The day before Take Back the Night last year, a middle-aged woman approached me at the Women’s Table. “I came to see my daughter’s shirt,” she paused. We both looked at the clothesline of T-shirts decorated by survivors of rape and sexual assault and their allies. We looked, also, at the gaps between the fluttering shirts. Four shirts had been stolen. The woman continued with a tremor in her voice, “It isn’t here. I looked.”
This year, we continued building our clothesline, reaching a total of 48 shirts created over the last three years. On Monday afternoon, the members of RSVP (Rape and Sexual Violence Prevention) hung the 48 T-shirts on the clothesline. Since then, 20 have disappeared. Removing the shirts is an attempt to silence what they say: that rape happens, and it happens at Yale.
Who would take down these T-shirts? Did people want the shirts? Did they think it was funny? Were they so angry and threatened that they ripped them down? These T-shirts are not souvenirs, they are not jokes, they are not threats. They are an attempt to remind the Yale community that sexual assault happens to people you know and love, that women have the right to be safe at this school and throughout their lives, and that survivors of rape and assault are not silenced.
I picture a group of people walking by the clothesline Tuesday night after 1 a.m. They realize that the shirts are about rape and sexual assault and feel threatened by the prominence of the display. They laugh and joke as they read them aloud, picking the ones they liked least (“The man who raped me is still at Yale” and “He was my friend but and he raped me”). They rip them down and feel satisfied.
Who would question the morality of rape? No one would find the rape of a loved one acceptable. Who on this campus would support violence against women; who is pro-rape and pro-sexual assault?
A culture of denying rape is a culture of rape acceptance. Perhaps the most alarming fact about rape is its frequency. It is an extremely rare 20-year-old woman who does not have a friend who has been raped or assaulted. The prevalence of this problem cannot be combated if people deny that it exists. When students, university administrations and courts refuse to see rape as unacceptable, as prevalent, as a crime, they sanction the actions of rapists.
It is hard enough for survivors to come forward in the first place and be confronted with doubt, denial and shame. Stealing T-shirts from the clothesline sends a symbolic message: Your attempt to come forward will be met with an attempt to silence you.
Take Back The Night and the Clothesline Project are about claiming the public space of our University to say that sexual assault and rape do happen at Yale and cannot be ignored. As one shirt explains, “I hurt, but I am not silenced.”
Tess Korobkin is a junior in Calhoun College and a member of Rape and Sexual Violence Prevention.