By: Judy Hong, Becca Gamache, Jewel Sharp and Anderson Boyd
The University’s Take Back the Night event, a community rally supporting survivors of sexual assault, is a far cry from tradition.
Around 250 students milled about in front of the Tower, eating free pizza and listening to local Austin band Messages play, instead of marching through the Austin streets with banners decrying sexual assault. Tables from various student and LGBTQ support groups bordered the rally’s perimeter, handing out information on mental health counseling and support groups instead of placards and signs. It may not be a traditional Take Back the Night, but Erin Burrows said the style works for UT.
“We have adapted it to our campus,” said Burrows, the prevention and outreach specialist for Voices Against Violence. “Typically it’s a march throughout the community, but we really stay here on the main mall, and we focus on our resource fair and speak out for survivors.”
Burrows said Voices Against Violence, which spreads awareness and provides support for on-campus survivors as part of the University’s Counseling and Mental Health Center, has held the event at UT for well over a decade. But she said Take Back the Night as an organized event started much earlier.
“It actually started in the 1970s as part of the women’s liberation and feminist movements,” Burrows said.
According to their website, the Take Back the Night Foundation formed in the late 1960s as a joint coalition between European and American community organizers. The foundation organized early marches in 1973, protesting pornography in San Francisco and the serial murders of women of color in Los Angeles.
The first official “Take Back the Night” march occurred in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1975, after microbiologist Susan Alexander Speeth was stabbed to death while walking home alone at night. After a similar yet unrelated “Reclaim the Night” march in Belgium in 1976, marches and rallies spread across Europe and Asia, reaching India, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Keynote speaker Paula X Rojas, a Chilean community organizer who herself is a survivor of sexual violence, said organized rallies like Take Back the Night are important for the community because they break the silence surrounding sexual assault.
“Gender and sexual violence is often private, and because of patriarchy and the way society works we tend to want to keep it private because it’s ‘shameful,’” Rojas said. “And so making that leap of going public, sharing our story, really cracks the system in a way that services and brochures and programs don’t. It cracks the problem in a deeper way.”
While the march began as a women-only event — and has taken flack from critics about its treatment of other survivors, particularly male — Take Back the Night is now inclusive of all sexual assault survivors, regardless of gender. Burrows said the University’s event is no different, even though only one male survivor chose to speak.
“We talk about sexual assault no matter what the gender of the survivor is,” Burrows said.
The amount of support for survivors of sexual violence, along with the insistence that the event is a “safe space” for them to feel comfortable in, attracts many LGBTQ organizations both student and local. Brin Kieffer, a member of local LGBTQ organization StandOut!, said she’s attended the event for the last three years.
“I love this event because it provides support for survivors, and thus my organization and I decided to table this year,” Kieffer said. While she said she enjoys the speakers, her favorite part comes during the performances beforehand.
“There’s usually a lot of profound poetry that goes on,” Kieffer said. “I find it inspiring.”