Jessica Langbein

Still Taking Back the Night

On a recent evening in downtown New York City, about 150 students showed up to demand safer streets and educate their community about sexual violence. Singers sang, poets slammed, and survivors spoke not only to the crowd that had gathered around the stage, but also to the passers-by, to the people in Washington Square Park, to students leaving their classes, and to anyone who happened to be on the streets at the time. While marching, the group chanted "Sexist, rapist, anti-gay/ You won't take our rights away," beat on water jugs-cum-drums, and, thanks to the NYPD, stopped traffic all around NYU's "campus," Greenwich Village.

This group was "taking back the night," and participating in what has become an event on campuses around the nation. While NYU has only been holding Take Back The Night (TBTN) rallies since 1996, the event has a much longer history. Some stories claim that TBTN began in 1976 in Belgium at the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women. But the most pervasive version holds that the first rally was held in Germany in 1973 in response to a string of murders and rapes. TBTN officially crossed the Atlantic in 1978 and was used as a theme for a national protest march at the first feminist conference on pornography in San Francisco. Here the rally was first given its namesake, Take Back the Night, and has been a staple of American campus feminism.


"Take Back the Night" Kit from Campus Outreach Services

Witness Justice Website

V-Day: Until the Violence Stops

Men Can Stop Rape

SafetyNet Website

All These Years

New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project

Today TBTN events are held both on urban campuses like NYU and Harvard University and on more suburban and rural campuses like Texas A and M . Many are held in April, in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and some take place in the early Fall, to coincide with the beginning of the school year. And while TBTN events include a vast spectrum of political activism, ranging from candlelight vigils to rowdy protests, from discussions and lectures to art exhibits, the goal is universal. Jennifer Johnson, a member of NYU's TBTN Planning Committee two years in a row, says "The focus [of TBTN] has the same general purpose as it always had: "to put an end to sexual violence and to make women, and all people, feel safe walking down the streets and in their communities." TBTN's purpose may have remained consistent since its beginnings in the 1970's, but in other respects, it has changed considerably. First off, while the social climate may be over all more hospitable to feminism than it was in the 1970's TBTN activists now have to fight accusations from conservatives that the night is for "feminazis" to gather and "male-bash."

TBTN has also become a much more diverse event over the years. TBTN, along with many forms of feminism, has been scrutinized even within the activist community for oftentimes excluding people of color and from lower economic strata. Nevertheless, TBTN has evolved thanks to the efforts of many within the feminist/activist/ radical community. Jamie Steiger, Coordinator for NYU's Office of Sexual Assault Prevention, Education and Support (SAPES) says: "the evolution of Take Back the Night reflects the growth of the feminist movement in that it recognizes that women's experiences are diverse and that oppression based on gender intersects with race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, class, national origin, and ability."

Although many campuses still bar men from participation, claiming the need for women's safe space, many universities recognize that sexual violence affects a much larger community than women. And on some campuses, young men are coming together to recognize their role in changing the patterns of sexual violence. For instance, some male students at the University of Virginia have formed a group called One in Four with purpose of "educating men about what rape survivors go through."

In an article in the University of Virginia's Cavalier Daily, which reported on a Take Back the Night rally that drew some 400-participants in 2001, Jeff Ludwig, vice president of One in Four said he had urged the men attending the rally to "educate yourselves and ... learn a little bit more about what it means for these women to survive."

The theme of this year's TBTN at NYU was "Every Body, Every Day, Everywhere: Sexual Violence Affects us All" and from the diversity of the crowd and the stories shared, the event lived up to its name. During testimonials -- the defining moment of most TBTN rallies when survivors and their supporters are allowed to share their stories -- one woman got on stage and talked about her uncle who was notorious for molesting young girls. Another young women who bounded on stage to remind the audience that catcalls are subtler but nevertheless real forms of sexual violence. And another survivor of sexual violence encouraged other women to reclaim their fear, as she had, through taking a self-defense class. TBTN served as the megaphone for these survivors to talk about their experiences with sexual violence, to communicate with their community that rape, molestation, and harassment are real, and perhaps most important, to educate about the pervasiveness of what many believe is just a "woman's issue."

"Women are the most common and direct victims of sexual violence," says Johnson, "but we must remember that not all women are the same and should not be represented so." More attention is being paid to sexual violence within the gay, lesbian, transgender, and intersex communities. While many people feel that rape and other forms of sexual violence are only problems that women face, statistics have shown that 1 in 6 men will experience some kind of sexual assault in their lifetime. Counselors say that when most people think of male rape, they think of prison rape. But many male victims of sexual violence are assaulted by family members, lovers, or acquaintances. And because the stigma is so great, cases of male rape are still grossly underreported.

Discussions of sexual violence within the lesbian community also came up at the NYU event. It is estimated that as many as one third of lesbians have been victims of sexual violence at the hands of another woman. But, according to Jane Lowers, author of the article "Rape: When the Assailant is One of Our Own," "Rape carries such clear images of male attackers that survivors may fear that accusing a fellow lesbian will be seen as disloyal or purposely destructive." Because many assume rape to be about sex when it's really about power, sexual violence within these communities often gets ignored. Take Back the Night seeks to give these issues a voice. In fact, silence is perhaps the greatest challenge that TBTN activists face

Despite the pervading, oppressive silence about rape, TBTN, like most progressive movements, is suffering the brunt of a cultural backlash. The Independent Woman's Forum, an organization that, according to their website, claims to be "the voice of reasonable women with important ideas who embrace common sense over divisive ideology," has begun sponsoring "Take Back the Campus" campaigns, which seek to counter the claim that American women live in fear and oppression. While Take Back the Campus' intention seems to be the empowerment of women through denying their classification as a "subordinate class," this "empowerment" may only add to the humiliation, alienation, and fear that many survivors face. Critics feel that organizations like the IWF ignore the problem and encourage the status quo: silence and shame. Rather than educating young men and women about the pervasiveness of sexual violence especially on college campuses, public figures like Katie Roiphe, author of The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus have spun acquaintance rapes as merely the results of a few "bad nights." Roiphe and others contest statistics of sexual violence with anecdotal evidence ("Well, none of my friends ever talked about it, so how could all these girls be getting raped?"). Indeed, TBTN and similar forms of activism are becoming construed more as community dividers than builders. And then there are the statistics, themselves. One in four women on campuses have experienced some form of sexual assault. One in six women will be assaulted while they are of college-age. Forty-four percent of rape victims are under age 18. Somewhere in America, a woman is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes. Numbers like these can often be more paralyzing than motivating. With numbers like these, can anything really be done?

TBTN does not only provides a testament to campus violence, it also puts voices to daunting statistics. Ordinary survivors provide faces to the numbers, and prove that it is possible to acknowledge the violence they have experienced and to move on, to become part of a movement to prevent more violence from happening. In addition, protesting sexual violence in a public space in a large group in a community provides an accessible and powerful way to rise up to cold and static statistics. TBTN mobilizes while numbers often do nothing but paralyze. Of course, the event organizers also aspire to help create a society where no form of sexual violence exists. But until that goal is achieved, however, students around the country will continue to marching, speaking witness to sexual assault and working to take back the night.

Jessica Langbein, 21 is a recent graduate of New York University. This year she plans to travel to Japan to work for the JET Programme

Happy Holidays!