Empowering Survivors, Educating the Public

Take Back the Night seeks to support survivors of sexual violence

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Illustration by Anna Mcgrew
Illustration by Anna Mcgrew

The streets of San Francisco filled in solidarity in the darkness of night in 1987 to protest sexual assault and violence. Almost 40 years later, this now annual event is known as Take Back the Night (TBTN) and occurs in cities around the world. The UC Santa Cruz Women’s Center has been hosting TBTN since the ’80s.

Statistically, out of every 1,000 cases of rape 310 cases are reported to the police. Of those, 6 cases result in incarceration, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Wishart said TBTN is a space for the stories of survivors to be validated by the community, even though the judicial system and other institutions may not have supported them.

“The march is a time, not to say we are not afraid, but to show everyone in our community is showing up, speaking out against violence and refusing to accept it,” said Laura Wishart, an intern at the Women’s Center and TBTN co-coordinator. “[It’s] a chance for people who care about this issue, whether you are a survivor or not, to show violence affects everyone in the community.”

The week of TBTN events at UCSC will start on April 24 with the Supporting Survivors Art Event, which aims to create a space for expression and reflection of survivors’ experiences. The rally and march will be held with keynote speaker Amita Swadhin on April 26 and end with a speak out, where survivors will be given time and space to share their experiences. Mahroh Jahangiri will lead a workshop on April 28 to educate students on their rights under Title IX.

Jess Whatcott, a PhD candidate in politics who helped to organize TBTN events on other campuses and has attended past UCSC TBTN events, said community is important in the healing process because violence can cause survivors to feel isolated.

“Hearing about the survivorship of others reminds us that what happened to us is not our fault. It [also] helps us to connect with others who want to end sexualized violence [and] to create a community with the shared value of ending sexualized violence,” Whatcott said in an email.

The Secret Survivors workshop will be held on April 27 with Swadhin. The workshop is meant to support survivors in a safe space and is in collaboration with Swadhin’s Secret Survivors theater project, in which Swadhin and other survivors share their stories.

Swadhin is a survivor of childhood sexual assault and now an educator in the field. A daughter of immigrants, Swadhin brings their personal experiences and narratives as a femme, queer and genderqueer woman of color to TBTN at UCSC. Their work frames domestic violence as a public health issue rather than isolated instances of violence and they have worked as an advocate for twenty years.

“I am unfortunately far from alone in my experience. We live in a country in which the crimes of rape, sexual assault, child abuse [and] domestic violence are happening at epidemic rates, behind closed doors. These are public health issues occurring in the private sphere,” Swadhin wrote in their recent testimony against Attorney General Jeff Sessions. They testified on behalf of survivors of violence and sexual assault for Sessions’ dismissal of President Donald Trump’s objectifying comments toward women in a recorded video.

“Millions of sexual assault survivors were triggered when hot mic tapes were released of President-elect Trump describing forcibly kissing women and grabbing women by the genitals,” Swadhin wrote in their statement to Congress.

In light of the election of President Trump and confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Laura Wishart said supporting survivors and educating the public is important at this time because sexual assault is being publicly tolerated on a national level. Wishart said she hopes Swadhin’s own experience can help create an empowering space for all survivors, particularly those who may not feel comfortable sharing their stories.

“[TBTN] is a chance to show up for what we want our futures and what we want our communities to look like,” Wishart said. “We are opposing rape culture and we are also trying to build consent culture where everyone’s bodies are respected, no one has to live in fear and people can heal from their experiences.”