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Feminist Activism for the College Grrl
By Brooke N. Benjestorf

Women Unite! Take Back the Night!

The time has come. The month that many of us feminist in college look forward to all year long. It is April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month and the month of that infamous feminist march: Take Back the Night.

I have heard many things about the history of Take Back the Night. I have heard that the first Take Back the Night marches occurred in Germany and they started out as marches against pornography. I have also heard that the marches first started happening in England protesting the same thing that we protest today, womenís fear of walking alone at night. What I do know for sure is that the first march to happen in the US was in San Francisco in 1978. Since then there have been marches all over the nation and organized by a multitude of various groups, including groups based out of college campuses.

Take Back the Night is a particularly special event on college campuses because they tend to make feminists out of unsuspecting freshman. Many women have reported their first ďclickĒ moment happening at their first Take Back the Night march. They are also a really powerful event because it is a highly emotional experience. Rape and other forms of sexual violence is an extremely sensitive issue, and what ends us happening is Take Back the Night brings out those some of those intense emotions, and because it is intended to be empowering, the strongest emotion that can be felt at these events is anger. And anger is awesome! We should be angry that approximately one in six women will be raped in their lifetime. But the fact of the matter is that you have to be kind of careful with this march because of the anger that this issue elicits.

First of all, a good Take Back the Night March will start with a rally. The rally should definitely have a keynote speaker as well as a few other people speaking on the topic so people start to get thinking about and riled up about the topic. Last year we had Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, co-authors of Manifesta and Grassroots, as the keynotes at the Take Back the Night on my campus. One thing I will say about choosing a keynote is to be very careful in your selection. Every Take Back the Night that I have attended and organized has featured a keynote speaker who was an awesome speaker, but did not really speak on the particular topic of sexual assault and Take Back the Night. Thus, my advice is to try and find a keynote speaker who specifically speaks on the issues you want addressed at your rally. This isnít really that difficult as there is a wide range of speakers out there. I recommend scanning SoapboxInc.com for speakers.

After you have your speakers covered, the sky is the limit. Iíve been to Take Back the Night rallies that featured the local chapter of a group called ďThe Raging Grannies,Ē who are a singing troop comprised of progressive women in the community who sing about political issues and social change. Iíve also been to Take Back the Night rallies that featured self defense demonstrations. A bit of a warning on self defense demonstrations, however. Iíve have heard tale of women having their post traumatic stress syndrom triggered at a Take Back the Night march that featured a self defense demonstration because of the presentation was so similar to the attack. However, I definitely recommend holding self defense trainings around Take Back the Night as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Week.

At the Take Back the Night rally on my campus we always feature the Radical Cheerleaders, who are anarchafeminist cheerleaders who cheer for social justice. I want to plug joining a Radical Cheerleading squad, because itís pretty much the most fun a feminist activist can have. If there isnít a squad near you, I recommend you get a group of people together and start one, because they are in high demand for activist events. The Radical Cheerleaders work best at the end of the rally because they are really good at riling people up and getting some good energy going. In particularly, the Radical Cheerleaders get people in the mood to yell, chant and clap, which is exactly the mood you want your audience in at the end of the rally.

Now comes the march. This part can be kind of tricky for activists in terms of organizing because traditionally Take Back the Night is a women only march. At my school we have had to jump through some serious hoops to be able to make the march officially women only because equal access and opportunity stuff applies to men as well. If you canít get your march officially women only, you can definitely make it unofficial women only by making announcements at the rally. This also provides a great forum for explaining why the march is women only. People have many opinions on this matter but, at least for me, what it comes down to is this: this march is about proclaiming our disgust with the fact that women canít feel safe walking at night without some protective figure present (namely, a man). It would completely defeat the purpose of the march if there were a bunch of men around, as well intentioned as they may be.

A great solution to the issue of well-intentioned men who just want to be supportive of the cause is to organize a men only event to take place during the march. At my school, the men set up a candlelit vigil for when the women return and spend their time talking about the issue of sexual violence in a menís only context. This event is led by Western Men Against Violence, which is a group on my campus whose mission is to ďcreate a campus and community free of violence, to promote relationships based on equality and respect, to encourage positive, healthy expressions of masculinity, and to be visible, outspoken allies for all who experience prejudice and discrimination.Ē This group is awesome, and if there isnít something like it on your campus, there should be. Men are essential to the success of the feminist movement. Someone great once said, ďIf it took only women, we would be done by now.Ē

I just have one last word of caution for those organizing a Take Back the Night march. Perpetrators may attend your event. This is a very real probability (it has happened more than once on my campus since Iíve been here). Please have a plan for this in the event that it occurs. And remember, have fun! Take Back the Night is all about empowering women and reclaiming our right to exist free of violence. Women Unite! Take Back the Night!

Promoting Take Back the Night can be activism in and of itself if you do it right. Teal ribbons are the official ribbon for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so itís relatively easy to get the word out simply by passing out teal ribbons all over campus. These ribbons could be fastened to a little card with a few statistics about sexual assault (to spread awareness) and the date, time, and location of your upcoming Take Back the Night march. Another good ideas is to take this concept a little further by going into the dorms and doing a little door to door with these ribbons/info cards and also passing out rape whistles. For those of you who donít know what a rape whistle is, itís a huge whistle that can be heard from up to a mile away and it usually has a unique sound that campus safety people can recognize so that if youíre being attacked, you can blow on it and help will be on the way. Also, blowing the whistle has also proved to deter assailants because the noise makes them scared they will get caught. If your campus does not have these, they should. Usually funding is the greatest obstacle in getting them, but when women are most likely to be raped between the ages of 18 and 25, I think itís safe to say that itís a wise use of campus funds.

Tabling (sitting at a table in some high traffic area with all of your activism materials at hands) as a form of promotion takes all of these ideas to the next level. Not only can you have way more information available for people to take with them (brochures and pamphlets from local and on-campus organizations that work with survivors, information on how to file a on-campus sexual assault charge, detailed information on the history of Take Back the Night, and more detailed statistics are examples), but you can do some pretty powerful things in the name of getting peopleís attention. One example of this is having a bunch of teal ribbons handy and a clothesline behind your table and allowing people to tie a ribbon on the line to honor a victim/survivor of sexual assault. Another idea is to have a wheel of fortune type wheel at your table with questions about sexual assault. If the participant gets the answer right, they win a piece of candy. If they get the question wrong, they gain some knowledge on sexual assault (and probably a piece of candy just for playing). There are lots of possibilities.

Take Back the Night kind of goes hand in hand with Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so itís easy to come up with enough events to fill the whole month with. Sexual assault is a really sensitive topic (I said it once, and Iíll say it again), so intimate discussion groups are really good. There are a couple of different ways to approach this. One way is a casual, intellectual discussion group. This is where you pick a topic and discuss the intellectual side of things, maybe even debate a little bit. There is usually a facilitator who is an expert on the matter and the intention is to gain greater insight into the issue. Brown bag lunches are great settings for this type of event. Whatcom County Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services is holding one this month on eating disorders and sexual assault, but other good topics are racialized sexual violence, rape in the queer community, and marital rape. The other side of the discussion group is the speak out, which is highly personal and somewhat reminiscent of group therapy. Every year, a group Iím involved in called Womenís Empowerment and Violence Education holds a Night of Testimony the night before Take Back the Night. We start the event off by laying down ground rules for the event such as no stereotyping, no personal attacks, what is said in this room doesnít leave this room, and other rules to create a safe space where people can feel comfortable talking about and issue that is extremely difficult to discuss (especially with strangers). During the first hour of the event, men and women share their stories and feelings together, and then during the second hour, we split into gender specific groups. The major problem we have been having with this event is coming up with an effective way of bringing the event to a close in a way that does not trivialize the issue, but allows people to walk away without feeling totally crummy. The best idea we have come up with so far is to read an empowering poem, but I would love to hear ideas for all you savvy feminist activists out there.

An easy to plan event that is sort of like the discussion group is showing a film on the topic and then holding a discussion afterwards. If you choose to show a documentary, my only caution is that you will not get very strong attendance from people not already interested in the issue. Showing a fictional film or a film based on true events may prove to be a more interesting discussion as you may have people in the room who donít share the same views. I highly recommend checking out the film "Foxfire" starring Angelina Jolie for this type of event.

Another fun and somewhat easy way to spread awareness during Sexual Assault Awareness Week is to make a zine on the topic. I will be distributing a zine featuring an academic essay I wrote last summer on why rape happens throughout the course of the month as part of my contribution to the cause. Zines are one of the best ways to get your ideas out into the public. There is no one to censor your words and you can choose to remain anonymous if you want (I usually do).

A fun and not so easy event that is perfect for Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a benefit concert. This may even be a good event to plan for just after the Take Back the Night march. People really tend to want to have a dance party after Take Back the Night because the energy is so high. But no matter, a benefit concert is a good idea for anytime of the month. I always encourage feminists organizing concerts to only book all female bands, but this sometimes isnít possible. The important thing is that your bands support your cause, and that you raise money in an effort to end rape. You can donate the money to a local organization working to end sexual violence, or you can donate to a national organization like the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). In a world where money is the stuff that makes things happen, fundraising is an essential part of feminist activism.

Good luck to everyone in this upcoming month. I know that the issue is a real downer, but let the fact that you are doing you part to end this atrocity console you, and let the fact that Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Take Back the Night are nationally recognized give you hope. We are making a difference. We are making change. We just have to keep the faith.


I want to hear about the feminist activism happening on your campus -- shoot me an e-mail and we'll compile a rich database of ideas for feminists to share.

Brooke N. Benjestorf is a senior at Fairhaven College, an interdisciplinary concentration design program at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. Her chosen concentration is Feminist Activism and it includes study in writing, film, womenís studies, and social change. When she is not being a feminist activist extraordinaire she loves to hang out with her girlfriends, make art, and take good care of her dog (her best friend), Paytah.

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