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Take Back the Night

Guest Column
Brice Smith

This Thursday night at 6:00 p.m., there will be a Take Back the Night rally on the Student Center steps. For those of you who may not be aware, Take Back the Night rallies have been occurring around the world since 1976 when women attending the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women in Belgium held a candlelight march to protest the ways in which violence permeates the lives of all women throughout the world. The first use of the name Take Back the Night came two years latter when in 1978 over 10,000 people marched through residential areas of San Francisco following the first feminist conference on pornography. This was the largest anti-pornography march in the history of the women’s movement, and helped inspire Laura Lederer and Adrienne Rich to write and edit a book entitled “Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography,” which details the connections between propagating degrading images of women and a male-centered definition of sexuality through pornography and the culture of violence against women that is as alive today as it was when this book was first published in 1980.

Over time, these events grew into a time to come together around all aspects of sexual violence, and a time to try and reclaim the night so that everyone, men and women alike, can walk the streets freely and without fear. The TBTN rallies serve as a safe and supportive space for survivors of sexual violence to come forward and share their experiences, often for the first time.

These rallies help to create an atmosphere of zero tolerance for sexual violence in many ways. They increase community awareness about the issues of violence against women and its relationship to sexual harassment, homophobia, racism, and all other forms of discrimination. They help to educate the community about the nature and the extent of the violence that is systematically used to keep women in a subordinate position. (For those of you who will not be able to attend, nearly one in three women will be raped in their lifetime, and thus every sexist comment or harassing poster carries with it an implicit threat of violence that goes far beyond the words or images used.)

The rallies help to empower everyone to stand against sexism wherever they see it and to take more direct action to stop violence against women, whether it be through speaking out, joining groups like MIT’s Stop Our Silence, lobbying the government or school administration, or through some other form of activism. Finally, these rallies serve to honor the memory of the victims of sexual violence and to celebrate its survivors.

One thing that is very important to point out is that although rape is by far primarily a crime against women, nearly one in 12 men will be victimized in his lifetime, and these rallies strive to support all victims of sexual violence and to help all survivors to reclaim their voice. Having said all this, one might think that bringing such a positive and empowering community-based event to our campus would be cause for celebration, or at the very least passive acceptance, but we should all know better by now. Like clockwork, no sooner had the event been announced than someone began a campaign of harassment and intimidation designed to silence the community.

On Friday, someone began hanging up posters featuring a Space Moose cartoon about Take Back the Night. The first strip, taken alone, would have been a brilliant use of sarcasm that very sharply points out the need for such events. In the strip a group of heavily armed male characters are fuming over the “self-righteous feminists” daring to reclaim the night from the men who have ruled it “since antiquity.” In the strip a male passerby who hears all this even leaves to go and call the cops, thus taking a stand against such violent sexism. So far so good, so why am I writing all this? Well, in the next strip we see the men stalking the TBTN rally with machine guns. The strip mocks the women’s demands to feel safe and to be free from rape, and then follows this up with the men brutally attacking the women, killing many quite graphically, including one women being stabbed in the head with a hunting knife. Finally, the men are stopped by a female character who was best described as looking like a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers in a feminist T-shirt who then locks them in a tiny cage.

One almost does not even know where to begin addressing this kind of hate-filled message. For me, the most horrifying aspect is its total disregard for the very real extent of violence by men against women. One has only to look at the domestic homicide or rape statistics to see how systematic this violence is. One has only to ask anyone who has ever volunteered at a battered women’s shelter to hear story after story about the type of violence that women face every day, how dangerous standing up and leaving an abusive relationship can be, and how much courage it takes for these women to do it. Now how do you suppose this type of imagery would make a survivor feel? This poster goes way beyond the implicit threats of the usual level of harassment women at this school face every day, and openly tries to intimidate and frighten people away from an event that is meant to help empower them to reclaim their sense of safety. These posters also propagate the destructive cultural stereotypes of those women who do stand up and try to fight this system of violence. By portraying anyone who wants to feel safe on their own campus as “butt ugly,” oversensitive, man-hating he-women, these posters further attempt to marginalize this very important event and to disempower and silence those organizing it.

As a community we have had a very mixed semester for gender relations on this campus. For the first time in many years, we saw an Institute-wide coalition of students and administrators come together to organize a week of events on sexual violence and healthy relationships.

We then saw every classroom and bulletin board plastered with full-color posters featuring demeaning images of women conforming to (and propagating) our culture’s patriarchal definition of sexuality and beauty. We saw the administration agree to place a mandatory event on date rape into next year’s new student orientation featuring one of the country’s leading educators, Katie Koestner. Then we saw posters go up everywhere with a cartoon offering up even those women in positions of power (professors, TAs, etc.) as nothing more than sexual objects for the amusement of fraternity boys, and we then had one fraternity boy shout a sexist (and racist) remark at a visitor to our school.

And now that we have seen students organize a Take Back the Night Rally to try to close out the school year with a positive message of support for survivors of sexual violence, we see that some coward or cowards have taken it upon themselves to not only demean and belittle this effort, but to actively try to threaten and silence the community it is meant to help. For me, the only questions that remain to be answered are which message the MIT community (students, faculty, staff, and administrators) will hear, and which we will take to heart. Will we all come together to help make MIT a safer, more supportive, and more comfortable place for everyone, male and female, to grow and learn and work, or will we continue to propagate the culture of violence and degradation that has gripped this school, this country, this world for far too long? I guess we will find out the answer on Thursday.

Brice Smith is a graduate student in the Department of Physics.