Silence Has the Rusty Taste of Shame

By Guest Contributor

In the aftermath of the Dalai Lama’s visit, students received an email claiming that Middlebury College was divesting from war in order to “align its money with its mission.” While we later discovered that this email was a fake press release sent by concerned students, their call for transparency and their accusation of hypocrisy has not been lost.

This same week, an overwhelmingly powerful account of one woman’s experience with sexual assault at Amherst College went viral. The most shocking part of Angie Epifano’s brave account is not the fact that she was sexually assaulted, nor is it the emotional trauma that resulted. Rather, we find it outrageous that the administration of Amherst not only failed to help Angie heal, but also directly prevented her from doing so. Angie’s counselors advised; “that [she] had to forgive him, that [she] was crazy for being scared on campus and that there’s nothing that could be done.” Epifano was discouraged from pressing charges both by her counselors and by the nature of the hearing process itself. The campus sexual assault counselor wouldn’t let her change dorms in order to live in a separate building from her rapist. While Angie was deterred from studying abroad, writing a thesis and taking the classes she desired, her rapist graduated with honors. The structural injustice of sexual assault at Amherst is best depicted through Angie’s own words: “Rapists are given less punishment than students caught stealing. Survivors are often forced to take time off, while rapists are allowed to stay on campus. If a rapist is about to graduate, their punishment is often that they receive their diploma two years late.”

More than one Middlebury student has expressed doubt that such unjust administrative treatment could happen here. Not here. Not at Middlebury. In recent years, the Sexual Assault Oversight Committee has revised its policy on sexual assault in order to give survivors more confidentiality and dignity. Survivors no longer need to be present at judicial hearings and the investigation of sexual assault is now the responsibility of an outside investigator. Last spring, at the “It Happens Here” event, hundreds of students crowded into the McCullough auditorium to hear personal narratives about our own peers’ experiences with sexual assault. We would like to think that Middlebury provides a kinder atmosphere for survivors. But does it really? If national statistics suggests that one in four college women will be sexually assaulted, why were there only five on-campus incidents reported at Middlebury in 2011?

It would certainly be easier for us to look at this brave account and consider such mistreatment of a sexual assault survivor to be a shamefully unique problem to Amherst. But, that would be naïve. In order to understand how an event like this could happen anywhere — even at Middlebury — we must first accept a difficult truth: the ethical lessons taught at a liberal arts school are not always consistent with the political, economic and social structures that define the school itself.

By sending the hoax email, Middlebury students illuminated the irony of welcoming a world leader who symbolizes peace and compassion to a campus that likely invests money in the most unethical of places. By reading this hoax email, students became aware of the structures of injustice embedded within our administration. This revelation gives us the ability to, as Michel Foucault says, “criticize the workings of institutes which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely will be unmasked so one can fight them.” Students have been talking nonstop about Middlebury’s “divestment from war” so the success of this method cannot be denied. We have taken the bait. We have accepted the challenge.

In Angie’s story, she repeatedly highlights a particular phrase spoken by another survivor — “Silence has the rusty taste of shame.” Middlebury prides itself on teaching students about the importance of social justice. So, as a student body, we feel great about identifying and articulating our problems with the investment decisions of the administration. The mere thought of silence towards such a topic is shameful. Angie Epifano’s experience with sexual assault provides us with another opportunity to take the bait and accept the challenge. We can speak up, we can ask questions and we can collectively work to uncover what remains hidden.

“When politicians cover up affairs or scandals the masses often rise up in angry protestations and call for a more transparent government. What is the difference between a government and the Amherst College campus? Why should we be quiet about sexual assault?”

We  ask the same thing as Epifano.

“Silence has the rusty taste of shame.”

Let’s talk.

Submit your experiences at go/IHH, answer the SAOC surveys sent out this week and find new ways to challenge the structures that perpetuate violence and shame.

Written by EMILY PEDOWITZ ’13 of Briarcliff, N.Y. and CAITLIN WATERS ’13 of Rumson, N.J.