Video produced by Anna Haynes.
Thursday night’s Take Back the Night event was emotional for all, as attendees shared their experiences with sexual and domestic violence and fought to combat the issue at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The event is hosted annually by Sigma Psi Zeta (SPZ), a multicultural Asian-interest sorority at CU. For over 10 years, the sorority, whose philanthropic focus is combating violence against women, has hosted the event on campus. This year, the sorority partnered with the recently-formed Expel Abusers campaign, a student alliance seeking to change how CU addresses campus sexual assault.
A group of around 70 to 80 students, both men and women, gathered at the UMC south terrace for the event. After opening remarks from the sorority, Sam West from the Expel Abusers campaign spoke about what the group is hoping to achieve, specifically their goal to have students who are convicted of committing sexual violence automatically expelled from CU.
“You all pay to be here,” West said, asking the crowd why they should pay tuition to be on the same campus with someone who hurt them.
Jessica Weber from the Office of Victim Assistance briefly addressed the group to speak about the services the office provides. She encouraged students to reach out to the office if they have experienced a traumatic event. She discussed the need to build a more supportive and empowering community, citing a 2015 survey by the university that found that 39% of victims of violence did not tell anyone about the incident.
This year’s speaker for the event was Nanette Chezum, an activist and survivor of domestic abuse. Chezum shared her story of being emotionally abused by a former boyfriend, a police officer. She confessed that before her experience, she judged women who stayed in abusive relationships, wondering why they didn’t leave. What she grew to realize was that abuse happens slowly—she kept waiting for things to get better because she didn’t realize that what she was experiencing was really abuse.
Eventually, a friend suggested that she google emotional abuse, leading her to read about every “tactic after tactic” her abuser used on her. Shocked, she left the relationship and eventually testified against him in an investigation that revealed he had a pattern of domestic abuse allegations.
Chezum said that the root cause of domestic abuse is not stress, substance abuse or other commonly blamed factors but “power and control.” She believes that the legal system needs to have people who are specialized in recognizing and addressing domestic violence and said she is open about her story because it’s important for people to understand how abuse functions.
After Chezum’s speech, attendees were invited to share their own experiences. A number of women and men told intimate and painful stories of experiencing sexual abuse and domestic violence. Multiple speakers gave messages of support for other victims of violence and spoke about the need for more comprehensive university policies to protect assault victims.
For one SPZ member, growing up in a household of domestic violence led her to believe that the sexual abuse she suffered while in a relationship was “ok.” She grew to realize that the abuse wasn’t her fault and that she was being mistreated.
One man spoke about being sexually harassed in a gay bar over spring break. He said though it wasn’t his first time experiencing sexual violence, he hopes it will be the last.
“I know I’m not weak because of what happened,” he said. He urged listeners to check in on their friends, because “you never know what they’re going through.”
One woman tearfully approached the mic and said that while she wasn’t ready to share her story yet, hearing everyone else speak inspired her because it gave her hope that one day she would be able to do the same.
Seth Greer, a member of the Expel Abusers campaign, shared a story about one of his male friends who intervened to stop another man from sexually assaulting an inebriated woman.
“It’s very important for us as men to hold other men accountable,” he said.
Another woman shared that she was a victim of child sexual abuse. Though the person who abused her went to prison for eight years, he is now out and she worries he will try to contact her.
“Just knowing he knows where I go to school is terrifying,” she said, adding that she can’t imagine what it’s like for people whose abusers are on the same campus as them.
Following this, the group marched around campus, holding signs and chanting slogans against sexual violence. As they walked past the dorms near Farrand Field students opened their windows and cheered in support.
Later, the group held a candlelight vigil and though the night was windy, everyone held their candles and stood in a circle to observe a moment of silence for victims of violence.
Claire Schlose, one of SPZ’s philanthropic chairs, said that she thought this year’s collaboration with Expel Abusers went well. Expel Abusers was organized this semester in response to several incidents of sexual violence at CU this year, as well as the proposed changes to Title IX that would loosen universities’ responsibilities for addressing campus sexual violence. They published a petition earlier in April outlining seven demands they have for the university in how they address campus sexual assault.
Clark Zimmerman, one of the group organizers, said that the group has been working on spreading awareness about their petition, which currently has over 1,000 signatures. She said they plan to work on organizing over the summer, and hope to do more activism next semester, including attempting to arrange meetings with university administrators.
Zimmerman also mentioned the group’s opposition to CU presidential finalist Mark Kennedy, saying “if he is elected he’s not going to be in support of our cause.” Kennedy visited Boulder earlier this morning for an open forum which ended his week-long tour of CU campuses.
Title IX changes only came up briefly during the forum, but Kennedy said that at the University of North Dakota, where he is currently president, a decision to continue to address sexual violence cases that occur off-campus has been made, even though new regulations do not require universities to address off-campus assaults. Kennedy said that Title IX outlines what universities “have to do,” not the extent of what they are allowed to do.
The women’s hockey team at UND filed two Title IX complaints against university after their program was terminated due to severe budget cuts, a decision Kennedy helped make and which was very unpopular with the UND community. According to the Daily Camera, the Department of Education said that there was insufficient evidence to the complaints. The team then filed a class action lawsuit against the university in an attempt to reinstate women’s hockey, which has yet to be decided on.
Contact CU Independent Managing Editor Carina Julig at firstname.lastname@example.org.