MERCER-GOLDEN: Speaking out about sexual violence

Meditations

Last winter, I was privileged to have dinner with one of the women behind Alexander v. Yale, a groundbreaking lawsuit in 1980 that led to Yale’s first grievance board for Title IX violations on campus. Over the course of our meal, all of the students present told “war” stories about episodes of sexual harassment, assault and rape on campus, sharing our personal experiences and the stories of close friends. At the end of the dinner, our guest looked around the table and said: “We were having exactly this conversation in 1979. I can’t believe so much is still the same.”

zoe_mercer-golden_headshot_David_YuShe and her classmates fought for a Yale without the conversation we had that night, a campus at which young men and women could attend class without fear of predatory teaching assistants and parties without worrying about unwelcome sexual advances. They advocated for a Yale where every student could seek justice and find advocates if they lived through a traumatic experience. That Yale, despite positive changes in campus education and grievance protocol, still feels largely out of reach. I am sick to death of attending a university that refuses to learn from past mistakes, and that continues to perpetuate an unhealthy sexual climate on campus.

Now, two years after another Title IX complaint was made in 2011, I want to consider two essential parts of this issue: First, how and why sexual violence continues on our campus despite all of the attention being paid to the issue, and second, Yale’s still-flawed response to these episodes.

I refuse to be a fatalist about the first issue: I believe that it is possible to reduce the number of episodes of sexual violence on campus — through further education, more effective (though not more stringent) alcohol policies, public discourse and narrative-sharing, and the establishment of zero-tolerance grievance policies. While we may never see a Yale that is totally free of sexual violence (a thought that I find difficult to stomach), we are not doing enough to establish a violence-free Yale. We continue to fail the victims and perpetrators of sexual violence by making our campus a place where it feels too easy to get away with committing sexual violence — and seems incredibly difficult to talk about having experienced it.

To the second point: Yalies perceive a culture that encourages victim silence, and Yale’s grievance protocol remains confusing and hard to access, which means it’s likely that far fewer people report their episodes of sexual violence on campus than could. We have imperfect statistics and a grievance protocol that no one I have spoken to (possibly in violation of their nondisclosure agreements) has said made them feel valued, listened to or safer.

Many have struggled for months or years to reach the ears of administrators or defenders, as the faculty and staff at large still appear unevenly trained about how to handle these issues. I’ve heard of students actively or passively discouraged from entering the grievance process, sometimes against their wishes. They speak of being exhausted by having to tell their story repeatedly, without the support of an ombudsman or counselor. Some victims were forced to live, for weeks, months or years, alongside the people who had hurt them.

Throughout the last many years, Yale has appeared to be first and foremost looking out for itself, preferring to build a bureaucracy to deal with the issue of sexual violence rather than encouraging public discourse and offering unconditional support to those who need it most. We won’t make violence go away by pretending it isn’t happening — and we won’t make anyone feel better by continuing to follow imperfect grievance procedures.

On Saturday, April 13, probably on Cross Campus, our campus will host “Take Back the Night,” a rare opportunity to share personal experiences of sexual violence. Moments like these are part of changing and shaping campus discourse into something far more productive and transparent than what we have today.

Which leaves me only to say this: Whenever I hear another story about a Yale student who has lived through an experience of sexual assault, harassment or rape, I wonder what more we’re waiting for. How many more cases of sexual violence will need to take place on our campus — and how many more made public — before Yale enacts more accessible, consistent and compassionate procedures? How many more years must pass, and more lawsuits fought, before Yale becomes a safe place for all of us? We have come far from the 1970s — and yet, far from far enough.

Zoe Mercer-Golden is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at zoe.mercer-golden@yale.edu .

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