Confronting the ‘elephant in the room’

This week, students to raise awareness of sexual assault on campus

Sexual Assault Awareness Week started yesterday in Stata, when around two dozen students gathered to share private stories about sexual violence. The event, called Take Back the Night, began a week of activities intended to bring talk of sexual assault into the open, as the first step toward ending it.

“We are trying to start a conversation, talking about the...elephant in the room, starting to work toward an end to it...” said Jason McKnight, a residential life associate for graduate students and one of the primary organizers of the Week’s events. Accordingly, the mascot for the Week is an elephant, representing the heavy silence surrounding the topic of sexual violence. “It’s odd right? Why won’t you talk about it?” McKnight said.

The event schedule this year has been pared back somewhat. “We wanted to focus on doing it well,” said Liz Jensen ’13, one of the main organizers. Today, they will conduct a screening of The Line, a documentary about what constitutes consent. On Wednesday, there will be a lunch for assault survivors in an undisclosed location. And all week, the MIT community is asked to make a pledge to end derogatory language.

The Week is a joint effort by the Program for Medical Violence Prevention Response, the Program in Women’s and Gender Studies, Residential Life, the Student Activities Office, and MIT Medical’s Center for Health Promotion and Wellness.

At Take Back the Night, the MIT Chorallaries performed a few songs, ending with “Defying Gravity.” Afterward, around two dozen students gathered in a circle to share their experiences with sexual assault or to listen to others. Some were victims of sexual assault, some knew a victim, and some simply came in support. They talked about themselves or individuals they knew who had been raped or molested. They discussed the matter of consent, and how sometimes it is difficult to express that consent has not been granted. Some expressed frustration at those who did not take sexual violence seriously.

McKnight shared the story of a friend who had been molested by her grandfather. When he first met her, she had not yet found closure and was putting out cigarettes on herself in places that people couldn’t see.

As he told his own story, McKnight encouraged others to share theirs as well.

“I hope that [sharing stories] will help people to heal, help people to grow…” he said. “They are not alone.”