New Exhibit for Sexual Assault Awareness Month

This blog post and its accompanying exhibit in the main lobby of McKeldin Library chronicle the ongoing student activism at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD) to create a culture that actively works to prevent power-based violence and support survivors of sexual assault.

Though sexual assault was not part of the public discourse at UMD prior to the 1970s, examples from the 1950s and 1960s highlight how sexual assault and rape culture impacted student life. This Associated Women Students Revised Dress Code from 1968 highlights the way that women were seen as responsible for the treatment they received based on their personal appearance, and how accepted standards of behavior based on gender roles often reinforced and obscured rape culture. Strict limitations on women’s conduct and dress connect to an ideal of purity and serve to prevent women from having sexual contact before marriage. Women were often blamed for any unwanted contact if they did not abide by these codes. Ideas like these often reinforce the idea that rape is result of the behavior or appearance of the victim, rather than the actions of the perpetrator. It is also important to note that these stark distinctions between men and women can often erase the fact that a person of any gender can be sexually assaulted.

Report from the Association of Women Students
Association of Women Students — Reports, 1954-1964. Division of Student Affairs records, 5.1.4. Special Collections and University Archives. University of Maryland Libraries.

During the 1970s, with the emergence of the women’s liberation movement, there was an upsurge in student organizing around sexual assault. Considered to be the third peak of sexual violence activism, the 1970s included the first anti-rape efforts on campus. This third peak built off of the first (late 1800s) and second (1940s-50s) peaks of activism led by black women, such as Lucy Smith and Ida B. Wells in the late 1800’s and Rosa Parks and Recy Taylor in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1970s, UMD students worked to create a campus Rape Crisis Center, a Women’s Center, and a Women’s Information Center in collaboration with partners across campus. Student activists have been participating in rallies like Take Back the Night since the 1970s and the Clothesline Project since the 1990s

The “300 March Against Rape” article from the Diamondback reports on UMD’s first Take Back the Night march, which the campus Women’s Center organized in November, 1979. In 1980, the Student Government Association bought and began distributing rape whistles, along with “rape-prevention literature,” in response to the rapes of two women during the Fall 1979 semester. It was suggested that those taking the whistles make a 50 cent donation. Several campus advocates, including a member of the Women’s Center, criticized the effort and suggested that the money could have been spent more strategically to raise awareness about rape prevention, as opposed to risk reduction strategies, like rape whistles, which put responsibility on individuals to prevent sexual assault from happening to them, inadvertently supporting victim-blaming ideology. Since the 1980’s a conscious effort by activists has shifted sexual assault prevention away from putting responsibility on people to prevent assault from happening to them, and now focuses on consent and bystander intervention education.

Article 300 march against rape from the Diamondback
The Diamondback. (November 9, 1979). Special Collections and University Archives. University of Maryland Libraries.
Image of student Sharon Cohen with a box of rape whistles
Student Sharon Cohen shows box of rape whistles at McKeldin Library, 1980.

During the 1990s and 2000s, the dialog on campus turned toward addressing the multiplicity of survivors’ experiences. The Black Explosion article from 2000, reporting on their most recent Take Back the Night, highlights an understanding that the experiences of individuals who have been sexually assaulted and the activists involved are not monolithic.

Community Takes Back the Night headline in Black Explosion from 2000
Black Explosion. (April 27, 2000). Special Collections and University Archives. University of Maryland Libraries.

Due to the continued efforts of student activists, the university created several offices to address power-based violence. In 2002, UMD created The Office of the Victim Advocate, its first office on campus office dedicated to responding to power-based violence. Since then, evolutions in office structure, including the development of a peer program, the creation of a Victim Assistance Fund, a growing staff, and the merging of offices focused on Advocacy and Prevention, has culminated in the Campus Advocates Respond and Educate (CARE) to Stop Violence office. CARE provides free, confidential advocacy and therapy services to primary and secondary survivors of sexual assault, relationship violence, stalking, and sexual harassment, while simultaneously empowering the campus community to prevent power-based violence through educational presentations, events, and outreach activities. Most recently in 2017, continued student advocacy and cultural and political attention resulted in the creation of the Sexual Assault Prevention Committee, a multi-disciplinary committee of students, faculty, and staff dedicated to coordinating sexual assault prevention efforts on campus.

CARE to Stop Violence service desk

There have been significant changes in how students and administration understand and respond to sexual assault over the past 40 years. When this dialog began, prevention often focused on risk-reduction strategies, like improved lighting and rape whistles. These initiatives place responsibility on individuals to protect themselves, rather than trying to prevent assault in the first place. Today, CARE focuses on providing support services for survivors and educating the campus community on consent and bystander intervention. Focus is also moving toward including the multiple identities and experiences of survivors, rather than framing sexual assault as a women’s issue, which has excluded and silenced many survivors over the years.

Currently, in what is considered the fourth peak of sexual violence activism, the cultural reckoning with the immensity of sexual violence has been overwhelming. As students continue to experience sexual assault at UMD, many survivors choose not to report because of the fears of reliving or extending their trauma. However, changing policy and increased education around sexual assault are bringing more people into the conversation and many members of our campus community continue to dedicate themselves to shifting the culture.

by Clare Kuntz Balcer and Charlotte Sheffield

If you would like to speak to an advocate or want to know more about CARE’s advocacy and therapy services, visit the CARE office in the Health Center Monday-Friday from 9am-5pm (no appointment necessary) or call or text the 24/7 CARE Crisis Cell at (301) 741-3442.

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