Students poured into Houston Hall’s Bodek Lounge on Thursday, filling up the rows of chairs, dozens standing to the side and sitting on the floor.
The crowd was there for Take Back the Night, a peaceful protest organized by Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention. Take Back the Night is an international event and nonprofit organization, and at Penn it takes the form of a rally, a march across campus and a speak-out where survivors of sexual violence share their stories.
Educator and activist Qui Alexander, the rally’s keynote speaker, talked about the power dynamics involved in sexual assault and social activism in general.
“Rape culture operates like any other institution — a systematic structure of power,” Alexander said. “Take Back the Night is not just about taking power back, but about shifting power.”
The rally and keynote speech was followed by a march around campus, where students chanted, “Penn unite, take back the night” and held signs that read, "Break the silence, stop the violence."
After marching, the students reconvened in Houston Hall for a survivor speak-out. Inside the room dimly lighted with candles, survivors of sexual assault were invited to stand and share their experiences. Those who chose to speak were met with snaps and hugs from audience members after telling their stories.
This year’s Take Back the Night comes alongside the the recent Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, administered last year by the Association of American Universities and released in September. The survey found that . In response, Penn President Amy Gutmann sent a University-wide email that called the results “deeply troubling” and called on the Penn community to “effectively tackle this problem.”
“I think because so many of the statistics show how prevalent sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking are on our campus, this year is especially important,” Associate Director for the Penn Women’s Center Brittany Harris said.
Gutmann did not attend Take Back the Night, but wrote a letter of support that was read aloud at the event.
“Through your resolve and commitment, the Penn community will continue to lead the way in taking back the night,” Gutmann said in a letter that was read by College junior Gabriella Ficerai-Garland.
The Vice Provost for University Life will be adding two new positions dedicated to sexual violence prevention and awareness, Director of Student Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Jessica Mertz announced at the event.
Recent efforts to combat sexual assault at Penn include , a peer education student group that facilitates workshops on how to be an active bystander, as well as Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault, which uses peer-education to combat sexual violence in all male student groups and also co-hosted the event.
“Historically, it’s been seen as a women’s issue, but now we recognize that men are affected by sexual assault too, and also the vast majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by men,” MARS President and College junior Sam Summer said. “We need to have an active role in stopping that.”
The keynote address and other speakers served as sources of information for students to learn more about sexual assault prevention.
“He was really empowering but really reasonable and easy to relate to,” College senior Renata O’Donnell said of Alexander. “I was on the edge of my seat.”
Administrators said this year’s event stood out in terms of campus participation. Vice President of Public Safety Maureen Rush said it was the largest crowd she had ever seen in her 22 years of attending Take Back the Night. Mertz agreed that this year’s event was exceptional.
“This year, more than ever I have seen our Penn community come together,” Mertz said.
Overall, students were impressed with the power of the event.
“It is truly one of the most powerful and moving events on Penn’s campus,” College junior and ASAP Chair Isabella Auchus said.
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