Collectively, Columbia and Barnard have upwards of 500 clubs and organizations—everything from a cappella groups and comedy groups to the Arab Music Ensemble and the Philolexian Society—with each group bringing something unique to the campus community. In recent years, a number of clubs pertaining to sexual health have emerged in response to the growing campus dialogue around the issues of sexual violence, assault, harassment, and consent. Highlighting these issues has become something undeniably crucial on all college campuses, with Columbia being no exception—lest we forget Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) by Emma Sulkowicz, CC ’15, or the recent departure of professors Thomas Roma and Dr. William V. Harris due to allegations of sexual harassment made by former students. It’s become clear that these problems are not far-flung or irrelevant; sexual assault is on our campus—not only among the student body but, distressingly enough, the faculty.
Students are taking the issue of addressing sexual assault and harassment into their own hands, and one of those is Rosie Ryan, BC ’20, co-president of Take Back the Night. Ryan spoke with us about her work with Take Back the Night, which she describes as “an organization dedicated to seeking out and fighting against all forms of gendered and sexual violence, including domestic violence and providing a support system for survivors on campus.” The organization makes an effort to get as involved on campus as possible, holding “a sex-positive fun and health fair called Sexibition where we talk about consent and what good, healthy sex looks like,” Ryan explains. Later, in the spring, Take Back The Night holds a rally in which sexual assault survivors and supporters publicly stand up against violence at Columbia; the group also holds a yearly event called “Speak Out,” “in which [TBTN] takes over Altschul Atrium for a night so survivors can share their stories anonymously or non-anonymously,” Ryan noted.
Though Take Back the Night maintains an impressive presence on campus already, Ryan and her team hope to grow the organization further by providing new resources for sexual assault survivors on campus, who oftentimes lack the support they need to recover from an assault. “We’re trying to provide more programming, especially around art therapy,” Ryan noted, “and we’re also planning on making self-care kits for anniversaries of assaults. Survivors or friends of a survivor can pick them up just for a bit of extra support and love on a very difficult day.”
It’s vital that sexual assault survivors are allowed access to resources for recovery, but some may question the necessity of having entire organizations and clubs devoted to sexual health. Ryan argues that it’s a necessity that these groups exist on college campuses, saying that “on a college campus, a lot of people are just starting to learn how to interact with sex. It’s a very stereotypical thing: You come to college, you have a bunch of sex,” Ryan noted. “We’re intervening at a very crucial point where we can say [some] sexual behavior is not okay, this is how you’re supposed to act, and we’re not going to tolerate violence for the rest of our lives. This is a very crucial time to set that expectation and start educating.”
Sexual violence, however, is not an issue that is black-and-white: Defining what makes assault, rape, or harassment as such is often not transparent. Due to this lack of clarity, Take Back the Night has made it one of its chief goals to help Columbia students better understand the ins-and-outs of consent in every sexual experience. “Sexual assault is important, obviously, and talking about it is important, but we need to start talking about the grayer areas—for instance, the Aziz Ansari story or the story talked about in Cat Person—where it’s not assault or rape, but it’s still certainly informed by violence and a patriarchy,” Ryan said. “We need to start talking about what I call ‘sexual ethics,’ where we’re really clueing into how our partner is responding.” Ryan stated that when having sex, there is much more to consider than just that initial exchange of mutual consent. She stressed the importance of abiding by sexual ethics explaining these codes of conduct as “being intentional about listening, paying attention, and setting up norms for the entirety of the sexual experience, rather than just saying ‘yes,’ although the ‘yes’ is crucially important.”
It’s no secret that Columbia has had its fair share of sexual violence issues, and in order for the current state of sexual efficacy and safety to improve on this campus, there has to be an open dialogue among the student body about these issues—no matter how uncomfortable they may be. Ryan noted, however, that this dialogue must extend beyond just students in order for real change to be enacted. “[Change] starts with the administration at our respective schools—there’s a lot of silence and intentionally hiding of things. In the ‘Me Too’ movement, they talked about the fact that it was an open secret that Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey were assaulters, and on campus there are those people, where it’s an open secret that these people have assaulted people; there’s no action taken to do anything about it.” Ryan ardently voiced her thoughts on the administration’s silence surrounding assault, saying “it’s wonderful the work that groups like Take Back the Back and No Red Tape do, but we need to start pressuring the administration to take responsibility for what’s happening on this campus.”
The issue of sexual violence on campus is one that ultimately must be fully understood by students, faculty, and administrators alike, and that’s a crucial part of what Take Back The Night is aiming to achieve at Columbia and Barnard. What Take Back the Night does is not easy, but it is necessary in an age veiled in sexual violence and ambiguity.
To get involved with Take Back The Night, email firstname.lastname@example.org.