By Matt Fossen
On March 26th the Cornell Student Assembly and Cornell Caring Community conjointly held an evening of “Breaking The Silence” to reaffirm awareness of sexual violence and bias incidents and to galvanize community wide solidarity in support of all victims and those affected.
The event, held right outside the Schwartz Performing Arts Center, drew nearly 200 students and was co-sponsored by 39 other student organizations. Precipitated largely by a string of campus crimes through the end of February and beginning of March that included a rape and drug induced assault, speakers reiterated the fact that one out of every four college women are sexually assaulted by the time they graduate. Promptly added to this were more general figures that showed that two thirds of assaults on women are done by men they know and that 91% of rapes committed by men are attacks on women. Particularly disgusting facts were also that over 50% of college gang rapes are done by fraternities, and another 40% committed by sports teams.
A series of speeches and testimonies were given, addressing those figures but also covering a menagerie of topics from feminism to consent to demeaning jokes and sexism. However, at the focal point of this evening was the need to generate an open and vocal culture about the brutality and vileness of sexual assault, and to help strengthen the victims of sexual assault who are overwhelmingly women to speak out, get help, and find strength—to break the silence.
“We do care; we’re all Cornellians,” said SA Executive Vice President of Outreach Juliana Batista in her opening remarks. “Breaking the silence about sexual violence is about being human and showing support for everyone.”
Batista emphasized a university wide need for students and administrators to accept responsibility and not only stand up for victims, but to also enable, empower, and help victims to speak out when they’ve been attacked. She continued on and also said that the time has come for Cornell to make accountable the people who do intimidate, coerce, abuse, attack, and rape.
These words were echoed by Susan Murphy, Vice President of Student and Academic Services, who said that “words can be used for change in a positive way and it is time to say enough is enough.”
Cited in her speech was a recent Cornell wide student survey that indicated that 80% of Cornellians believe that intimidating and humiliating other students is inherently wrong. Murphy extended upon this and said that what was perhaps most telling was the fact that a subsequent 20% of students did not see any wrong in intimidation and humiliation. She said that this figure should be disconcerting to all students and that sadly only a small percentage of Cornell students even reported believing that their peers view these acts as wrong.
Murphy went on to identify three necessary reasons to break the silence of sexual assault. First, she asserted that silence must be broken for all students to remain or become educated on the brutal and evil realities of sexual assault. Added promptly to that point was the particular importance to thoroughly educate and correct the perpetrators of assault. Murphy added that breaking the silence must happen now, saying that the Cornell community is not simply students, faculty, and staff, but instead a family of “brothers and sisters.” She said that when the university embraces this culture, the entire community can more effectively stand up for the victims of sexual assault and generate a proactive, supportive, and preventive culture of change.
Following Murphy was the President of Cornell’s division of the Everyone Campaign, Shuangyi Hou, who pointed to recent victories in the efforts against assault. Specifically, she referred to a recent study which showed that “sexual assault reports on college campuses had increased 23%” in recent years. Note that this is not the frequency of assaults themselves, but the proportion of assaults reported by victims. She encouraged students by saying that everyone can be helpful by simply doing their part through reiterating consent, becoming more educated, and helping other students at parties and at night.
Nevertheless, Hou vehemently expressed a remaining need for more concrete action throughout the university to stop sexual violence against women and to empower more women to get help and speak out about their attacks.
“A sincerely caring community isn’t one that fosters apathy or indifference,” she said, also pointing out that accountability goes beyond simply justice for those who assault women, but to those who promise to create change. Specific mentions included a recent trend in student government members who were elected with sexual assault policy reform platforms yet failed to follow through with substantive changes. Her own input included suggestions for the SA to create and sponsor more preventive and educational events and for all student organizations to amend their charters to create more strict provisions and consequences for students charged with assault.
The final remarks of the evening were made by SA Executive President Ulysses Smith who pointed to an admittedly pervasive culture of “bystander indifference” among students across Cornell. He said that defeating this culture was vital in order to speak out not only against assault and but also for victims and for the university to foster a wide sense of “collective responsibility.” According to Smith, this meant not simply writing off incident reports, casting aside crimes as impersonal, or deeming the pain endured by fellow Cornellians as irrelevant or far removed from one’s own experience.
Smith closed by mentioning that the university has made strides in changing investigation and punishment policies for perpetrators of assault and rape but that a free and safe campus depends on everyone taking part in the discussion.
“This is an everybody issue and students are not liabilities; they are brothers, sisters, and friends.”