“Take Back The Night” opens up conversation around sexual assault

By Caroline Chen | April 20, 2023

Students silently march past Hoover Tower to show solidarity for survivors of sexual assault on Tuesday evening. Photo: MARK ALLEN CU/The Stanford Daily.

This story contains references to sexual assault.

As the sun set on Main Quad, hundreds of students silently marched through. The demonstrators carried posters that read, “Prevention Demands Equity” and “Clothes ≠ Consent,” and many wore shirts that said, “Take Back The Night.”

As part of a national campaign by the Take Back The Night (TBTN) nonprofit organization, the Stanford SHARE (Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Education) Office organized a campus-wide rally, march and speak-out Tuesday night to raise awareness about sexual violence on campus and show support and hear stories from survivors and allies.

Around 200 students gathered in White Plaza at 7 p.m. to hear speeches from SHARE Director Marti McCaleb, Ava DeConcini ’25 and Marisa Woo ’25. At the rally, McCaleb said that in the past school year, the Title IX office received 214 total reports of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct on campus, which for a campus of 16,000 students falls below the national statistic that 13% of college students experienced sexual assault while in college. McCaleb attributed the low reporting rate at Stanford to a lack of trust.

“Tonight is not about reporting,” McCaleb, who said she attended her first TBTN event 22 years ago as a student at the University of Alabama, said. “What tonight is about awareness and storytelling and trust… What I see when I look at Stanford is a community that has lost trust in the institution and each other and in our ability to make change.”

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). This year, SAAM’s 22nd anniversary, honors the theme “Drawing Connections: Prevention Demands Equity” which addresses the need for intersectionality and for “individuals, communities, organizations, and institutions to change ourselves and the systems surrounding us.”

A 2020 campus climate survey showed that 80% of transgender, gender queer or nonconforming (TGQN) undergraduate and coterm students and 70% of undergraduate and coterm women reported experiencing at least one harassing behavior, including verbal crude remarks or physical touching, since entering Stanford. In the same survey, two-thirds of TGQN Ph.D. students and almost half of Ph.D. women said they had experienced harassing behaviors.

At the rally, Woo shared her story about healing from sexual assault she experienced in her freshman year, from feeling “dense, empty nothingness” and avoiding talking about it to acknowledging that “it is a part of who [she is] but not all that [she is].” She was a speaker at Beyond Sex Ed, a program for incoming Stanford students to learn about sexuality.

DeConcini spoke about an art project she was working on for her winter quarter class “One in Five: The Law, Politics, and Policy of Campus Sexual Assault”: a beanbag embossed with the experiences of 100 anonymous students with sexual assault on campus. She said she hoped that viewers, upon sitting on the finished product, would feel the same discomfort as did all of the anonymous students.

“The idea is that it’s a lot easier to sit down than it is to stand back up,” DeConcini siad. “Sexual assault is difficult to process as a society when we don’t know how to talk about it amongst ourselves… I think there’s a lot of power in public art.”

DeConcini said that she believes that it is important to stop feeding into “taboos” around sexual assault and address the topic directly, in order to end generational cycles of silence.

Organizations including Sexual Violence Free Stanford (SVFree) have advocated for Stanford to take stronger action against sexual violence on its campus, and some students have criticized the University’s sexual assault reporting process as confusing or difficult to navigate.

The Daily has reached out to the University for comment.

Following the rally, SHARE distributed posters and shirts and led attendees through a silent march around campus.

Maxim Ivanov ’26 said that in the silence, he “could just hear their words echo” in his mind.

“I really liked that contrast. It was powerful,” Ivanov said. “Thinking about all of the issues that are so deeply rooted into this place just sort of gave me a different perspective about campus… even though it’s so glamorized, so beautiful, I think that the march revealed what could lie beneath.”

The march led the attendees to Toyon Hall, which served as a location for survivors of sexual assault and their allies to speak about their experiences, including experiences of assault on Stanford’s campus, in front of an audience of peers and other members of the Stanford community. Some speakers planned to talk, but many others spoke after hearing others’ stories.

Ivanov said that he is a new member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, which along with Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity promoted TBTN as a mandatory event for all of its members. Among the crowd were also dozens of members of Sigma Chi and Kappa Sigma fraternities, both of which attendees said recommended their members to attend.

On average, one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college, and Greek life statistically plays a role. Men in fraternities are three times as likely as their non-Greek peers to commit rape. Women in sororities are 74% more likely than their non-Greek peers to experience rape.

Sigma Chi member Sanjay Swamy ’26 said that his fraternity attended the event because of “a duty to show support for sexual assault awareness, just because it is so prevalent in every society and every facet of life… especially in Greek life.”

Both Ivanov and Swamy said that the fraternity culture around sexual assault made them hesitant about rushing, but was something they sought to change.

After the event ended, Ivanov said he had conversations with a few other members of Phi Kappa Psi about how they could “do [their] best to create a better culture here.” While they couldn’t “directly influence other fraternities,” he said that they hope to “set a better standard” by making their own events “more safe and more enjoyable for everyone,” and minimizing risks of harassment.

“The fact that I personally know some of the speakers that came up, who hadn’t planned on speaking, also showed me the reality of how devastating this issue is on campus and just ingrained in our society,’ Ivanov said. “That was really, really impactful for me. I’ve actually been thinking about it [the day after], all day.”

Some participants of the night’s events said that they felt TBTN brought necessary attention to discussions about sexual assault on campus.

“Part of the biggest, or definitely the biggest roadblock that we have is actually having that conversation,” Swamy said. “Many people are afraid to talk about sexual assault, just because of how taboo it might be, and kind of the gray areas surrounding it. But, I think that if people are starting to open up to conversations, It’s much better for the culture.”

DeConcini said that one time, as part of another art project to hang survivors’ quotes around the Oval, an older woman approached her and told her that the stories were the same as when she was in college. 

“She was like, ‘It’s a shame. It’s great that you’re doing this but it’s a shame that we haven’t gotten to the place where you can’t be focusing on other stuff because [this is] still such an issue,’” DeConcini said.

DeConcini said she hoped that TBTN would help people “gain confidence in talking about [sexual assault].”

“There’s so many taboos, nobody wants to say something dumb, or triggering, or whatever it is,” DeConcini said. “But the more we feed into those taboos, the worse we get, the more we decline and the more likely the next generation is going to be doing the same stuff.”