The annual Take Back the Night Speak Out, held Friday afternoon on Cross Campus, stands as an opportunity for us to engage in a community project of care. At the Speak Out, as per tradition, students share a full spectrum of experiences of sexual violence and sexual respect — through testimony, poetry and song. For many who choose to speak, this pseudo-open mic can be a powerful and important step towards healing and recovery.
Yet last year, I did not attend the Speak Out. Instead, I stayed with a friend who neither wanted to speak nor attend the event. “If I had really healed from that relationship,” she asked, crying on her bed, “then shouldn’t I want to tell my story?”
As I told her then, and I reiterate strongly now: no, not necessarily. You may never want to tell your story publicly. And that is completely and utterly fine — whether or not you choose to tell your story has nothing to do with how healed or not-healed you are, and infinitely more with how healing works for you.
And as I also reminded her, the Speak Out is not only for survivors, nor is it only for speakers. The audience participates too, by listening, snapping and hugging friends. While some speakers may share testimony of sexual disrespect, others will also sing, recite poems and offer visions for a sexually respectful campus. You do not need to publicly identify as a survivor, speak at the mic or write an editorial to legitimate or heal from your experience — what is right for someone else may not be right for you. There are as many ways to heal as there are survivors, and there is no universally right path forward.
By offering other options, Take Back the Night chips away at a noxious Survivor versus Victim dichotomy in which “survivors” are those “brave” or “strong” enough to step up to the mic, and “victims” remain crippled by their experience. In a lot of the cultural rhetoric around sexual assault, victims become survivors when they disclose their story — a narrative that flattens the varied topography of experiences. Implicitly, this dichotomy condemns “victims” like my friend who choose to keep their experience private, shackling all of us to a linear model of recovery. This survivor-victim dichotomy often makes not going or not speaking feel like a defeat, when in reality, choosing not to speak is just one option.
Instead of speaking, many choose to keep their healing more private, or are still in the process of deciding how and with whom they will share their experience. The Speak Out is just one point of entry; it’s only three hours long. No one’s healing process is three hours long — opting out of the annual Speak Out is really just not that big of a deal. Maybe someone would rather tell their story only to some combination of parents, close friends, therapists or long-term monogamous partners. Others, who have not yet told their stories to anyone, might turn first to SHARE. As for Take Back the Night programming, maybe you want to go to a post-Speak Out yoga class, or a floating dance party or an improv workshop. Your story is your choice.
Fortunately, Yale’s programming around Take Back the Night makes room for all sorts of healing and engagement with sexual respect. Instead of traditional sexual assault programming that looks only to problems (“rape culture,” shame and crowded parties), Take Back the Night focuses on broader campuswide communication, respect and bystander intervention. And the theme is “sexual respect,” rather than “sexual violence” — it looks forward rather than looking back. This nuanced distinction shifts the focus to positive, bright spots in campus sexual climate. Focusing on sexual respect creates hope and encourages a path forward, while still addressing the problems.
I want to advocate a linguistic reframing of how to think about Take Back The Night. It’s not about “The Night” — a broad metaphor for the amorphous confusion and trauma of sexual violence. Instead, take back “Your Night,” however you see fit, whether or not you have survived a sexual assault. Let’s use this weekend to care collectively and individually. Take a run. Get FroYo (a shameless CCE plug). Watch True Blood. Watch Scandal. Ask your partner to give you a massage. Give yourself a massage. Go to the Speak Out, or don’t go to the Speak Out! Veg out or go out — work out or pig out — hang out or chill out. Take Back Your Night, however that works for you.
Amelia Nierenberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .