By Mario Garcia ’18
“I’m white, I’m male, I’m middle class,” he said. “This isn’t supposed to happen to me.” On the evening of April 26, 1989, hundreds of students listened to their peer’s testimony as a part of Princeton University’s third annual Take Back the Night march. As one of many speakers throughout the night sharing their experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault, the student related to the crowd that he had been raped by his stepfather as a child. Echoing the sentiments of many female students at Princeton, he added that he no longer felt safe in his own home.
During the 1991 march, a speaker argued that women of color face this threat of sexual violence systemically as a manifestation of racism: “Rape is the crudest and most direct form of racism. You can’t separate it from the culture of domination, violence and exploitation and women of color are stuck at the bottom of that culture.” Her words concerning sexual violence serve as a testament to his: in a culture of domination over marginalized peoples, privileged individuals are not supposed to face the threat of sexual violence to the extent that marginalized individuals do. Feminist theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the ways different kinds of oppression come together and compound the experience of marginalization. Multiple types of oppression involving multiple marginalized identities interact with sexual violence.
Flyers, 1990-1993, Women’s Center Records (AC248), Box 13.
Take Back the Night is part of an international movement that provides an annual opportunity for communities to stand with survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault and to advocate for social reform that addresses these issues. At Princeton University, a group of students initiated the event in 1987. Throughout the years, the march has taken various forms.
For most of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Saturday night march included various stops on campus to indicate areas where an incident of sexual assault had occurred, concluding on Prospect Avenue. Amidst occasional shouts from hostile onlookers like “We can rape anybody we want” and “That’s what’s wrong with America—too many beautiful dykes,” marchers voiced their opposition to what they called a culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus. To do so, the march used an open-mic format for survivors to share their stories, heal from past traumas, and speak out against sexual harassment and sexual assault themselves. In addition, student organizers would compile a list of demands to send to the current administration, leading to the establishment of the Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources & Education (SHARE) program, blue-light phones, self-defense classes for women, and funding for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Alliance. Calls for change relating to racial minorities and lesbian, gay, and bisexual students in particular persisted throughout the years, with organizers advocating the development of mandatory educational programming concerning racial and sexual harassment specifically and cultural sensitivity and sexual orientation more broadly.
Numerous survivors of sexual harassment or sexual assault who spoke at Take Back the Night emphasized how their marginalized identities informed their experiences. Speaking at the 1993 march, one student quoted in the Princeton Packet described how racial stereotypes reinforce sexist power dynamics:
Before you stands a woman of color who understands the difficulties that come with being a Latin female. Objectified, stereotyped as exotic, sexual, promiscuous, constantly fighting to be remembered for my mind and not my body or my voice, trapped by my own blackness, my own people, into believing that a man is superior to a woman, that a macho has the right to expect certain sexual favors on a whim.
A woman reflecting on her experiences with harassment in the Daily Princetonian recounted how her lesbianism made her a target of homophobic behavior at Princeton:
“The inherent homophobia here is so pervasive and so strong that it prevented many women from being here,” she said, adding that her own experience of revealing her homosexuality last year was the most difficult event in her life.
Take Back the Night provided these women with a platform on which they could share their stories and speak out against sexual violence, especially those experiences which were informed by their racial and sexual identities.
Some critics opposed the march on the grounds that providing these women with such a platform alienated potential supporters and survivors from attending the march. As a student quoted in the Daily Princetonian commented about the 1989 march,
During the march, and ever since, I’ve encountered more than enough people who were disturbed by the attention given to the minority women, especially lesbians on campus…Their main concern…was that the minority issues took away from the unification of the march to address sexual harassment.
Though this student continued by arguing for the importance of highlighting these struggles, her statement nonetheless indicated that others criticized the march for the way that it addressed intersectional oppression facing particular marginalized communities.
Possibly in an effort to ameliorate such criticism, organizers aimed for a less controversial march structure in the mid-1990s to broaden the event’s support base across campus. Thus, organizers of the march replaced the emotionally intensive open-mic format by scheduling survivors who wished to share their stories ahead of the event, with such preparation allowing organizers to provide support to speakers before and after they publicly recounted traumatic events. In addition, the central rally occurring at the start of the event expanded to include the aforementioned planned speakers and artistic performances from various student groups.
Perhaps most consequentially for how the march addressed intersectional oppression, while previous years’ marches had for the most part remained strictly student-organized, the administration itself began to participate more heavily in the planning of the event, manifesting itself in the fact that student organizers eventually did not submit a list of demands to the administration. Without pressure for change serving as a framework for the march, organizers of the march became more likely to shift away from this emphasis on addressing the particular needs of racial and sexual minorities with respect to sexual harassment and sexual assault. Take Back the Night continued to accomplish the important work of providing women with a platform for them to use to speak out against sexual violence in all of its forms, but it did so in a way that often positioned the experiences of white heterosexual women as the norm and neglected the role that racism and heterosexism played against women of color and queer women.
Women’s Center Records (AC248)