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Stanford Missed Connections starts dialogue about sexual assault on campus


The morning of June 28, I finished Chanel Miller’s memoir. I read up to chapter 14 before I fell asleep the previous night, and when I woke up, I started right where I left off. And when that was over, I read the acknowledgments, and then her victim impact statement I’d already read years ago when it first went viral on BuzzFeed. I got out of bed. I put in my contacts. 

Two summers ago, I sat at my desk at my internship, reading an article that had resurfaced on Twitter from the #MeToo movement, which had gained traction earlier that year. I felt a growing pit inside of me as I realized that several interactions I’d had, since I’d first heard about the movement, had worn away any agency I thought I had over my own body. I ran down the stairs to the basement restroom, picked the last stall, cried and cried. 

I didn’t realize when I first started Miller’s book, that I’d finish it at a time when a movement resembling #MeToo would surface on college campuses. In the face of our universities failing us again and again, students are taking on the responsibility of speaking out against the sexual misconduct that schools should always have been protecting us from.

Of course, Miller knew about all of this, far before these stories surfaced publicly. She writes, “Brock was not one bad apple, he just threatened to expose the greater, underlying issues of sexual violence on campus.” And he did, to some extent. She received postcards in the mail, and comments on BuzzFeed, from survivors who saw themselves in her, who needed her to know that she was not alone. But Stanford rejected the quote she picked for her plaque, and there were months of delay in installing her plaque, and on campus there is still an overwhelming silence.

An Instagram page, Stanford Missed Connections, originally designed as a space for Stanford students to confess crushes on people they’d never met through the account’s DMs, has each day, beginning on June 21, shared stories of students who have experienced sexual violence during their time at Stanford.

“Lmk when the Stanford community is actually ready to talk about the amount of abuse and assault that goes on here… because this perpetual silence really isn’t it,” was an anonymous message posted to the account on June 21. Over the span of two weeks, almost 50 posts detailing stories of sexual assault and harassment, and Stanford’s role as an institution, followed that first submission.

At the height of it, Missed Connections admin posted about an article in the Daily Californian, which drew parallels between the Brock Turner case and recent sexual assault allegations against UC Berkeley student Nicholas Zhao. Over 160,000 signatures support a petition to expel him. Over 20 women came forward with stories about him which were collected through a survivor’s Instagram DMs.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ recent reforms to Title IX have made it even harder for survivors to get the justice they deserve. While a press release from the U.S. Department of Education emphasizes that the new regulation “holds schools accountable for failure to respond equitably and promptly to sexual misconduct incidents,” critics maintain that several other consequences of the new regulations, including changes to the very definition of “sexual harassment,” are devastating. Prior to the new changes, Title IX investigations were based on definitions including the Title VII workplace definition, which defined sexual harassment as “severe or pervasive” conduct [writer’s italics]. Now, investigations must use the Supreme Court’s Davis definition, which requires sexual harassment to be “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that it actively denies a person equal access to education [writer’s italics]. The narrowing of such definitions is also something we’ve seen from Stanford itself, well before these changes. The school faced intense criticism after it administered its campus climate survey in 2015, for narrowly defining sexual harassment.

Activist group Know Your IX has taken to Twitter to broadcast similar social media-based compilations of sexual assault stories at schools all across the country, tweeting on July 2, “Hey schools! If students are turning to Twitter and Instagram to handle their rapes, it’s because you failed to provide them fair and supportive reporting options. Do better!”

In her memoir, Miller writes that she “grew up on [Stanford’s] campus.” It was her “backyard,” her “community.” As I quarantine at home in Long Island, New York, I’m learning that the university that I grew up thinking of as part of my community is the site of yet another slew of sexual assault allegations that have been met with conflicting guidance. It feels like I’m being backed into a corner, like no matter where I am, there’s no escaping it. This problem is rampant on college campuses everywhere. But that shouldn’t be interpreted as an excuse for Stanford’s inaction. Rather, it should alarm us that despite common knowledge of how widespread a problem it is, Stanford still hasn’t done enough to protect survivors.

I’ve spoken to several other students about the Missed Connections posts. No one is surprised. No one is surprised that so many people have so many stories. No one is surprised that 14.2% of respondents reported experiencing at least one instance of nonconsensual sexual contact since matriculating to Stanford. No one is surprised that the number is 23.8% for undergraduate women over the same time period. No one is surprised that the number is 31.5% for undergraduate transgender, genderqueer or nonconforming (TGQN) students. No one is surprised that only 44% of all students believe that campus officials, if notified, would likely conduct a fair investigation. No one is surprised that for undergraduate women and TGQN students, the number is even lower. 

In her book, Miller writes, “The Me Too movement offered the relief of finally being given a chance to set the story down, to see what it felt like to walk around, breathe, shake your arms out a little, without it.” I started writing this article hoping to, at the very least, be able to applaud the role social media has played in spotlighting this, in allowing survivors to set their story down. But it’s not social media; it’s the students behind it. And when will students stop having to be the ones to facilitate these conversations and doing unpaid work, time and time again, for an administration that just doesn’t seem to care?

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