Student survivors of sexual violence share their stories during Take Back the Night

April 28, 2022, 10:48 p.m.

Crowds of students gathered at White Plaza on Apr. 19 at 7 p.m. to participate in Take Back The Night, an international event campaigning against sexual, relationship and domestic violence. 

Take Back The Night is a movement that started in the 1970s to combat sexual violence. A long-standing tradition at Stanford, the night is meant to make space for survivors of sexual violence to share their stories. 

This year’s event aimed to center Asian American advocates within the disability community by highlighting activists such as Lydia X. Z. Brown, according to Isabella de Vlieger ‘23, a student staff member at the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education (SHARE) Title IX Office. The theme of the night was “Honor Surviving, Embracing Thriving.”

Event preparations prioritized ensuring everyone in the space felt as safe as possible, according to Irmak Ersoz ’24, a social media and outreach intern at Stanford’s Confidential Support Team (CST). CST, YWCA and The Bridge Peer Counseling Center supported SHARE during the event by providing self-care spaces with Bridge peer counselors, according to Vlieger. 

The evening was split into three parts — the rally, the march and the Speak Out. Themed t-shirts designed by Bryan Defjan ’24 and posters were distributed to participants by the event organizers.

Mina Mahmood ’21 M.A. ’22, a member of Abolish Stanford and the first rally speaker of the night, described the inadequacies of the criminal legal system in preventing violence and helping survivors heal. Mahmood referenced a report from the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which found that 80% of survivors are afraid to call the police, 30% felt less safe after calling the police and 24% were arrested or threatened with arrest. 

“It fails to address the material, social and economic conditions in which abuse occurs,” she said, pointing to how marginalized communities are “justifiably fearful of incarceration, deportation, separation or other forms of retaliation.”

Mahmood added that “healing is possible for everyone, including perpetrators.” She said that a focus on transformative justice — an approach that she said would include trauma informed care, survivor focused healing, community accountability, collective action and honoring cultural differences — could work toward this goal.

DJ Kuttin Kandi, activist and co-founder of the San Diego-based organization Asian Solidarity Collective, addressed the crowd next, and said that all forms of oppression are connected. Society cannot end anti-Asian racism without also ending “anti-Black racism, anti-indigeneity, classism, sexism, ableism, fatphobia, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, queerphobia, whorephobia, xenophobia, to name a few,” Kandi said. “We must fight for not just our own liberation but for the liberation of all oppressed people.” 

Christopher Carter, associate director and residential community director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, stressed the themes of self-care and trauma-informed care in his speech, tracing his current tendency to be hard on himself to his past trauma. “Trauma is different for different people,” Carter said. 

Following the rally, attendees marched around campus in a solemn murmur. The procession landed at Meyer Green, where attendees were welcomed by a growing audience for the Speak Out. One by one, students approached the stage and shared their stories while facing the blinding lights on the field. Some students read from pre-prepared notes on their phone, while others opted to speak in the spur of the moment. 

“What is thriving?” Eva Jones ’25 asked the crowd, referencing the night’s theme. 

Jones continued:  “At a school where the rate of sexual assault is ten times its admission rate, at a school where 40% of women identifying students will be assaulted before they graduate … at a school where a quarter of penetrative rape happens in frat houses despite housing 8% of male students … at a school where the vice president of a rapist was paid to speak … What is thriving when student activists were banned from putting up flyers about sexual violence in dorms? I do not want to embrace this kind of thriving,” she said. “The only thing I see thriving, well and alive, is rape culture and its advocates.”

Stanford spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote that the University encourages “students and student organizations to share information within their residences” in an email to The Daily. Posters may be placed on bulletin boards, on laundry room poster boards or on student room doors, but posters placed elsewhere may be removed in accordance with University policy, according to Miranda. 

Miranda added that former vice president Mike Pence was brought to campus after the Stanford College Republicans (SCR) completed the “necessary steps required of any student-run organization to host such an event.”

“The university values free expression and divergent viewpoints and is committed to ensuring that differing ideas and opinions can be voiced in an atmosphere of thoughtful and respectful engagement,” Miranda wrote.

Some speakers during the night pointed to members of the audience for their role in perpetuating sexual violence.

“I live on a campus where rapists feel comfortable enough to come to Take Back The Night and hold up signs and march with everyone else,” said one speaker who The Daily is not naming due to privacy concerns. “There are rapists sitting in the crowd right now.” 

“Even if you’re one of those people sitting in the audience who has assaulted me,” another student said, “I’m just asking you to reflect on the many little ways in which you and your friends have contributed to rape culture.” 

Miranda wrote that “Stanford takes all reports of sexual misconduct seriously and carefully reviews each one.” He added that the Title IX Office staff “care deeply about the wellbeing of our students and work to ensure that policies on sexual harassment at Stanford continue to support a safe and respectful environment for everyone.” He also shared some of the University’s “robust policies and resources to support student wellbeing,” including the SHARE Title IX Office, Confidential Support Team and the PEERs program.

Attendees reported seeing many members of fraternities at the event. “At first I was worried I’d landed up at the wrong event,” one student remarked wryly as she observed a cluster of members take a grinning selfie. 

For Ersoz, it was “interesting” that fraternity members were “very highly encouraged to show up and listen,” she said. “I know everyone was a little conflicted about that, but I guess it’s good that frat members got to self-reflect since frats are such a red zone.” 

Many attendees, including individuals who shared their stories, said the night was moving and cathartic. 

“It felt terrifying because I’ve never really spoken to strangers about my experiences before,” said Tejas Subramaniam ’25. “But in many ways, it’s less scary once you actually do it than telling people you know. It felt like a platform for me to brain dump in a socially acceptable way.” 

Audience members also expressed appreciation for the event as a space to listen to those who spoke, with many sitting in the crowd with tears streaming down their faces. 

“Even when perpetrators aren’t being held accountable the way I know they should be, there’s something powerful about people sharing their stories,” said one student who requested anonymity for privacy purposes. “Something happened when each survivor got up and shared their experiences; I don’t have the words for what it is, but it’s life changing and life saving.”

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