#MeToo ignites conversations on campus sexual assault

 Graphic by Penelope Taylor ’20

Graphic by Penelope Taylor ’20

BY EILEEN O’GRADY ’18

A yellow pamphlet titled simply, “Rape,” was circulated through Mount Holyoke in November 1977. Produced by a student organization called “Women Concerned About Rape” in conjunction with Residential Life, the pamphlet addressed questions like, “What is rape?” “What should I do if I am attacked?” and “How unsafe is hitchhiking?” It was the second year that the student organization, later known as W.A.S.H. (Women Against Sexual Harassment), existed, and discourse about sexual harassment was uncommon on campus.

Sherril Gerard ’85 said that “There were no conversations about consent or rape,” on campus during the early 80s. “It was completely under the radar.”

In light of the #MeToo movement, alumnae have been using the opportunity to discuss their own stories of sexual assault and harassment at Mount Holyoke often on Facebook. 

“The #MeToo movement is ending the silence — if not the distress and sense of shame — of millions of individuals, most of them women, who have been subjected to the predation of a person or persons, the majority of them men, who were often older and more powerful,” Stephens said in a campus wide email addressed to the Mount Holyoke community last week. “Those who have been fearful of speaking out are now doing so, empowered by time, and by a space, often in social media, to give specific voice to their experiences.” 

 Gerard said that when she was a first-year student at Mount Holyoke, she was raped by a male Hampshire student, whom she had met on the PVTA bus — he and his male friend, also a Hampshire student, had been discussing backpacking in Michigan, where Gerard was from, and so she joined the conversation — and agreed to go on a date with that night. But after the date, she said, as she was making up a bed for him to stay overnight in the guest room of Brigham Hall, he attacked her and raped her.

“The College sent me to the health center, and then to a therapist,” Gerard said, of the aftermath of her assault. “Nothing else about charges or anything.”

Three years later, when the rapist’s friend from the bus began stalking Gerard, following her to her classes, to the library, and finally to her Torrey Hall dorm, she said Campus Police took the man to a psychiatric ward, but did not report him, or enforce any kind of disciplinary action.

The mission of the W.A.S.H. organization was “to educate and counsel the Mount Holyoke community about all forms of sexual harassment,” according to a pink bulletin from the 1980s. Student members would receive training at the UMass Everywomen’s Center in how to counsel sexual assault survivors, and a member of W.A.S.H. would be on call every night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., reachable via the campus operator. W.A.S.H. would also hold workshops in the dorms throughout the semester in an attempt to bring awareness to an issue that many students had no experience talking about.

The women’s studies department (now known as gender studies) was still new when Christine Ray ’88 entered Mount Holyoke. In her first year, Ray had a “literally life changing experience” when she took Professor Jean Grossholtz’s Women and Violence class in 1984.

“It was the first time anyone spoke openly about domestic violence, about date rape, about rape within marriage being a possibility,” Ray said. “It was essential in opening my eyes and giving me the necessary vocabulary.”

Today, Ray is a blogger. She was inspired to begin writing about sexual harassment in 2016 when Donald Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting women made national headlines. Her first article, “What Every Woman Knows,” has been shared widely on social media, especially in Facebook groups of Mount Holyoke alumnae.

“What Every Woman Knows,” Ray wrote of being in the room while her roommate was almost raped by a drunk college football player who they had agreed to let sleep on their floor as a favor to a friend. Ray said the culture of polite silence surrounding assault made them unwilling to report the incident. They were afraid of making their friend feel bad, or the roommate’s boyfriend upset.

Ray says much of the support she has received for her writing has come from other alumnae on Facebook.

“I hit on something I think other women and other Mount Holyoke women have been feeling,” Ray said. They eventually encouraged her to begin blogging, which is how “Blood Into Ink: Warrior Voices of Survival,” her blog for trauma survivors, 

was born.

“Mount Holyoke was that odd combination of being a very intense women’s college Monday-Thursday, and then on Friday becoming completely co-ed. Men would literally come in buses and U-hauls from Dartmouth and other colleges in the area. The implication was hook-ups,” Ray said. “Mount Holyoke felt so safe to most of us at the time that it was a surprise later to find out that it hadn’t been. But looking back I don’t know why it would be much different from anywhere else.”

Shannon Collins Pan ’90 remembers the blue light call boxes on campus, and a security van that was used at night to transport students around campus safely.

“Mount Holyoke was proactive in that regard compared to many of the other colleges I applied to back then,” said Pan. “As a freshman, sexual harassment was discussed in a mandatory dorm meeting. The W.A.S.H. organization discussed that we should never walk alone at night. If we needed to, we were to place our room keys between our fingers and make a fist. Finally, it was mentioned that we should never be in a professor’s office alone with the door shut.”

This last warning came just a few years after Gerard remembers it was common for student/faculty lines to be blurred.

“It was very common for professors to attend parties with us,” Gerard said. “You would walk into your friend’s dorm and see one of them with a beer or a joint.”

In the fall semester 1987, W.A.S.H. presented at two faculty meetings to bring the issue of sexual harassment to the attention of college employees, as well as the students.

Professor Daniel Czitrom from the History Department remembers attending W.A.S.H.’s presentation, looking around the room, and realizing that a large fraction of male professors in the room were married to former Mount Holyoke students.

“It was a moment when sexual harassment began to be taken seriously at Mount Holyoke,” Czitrom said. “It was a call to change the way we operate and a call to make people remember that sexual harassment is really not about sex, it’s about power. 

Today, although W.A.S.H. no longer exists on campus, there are other student orgs like MoHealth Peer Educators, Bedsider MHC and Mount Holyoke Planned Parenthood Generation Action who work to educate students about safe sex, consent and healthy relationships.

The Mount Holyoke administration also offers many resources to help sexual assault survivors. Confidential services available at the health center include medical examinations, counseling, transportation to a forensic examination, STI screenings and treatment, screening for date rape drugs, emergency contraception and access to a sexual assault advocate, according to the website. The College uses a system of grievance procedures to respond to sexual harassment and misconduct claims on campus, and disciplinary options are available, ranging from a letter of reprimand to expulsion depending on the severity of the case, according to the student handbook.

In her letter to the community, Sonya Stephens noted that the #MeToo movement is bringing to light many instances of assault and harassment that have occurred, both recently and in the distant past. Current students and alumnae are both invited to contact Lenore Reilly, Mount Holyoke’s Title IX Coordinator, with any questions, concerns or complaints.

“While there are obvious challenges to investigating allegations of events that occurred in the more distant past, Mount Holyoke will also conduct an inquiry into such allegations and take appropriate action,” Stephens wrote.

For Pan, activism and spreading awareness about sexual assault on campus is a key part of stopping the problem.

“Education is imperative to prevent inappropriate behavior, and more importantly, identify the calling signs of sexual harassment,” she said. “It’s only when society is willing to stand up to these predators and not turn a blind eye, that we will see a change in this behavior.”

Additional reporting by Chloe Jensen ’20. 

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