely evaluated based on their appearances for entry into a party and are groped and harassed once inside the door. It comes in the form of intimate partner violence, including those who coerce and emotionally manipulate their partners into agreeing to sexual acts. It comes in the form of friends who stand by idly as their friends are led away into unsafe situations — or in some cases, friends who facilitate the assault or harassment themselves. 

In reckoning with these traumatic occurrences, Voices of Brown offers something sorely missing from our society today: the opportunity to candidly share one’s experience of sexual assault. Even those who decide to formally report their experience to authorities can be empowered by the page, amplifying their voice by speaking to a broader audience. And when sharing their stories anonymously online, survivors are afforded a precious amount of privacy and dignity. They do not have to deal with constant questioning or doubts about their honesty. They get to finally control the narrative to a story that might otherwise rob them of that control.

While Voices of Brown may be a symptom of a society that does not listen to its survivors, it can also be part of the cure. Before fully addressing the problem of sexual assault, we must first recognize its prevalence and our inadvertent complicity in continuing it. We must recognize the profound pain felt by survivors. And we must recognize the continual, systemic failures plaguing our school and our society at large. Anonymous storytelling is no replacement for actionable policy improvements, but it can inspire the conversations that do lead to such changes. And more broadly, pages like Voices of Brown can help dismantle the stigma surrounding sexual assault, reminding survivors that their stories are worth telling. So many survivors have made the brave decision to share their stories. Now, it’s our job to listen and ask ourselves: How can we truly heed these voices and work toward the change they call for?

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board. This editorial was written by its editor and assistant editor, Krista Stapleford ’21 and Johnny Ren ’23, and members Amanda Brynn ’21, Lola Olabode ’21, Vicky Phan ’21 and Dylan Tian ’21.


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