SARN vigil calls attention to victims of sexual violence

On Monday May 8, St. Olaf students gathered on the quad at dusk to commemorate individuals who have died as a result of sexual violence. This event, which was held specifically in honor of LGBTQ victims of sexual assault, was organized by the Sexual Assault Resource Network and the Gender and Sexuality Center.

The event, which had a relatively small turnout, began outside Buntrock and then proceeded to the Windchime Memorial Tower. Josh Jacobson, one of the SARN co-chairs and the event organizer, gave a short reading. Participants were given candles in commemoration of assault victims. There was then a moment of silence in remembrance. Jacobson addressed the motivation and the history behind this event.

“The vigil was started last year as a follow up to the Survivor Panel as a way to remember victims of sexual violence who have not survived. The vigil also gives those who know victims the chance to express their feelings.”

In his reading Jacobson referenced several high profile instances of sexual violence as evidence for the significance of the event. These included Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was raped and murdered in 1993, and Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was killed because of his sexual orientation in 1998. These two events helped spark the “Matthew Shepard Act,” a piece of legislation passed in 2009 that specifically addressed hate crimes directed at the LGBTQ community.

SARN’s hope was that the public setting of the vigil, combined with the candles, would boost awareness about sexual violence.

“We want to give voice to those people who have not survived sexual violence while also giving friends and family members a chance to express their feelings,” said Jacobson. “We want to remind the St. Olaf community that not everyone survives sexual violence.”

The issue of sexual assault on college campuses has vaulted into the national spotlight in the past several weeks. Several high-profile cases in which college administrations have mishandled sexual assault investigations prompted the Obama administration to create the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, with the goal of reducing on campus sexual assault.

“I’m glad that the White House has created this task force to address sexual violence on college campuses,” said Jacobson. “The results of this task force may shed light on some of the problems with Title IX enforcement and how the current enforcement regime can actually perpetuate violence.”

Jacobson also addressed the ways that colleges report sexual assaults as well as the language that colleges use to describe incidents of sexual assault. By omitting certain words and underreporting the crimes, schools can “trivialize the problem” of sexual violence.

“In fact,” said Jacobson, “this is why St. Olaf continues to use ‘forcible fondling’ when describing some sexual violence. However, enforcement mechanisms such as these do not address the root of the problem. We need to stop perpetuating the belief that people need to say ‘no’ in order to take consent away and start perpetuating the belief that people need to enthusiastically and soberly say yes.”

Jacobson did say that the St. Olaf administration “has been extremely helpful in response to incidents of sexual violence. They do whatever they can to protect survivors of sexual violence.”

The vigil serves as a reminder to the St. Olaf community that sexual violence is an important issue that needs continued attention.