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Taking Back Your Voice: Telling Stories

Bathed in the soft, golden, cathartic glow of the candles they hold, students, survivors and supporters huddled together on the steps of Wynn Commons at the University of Pennsylvania last Thursday night. As the shadows from the candle light danced across their sombre faces, their hands shielding the flickering flame from the spring zephyr, they soaked up the stories told by the survivors of sexual assault. 

“The power of Take Back The Night is that it is about telling our stories, of strength and weakness, and cultivating a habit of story-telling that goes beyond tonight,” said keynote speaker Amy Richards at a reception for organizers earlier that day. Richards, creator of the Third Wave Foundation and author of Manifesta, sees herself as a vehicle for carrying stories and acknowledges that “Feminism has been guilty of wanting to not show anything but a stoic face.”

Take Back The Night shows the soft, yet strong face of feminism.

Opening with a rally held under an overcast sky on College Green, it drew together a multi-gendered, diverse, dynamic crowd of 150, despite the 45 degree weather.

“It’s going to be a long night, it’s going to be a cold night, and it was just suggested to me to take back the summer night,” said Felicity Paxton, Director of the Penn Women’s Center. “Remember that movie about the Penguins, where they all huddled together for body warmth? Be the Penguins,” she added, only half-jokingly.  

Nestled between the libraries and College Hall, College Green served as the stage for the 1973 sit-in 40 years ago. Stirred by a series of sexual assaults and the insensitive way with which these incidents were dealt with by the authorities, women at Penn held a sit-in to end gender discrimination on campus. Over several days of negotiations, the protestors got each and every one of their demands met. And more.

Two years later, the first documented Take Back The Night event in the United States was held in Philadelphia. Although Philadelphia was the genesis, the tradition faded away in the city. After several years it was rekindled in 2009 by Jessica Mertz, Penn’s first full time violence prevention educator, who organized the largest ever Take Back The Night as of then and then handed reigns to Nina Harris, her successor.

This year the Take Back the Night Committee, in collaboration with the Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) group and One in Four hosted the annual event to mark the beginning of the Sexual Assault Awareness Month of April. Other sponsors included the Penn Women’s Center and Division of Public Safety.

It was the first time planning Take Back the Night for Jeremy Pincus, junior in the College, and President of One in Four, Penn’s all-male, peer-education group that focuses on sexual assault awareness and rape prevention. ‘For a long time it was thought that sexual violence was just a women’s issue. That couldn’t be more wrong.’

College sophomore and organizer Alexis Richards said that this was a “Fully inclusive event, open to everyone: women, men, dogs, cats.”

At the rally, keynote speaker Richards explained, “Sexual assault isn’t about sex; it’s about power. We can’t do away with it until we shift the power structures that exist.”

“In 1989 there was Glen Ridge, 25 years later there is Steubenville, these cases keep happening,” she added, referring to the rape cases at Glen Ridge High School and at Steubenville by members of the high school football teams. 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately one in four women will experience sexual assault during her college career. Take Back the Night gives survivors an identity beyond being just another statistic.

“We wish we did not need to have a Take Back the Night ritual,” Richards acknowledged.The rally was the starting point of the march led by the Penn Band. Moving to the beat of the drums, the crowd danced up to 40th street before making their way to Wynn Commons–posters swaying; hearts beating; navy blue Take Back the Night T-shirts twirling; fists pumping the electrified air under the red and blue lights of the police escort and the flashing cameras.

Students waved through classroom windows, drivers on Walnut Street flashed thumbs up signs. Onlookers gazed in confusion until they saw a poster which might have said “Consent is sexy” or “Respect his/her/zir body”; a look of understanding dawned on their faces, followed by a beaming smile.

As the supporters and survivors spilled into Locust Walk, cheers, chants, laughter and snippets of enthusiastic exchanges ricocheted off the buildings. An Allied guard outside Huntsman Hall danced in place as the parade flowed by.

Survivor Ansley Sawyer, ’13, explained, “Most women don’t want to punish, they just want someone to hear them. As I march, I know I’m powerful, I’m strong, and knowing that is the best feeling ever.’

The jubilant march gave way to a more sombre, intimate setting—“A chance for survivors to share their stories in a safe place,” said Morgan Humphrey, President of ASAP. “[A] platform they didn’t have before.”

“Many survivors are shamed into silence, and are moved to share by seeing others share,” she added.

“Here at Penn, you are not alone,” Paxton spoke at the rally.

Take Back The Night “reinforces the sense of community”’ Richards said at the reception: “[L]ong after today has happened, you will still recall the vivid memories of the sense of community.”

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