“Break the silence.”
“You don’t know this, but it happened here at Brown.”
These phrases, and more, were written on t-shirts that members of the student-run Sexual Assault Task Force hung between trees on the Main Green on a cool October day in 2007.
These students, donning shirts that read “Stop Campus Rape” and holding signs that said “Sexual Assault Happens Here,” gathered on the Green that day to hand out flyers with sexual assault statistics to parents and families visiting for the University’s annual Family Weekend.
Seventeen years before, protests led by sexual assault activists on campus resulted in sexual assault being added as its own offense to the student code of conduct. In 2007, the task force wanted to bring the issue of sexual violence on campus to the forefront once again after they felt the University was not taking necessary action.
“The administration has always relied on institutional memory not being very long to get away without making major changes,” said Lily Shield ’09, one task force founder. But these women wanted to ensure that the changes demanded by previous activism — but left incomplete by the University — would finally be implemented.
In its 2006 crime report, the University found that there had been zero instances of sexual assault on campus during the preceding year.
But some, namely women at the University who were involved in various feminism-centered clubs on campus, knew that could not be true.
“We were outraged by that because we knew people who had been sexually assaulted on campus and we knew the number zero could not be correct,” said Amy Littlefield ’09, who was a member of the task force during her time on campus. “That proved to us that whatever system there was for reporting sexual assault wasn’t working.”
Littlefield was “struck by how many of (her) friends and peers had experienced sexual assault, and how difficult it was for those people to get what they needed in terms of support and justice from the University administration.”
Though a reporting system did exist, according to task force member Allison Pappas ’08 PhD’22, it was unclear to many students what preventative action the University was taking at the time. “If we were the people running these women’s groups and we didn’t know of anything the University was doing (to mitigate sexual assault), chances are there was nothing happening,” Pappas said.
The system required both parties to be in the same room for hearings, and the process generally was not “easily accessible,” Pappas added. “It wasn’t a carefully crafted system at the time.”
Byy the 2000s, Brown’s campus culture had evolved to include new understandings of sexual assault, making these discussions more inclusive than they had been in the past, according to Littlefield.
But many women found that the changes in culture were not enough. The task force was born out of this dissatisfaction.
“Brown is a microcosm of larger society that was very resistant to hearing about this problem being rampant on campus,” Shield said.
Many fraternities on campus perpetuated a larger culture of sexual assault at the time, Littlefield explained. She recalled one particular incident when a fraternity chanted over a Take Back the Night protest against sexual assault.
Additionally, though the University had implemented anti-sexual violence education for students, many activists did not find it effective. One year, the University had a woman who was a victim of sexual assault share her story during orientation as the only element of education. “It was just promoting this idea of sexual assault as something that happens by a stranger,” Shield said. Shield would have preferred the University to focus on teaching people not to sexually assault, as opposed to teaching people how to avoid it.
Since many of these women had experienced sexual assault or knew those who had, the task force wanted to show that “Brown wasn’t an oasis” free from sexual assault, Shield added.
“Our idea was this happens here, it happens on campus, it happens in our dormitories, it happens in the places where we live and sleep,” Littlefield said.
Several students came together to form the task force in spring 2007 with the goal of pushing the University to improve policies and support systems for victims of sexual assault on campus. They began holding meetings at the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center to brainstorm a list of demands for the University.
They wanted to focus on changing policy as well as creating support services for survivors. “The (change in) culture is something that comes along when policy changes,” Shield explained.
Over the next few months, the group began to create its own systems of addressing sexual assault. They created a student-run sexual assault hotline, a sexual assault support group, the Sexual Assault Peer Education program and a sexual assault resource center at the Women’s Center. They also created demands for the University, including a dedicated staff member to oversee cases of sexual assault, a formalized sexual assault resource center and a review of campus policy.
Though some of the changes demanded by the group were never implemented, many are still in place today. SAPE has a permanent home as part of B-Well Health Promotion, and the sexual assault officer eventually became the Title IX Officer.
In 2014, four of the founders of the task force unexpectedly began to work together again.
After seeing students on campus create a new iteration of the Sexual Assault Policy Task Force as a reaction to the University’s mishandling of a student’s rape case, they felt an intense sense of deja vu, and wrote an op-ed in The Herald to express their discontent with the lack of change.
“Addressing the epidemic of sexual assault requires a more profound change in attitude,” they wrote in the op-ed. “It requires a larger commitment by Brown to stop blaming victims and tolerating perpetrators. It requires replacing the commitment to Brown’s reputation with a commitment to justice.”
It was during this time that they began floating the idea of creating an alumni group to help mitigate sexual assault on campus and formed the group Brown Alumni to Stop Assault.
“There’s something that feels almost defeatist in it, in recognizing that students graduate every four years and that there is no continuity in that way,” Pappas said.
BASTA’s initial goals included maintaining institutional memory and providing external support, such as fundraising, to sexual assault activists on campus. They are now looking to recruit more recent graduates to help them continue their mission.
“It is both uplifting to look back on this rich history of student activism, which goes back years before my time,” said Littlefield. “It’s also demoralizing because we are, in some ways, fighting the same battle again.”
On that October day in 2007, four of the organizers gathered in front of a tree on campus — the same tree four activists had gathered in front of 17 years before as they protested the University’s inaction on sexual violence. They recreated the same pose as those activists, and they held similar signs.
“Recreating that photo was about showing the continuity of the movement and also the unacceptable lack of action from the University, that these issues were coming up again so many years later,” Littlefield said.
Sexual assault activism is “a cyclical thing,” Shield said. “Every couple of years, it resurfaces.”
Though the women “weren’t able to make those lasting institutional changes,” Shield explained, they still want to help the next generation of students in their fight.
“This problem isn’t going away,” Shield said. “Even as generation after generation of students leave, it’s going to keep coming back.”