Learning from Oberlin’s Survivors of Sexual Violence: A Reflection on Take Back the Night

In March 2020, I began conversations with the Nord Center and the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion about founding a student organization called Survivors of Sexual Harm & Allies. At the time, I noticed an absence of authentic conversation about sexual violence on campus. This became incredibly apparent to me in November 2019, when a classmate sexually assaulted me. This experience not only turned my life upside down, but ignited a fire within me to make the issue of sexual violence visible and to create a community for survivors that was missing from campus. I was joined on SOSHA’s leadership team by College second-year Jenna Frizzell early on, as well as by College third-year Lauren Fitts in 2021, and now we work to provide support and visibility to survivors, addressing sexual violence in an honest and direct way to protect our community. 

On June 27, SOSHA organized Take Back the Night, an event meant to support and uplift those who have survived sexual violence.  

Take Back the Night originated in 1877, when women in England protested the violence they encountered walking the streets at night. Now, Take Back the Night marches and protests are held annually worldwide, and survivors of sexual violence reclaim the night as an environment where they belong and are safe. Take Back the Night marches were most popular in the 1980s and ’90s and were largely centered around male violence against women. Since then, Take Back the Night has made room for other survivors — not just cisgender women who have been harmed by cis men —  because both survivors and abusers can be of any gender or sexual identity. 

Planning our own Take Back the Night event was a long process with many moving parts. For me, planning became a full-time job, and at first, I was so focused on organizing that I did not take space to fully process the meaning behind the event. My friend and new co-leader, College second-year Ella Newcomb, encouraged me to take some time for myself so that I could be truly present at the event and have the chance to enjoy it. With this new headspace, I wrote the last pieces of a speech that took me two years to complete; after a long journey, I was able to end my speech in an authentic way and appreciate the gravity of my words when I spoke at Take Back the Night.

My speech was a mixture of narrative prose and spoken word. I wrote the first half in the week following my assault in 2019. I was inspired by singer and songwriter Halsey’s speech at the 2018 Women’s March, entitled “A Story Like Mine.” For those next two years, I searched for the words to write a second half that felt good to me. The first half felt fairly bleak, with the end being a quote from my abuser. I found my words for the rest of the speech in the past few weeks, when I realized I needed to directly address the violence that I had experienced and witnessed in the very recent past — even during the weeks that we were in planning-mode. I wanted to zoom out from focusing solely on my experiences and talk about Title IX, other survivor activists, and the work that we are now doing through SOSHA. 

I knew that my speech preceded the march portion of our event, so I needed to captivate those who were with us and inspire them to reclaim the night unapologetically. I know that I did that for at least some of the attendees, who have voiced as much to me. I feel intense appreciation for the people who shared with me how they found the event and/or my speech meaningful. To me, engaging with SOSHA and participating in Take Back the Night has been incredibly powerful; I find that when people share how grateful they are for SOSHA and the event, I am filled with emotion, and I want them to know that I am equally as thankful and in awe of them for showing up.

Going forward, we hope to host Take Back the Night at least once a year. Our organization wants to communicate to all survivors that you are not alone and we are here for you. We want to demonstrate to everyone in the Oberlin community that we are not afraid to talk openly about sexual violence. When sexual harm and assault are not discussed, the silence allows the violence to continue. Most abusers assume that survivors will stay quiet, and nothing will be done. We are breaking that silence by shining a light on the sexual harm in our community, and we hope that this is the first step in rejecting this violence in the Oberlin community and beyond. SOSHA will continue to host listening sessions and socials, and newcomers are welcome at every meeting! To get on our contact list, email us at [email protected].