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Both men and women will march through campus tonight in solidarity against sexual violence — a scene that would have been hardly imaginable just 20 years ago.

“A lot of times issues of sexual violence are shoved into the category of women’s issues, when it’s not just a women’s issue,” Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention Chair Morgan Humphrey said.

The Wharton senior, along with others involved with Take Back the Night — an annual rally against sexual violence — emphasized the importance of including a broad swath of the University in the event.

Despite the inclusive aims of the event’s organizers, Take Back the Night has repeatedly been the subject of heated controversy in the 20 years since it first came to Penn.

‘For the women’

Take Back the Night was founded in the 1970s as a response to a culture that activists felt tolerated rape and violence against women. During each demonstration, ralliers march by candlelight to defy the idea that women should not walk alone at night. After the march, people come together for a survivor speak-out, where victims of violence share their stories in a supportive atmosphere.

A group of women first tried to organize Take Back the Night on campus in 1989 — but were thwarted by hecklers. After the establishment of a Penn chapter of the National Organization for Women in 1993, the first successful Take Back the Night event drew a crowd of over 200 in 1994.

“The point of the speak-out is for the women,” then-College junior Debra Pickett, one of the event’s organizers, said at the time, according to Daily Pennsylvanian archives. “It’s to impress upon women that if they experience sexual violence, they are not victims, they are survivors and they are not alone.”

However, despite the strong turnout, some were dissatisfied with the fact that Take Back the Night catered to women.

“I’m not safe here at this school,” said Brian Linson at the time. Linson, who filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Department of Education against the University, was no longer a student at the time. “This happens to women, but it also happens to men.”

The debate continues

Throughout the 1990s, Take Back the Night remained embroiled in controversy — each year sparking a negative response from the Penn community for what some perceived as the unnecessary exclusion of men.

In 1995 — when participation was at an all-time high, at between 400 and 500 people — two events caused the tension to reach a boiling point.

First, in what was decried as a “sexist” and “segregational” move, Take Back the Night organizers did not allow men to participate in the march, citing the fact that it was envisioned to be a women’s solidarity movement.

Also, during that year’s speak-out, a man took to the microphone to apologize for having raped someone. Current Women’s Center Director Felicity Paxton — who was a graduate student at the time — recalled the incident as “a grotesque misuse of the event” in a 1998 DP article. “It’s inappropriate for a rapist to stand up and ask for time in front of a group of women survivors.”

The events set in motion nearly a decade of fluctuating policies where men were alternatively allowed to participate in the march but not the speak-out, the speak-out but not the march, both or neither — invariably sparking renewed controversy each year.

A particularly impassioned dialogue emerged after students took umbrage with comments Paxton made in 1997.

“This is the one bloody night of the year that we ask you, as men, to shut up and listen,” Paxton said, according to DP coverage of the event. She discouraged men from marching.

Responses both condemning and supporting Paxton’s statements poured in to the opinion pages of the DP.

“Paxton seems so blinded by her aggressions that she is refusing the additional aid of men who want to aid her in her struggle,” then-Engineering graduate student Joseph Gentile wrote. Others called for a “no gender attached” approach to the event, emphasizing that sexual assault can touch both men and women.

However, there was an equally strong voice on the other side of the issue. “Our community is dominated by men. Just count the fraternities lining Locust Walk,” then-College sophomore Marissa Engel wrote. “We don’t deny that men endure suffering, but the function of Take Back the Night is not to forgive them for inducing ours.”

In the ensuing years, Take Back the Night remained controversial due to ever-changing policies, but participation — which had continued to be high — began to decline precipitously.

By 2004, the first year that the event was completely student-planned and student-run, participation had dwindled to about 60, including around 20 men. The next year saw a turnout of less than two dozen — with just one male — a fact that organizers attributed to decreased membership in student activist groups and lack of promotion on the part of sororities.

In 2006, for the first time in 12 years, Take Back the Night didn’t happen at Penn.

Revival and refocus

“Sexual assault knows no gender — for me, I hope there are both male and female survivors who speak out,” One in Four Vice President for Education Dylan Hewitt said.

The College junior’s sentiments echoed those of other campus leaders regarding Take Back the Night today.

After a three-year absence from campus, Take Back the Night was re-established in April 2009 through the efforts of the newly formed Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention group in partnership with One in Four and other campus groups. The second inaugural event featured some less-impassioned debate about the role of men should play in Take Back the Night.

Fall 2009 saw a string of rapes reported on campus, which incited a renewed passion for the movement in spring of 2010 — momentum that carried through to subsequent years.

The debate over the role of men today is virtually nonexistent.

“Men are fully engaged in Take Back the Night at Penn today: as planners, organizers, musicians, supporters, listeners and survivors,” Paxton said in an email Wednesday.

“We have come a long, long way since that day back in 1995,” she added. “I cannot imagine anything like that taking place at Penn today.”

She noted that many of the men involved with Take Back the Night have been personally impacted by sexual violence.

Organizers said men who participate today are nothing but supportive.

“To promote a culture that condemns sexual violence rather than condoning or even facilitating it, we need to get everyone involved,” College senior and ASAP Outreach Chair Sarah Gutman said.

“The obvious thing is that perpetrators can be men, so having a male presence can be uncomfortable,” Hewitt said. “But my hope is that having a male presence there is defying norms.”

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