Bowdoin students “Took Back the Night” on Thursday, in an event hosted by Bowdoin’s Office for Gender Violence Prevention and Education and V-Day student chapter. The ceremony supports a worldwide movement to end sexual and dating violence. The Bowdoin event included speeches, poetry, an a cappella performance, and a silent walk around campus. Cordelia Zars ’17 attended the event and returned with this audio story.
On a starlit fall night at Bowdoin, seventy students walk through the campus with candles in their hands. No one is talking; the only sounds are footsteps and crunching leaves.
Students from all years, genders, and races have gathered to “take back the night.” What does that mean? Lisa Peterson, associate director of gender violence prevention and education at Bowdoin, says, “Take Back the Night is a really nice opportunity to bring the community together in a show of support.”
That means support for victims of sexual violence, and for making Bowdoin a place where violence doesn’t happen. One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted in college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. More than 90 percent of those victims never report the assault.
Peterson says, “I think it’s really important for survivors to feel that support and know that they are believed and supported on campus.”
Peterson suggests that Take Back the Night symbolically gives those students a renewed sense of ownership over the campus, the night, and their bodies.
The throng of candle-bearing students winds through the dorms and past the polar bear statue. About half of the group is men. People on their way to the union stop and watch. Even in silence, the group emanates a sense of purpose and solidarity.
It’s not clear in the group who’s a survivor and who’s not—everyone is just walking together. According to senior Natalie Kiley-Bergen, that’s the point.
“It’s using these stories and these moments and these experiences to think about these issues, but it doesn’t make it person-specific. But in not making it individual-specific, it can apply to everyone,” she says.
Bergen is co-leader with Ellinor Heywood ’19 of Bowdoin’s chapter of V-day, an international organization dedicated to ending sexual violence. She says this event helps the student body take ownership over the issue of sexual violence. Because it’s not all about strangers jumping out from behind bushes in the dark, she says. “Our biggest risk when we’re here in this safe and coddling liberal arts community is our peers.” Bergen says most acts of sexual violence are committed by people the victim knows. Why? Because relationships are complicated.
Maddy Magnuson, midcoast advocate for family crisis services, says, “I think there’s a lot of education to be had about what is a healthy relationship and what do those dynamics look like.”
Magnuson says, regardless of the type of relationship—whether you’re married, or dating, or just “hooking up”—there can be negative power dynamics. “It’s about one partner using violence and coercion to exert power and control over their partner.”
It doesn’t have to be physical, Magnuson says. Violence can be psychological and emotional—which, of course, becomes harder to define. And often these issues of control are deeply rooted in how we’re socialized—based on age, gender, and race.
The solution? Here’s Natalie Kiley-Bergen’s opinion: “I mean, the easy answer is that you prepare for it by conditioning people differently from the age of 0 (or school-wise from the age of 5) to respect other peoples’ bodies and other peoples’ space.”
And for Bergen, Take Back the Night is a step forward—steps together—in that process.
The silent walk around campus ends, and students file into 24 College Street to close the night out with stories and songs.
Special thanks to Bowdoin V-day, the Office of Gender Violence Prevention and Education at Bowdoin, Family Crisis Services, and Ursus Verses a cappella group for their performance of “Fix You.”