Women Advocacy Group’s soiree and reactions to sexual assault controversy at Amherst

This past Saturday evening, the Bates Women’s Advocacy Group held their first-ever Soiree, held from 8-11pm in the Little Room in Chase. It was advertised as a “classy and elegant evening” and expectations were surely met with delicious hors d’oeuvres catered by the Bread Shack and a nice selection of wines hand-picked by connoisseurs at The Vault in Lewiston. A small Bates jazz ensemble played sets throughout the evening and soiree attendees, both male and female, came dressed in their cocktail hour best.

Formerly known as the Women’s Resource Center on campus, the Bates Women’s Advocacy Group (WAG) is “a student-run campus organization that promotes awareness, discussion, and activism around women’s issues on the college, local, national, and international levels. WAG is intended to serve as a safe and comfortable space for all genders on campus and to provide a place for all members of the Bates community to engage in dialogue and activism regarding gender issues. WAG’s activities are meant to foster a campus atmosphere free of sexism, discrimination and violence.”

One of this year’s s WAG co-coordinators, senior Pamela Ross, spoke about the group’s decision to throw a soiree. “We wanted to increase our visibility on campus and make everyone more aware of our presence.” They knew that an open social event would help generate publicity for the group and in the long term, help expand membership and “get more people on board with [our] planned programing for the year.” The group chose a soiree because “a more relaxed atmosphere would help foster conversation and social connection. We wanted all the guests to become better acquainted with our members and learn more about the group’s purpose.” Pamela added, “We also tackle some very serious issues, so to throw a wild party would have likely been in poor taste.”

Pamela has been a member of the group for several years and notes that “Over time, the WAG has shifted its focus from functioning strictly as a safe space in which to foster dialogue regarding women and gender issues to implementing programming and hosting events that address issues head on.” The group holds weekly meetings at 7pm on Thursdays at 45 Campus Avenue and recently, they “were having such great conversations that we wanted to put what we’d learned into practice.” The WAG wanted to become more active on campus and collaborate with other groups like Women of Color to design and execute educational programming.

At the most recent WAG meeting, an important topic of conversation was the recent news regarding sexual assault and rape at Amherst College. On October 17th, former Amherst student Angie Epifano (’14) wrote an op-ed piece for the Amherst student newspaper that told the story of being sexually assaulted at Amherst and voiced that after the event, the school handled her report inappropriately. The emotional turmoil of the incident and its aftermath eventually led Angie to choose to withdraw from Amherst. In her story, she reflected on the college’s lack of adequate response and support to the incident and wrote, “It was about time people began to realize that Amherst wasn’t just majestic dorms and world-class professors.”

Angie eventually reported her rapist but shared the unfortunate but true fact that he graduated with honors but she never did graduate from the college. The more Angie learned about Amherst’s sexual assault policy, the more she felt relieved and confident about her decision to transfer. In the op-ed, Angie relayed several of the facts about violence at Amherst. It is a school of “almost 1800 students; last year alone there were a minimum of 10 sexual assaults on campus. In the past 15 years there have been multiple serial rapists, men who raped more than five girls, according to the sexual assault counselor. 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.”

Angie’s story has moved women at other universities to speak out about their own experiences of inadequate response to sexual assault on campus. Since the release of the story, the Amherst community has called for reforms. On Wednesday, the newspaper published an open letter to Amherst President Biddy Martin signed by 267 students. The letter shared bits of testimonials from students recounted their own stories and the inadequate care they felt school officials had provided.

The same day, the Amherst Student published another personal account of sexual assault on campus, from former Mt. Holyoke student Alexis Myers who said she was raped by an Amherst College acquaintance. Alexis explained that after she reported her assault, she went through a disciplinary hearing, where she had to repeatedly defend herself from claims that she “made it up” and was forced to explain “rape is rape.” And just last week on the NESCAC blog, “In the ‘Cac,” an anonymous Tufts student wrote that she had spoken to a number of other students who were survivors of sexual assaults that, like her own, went unreported.

WAG’s other co-coordinator, junior Anna Munter, talked about the WAG’s recent conversation regarding the incident at Amherst and the theme of sexual assault on Bates campus. Last year, WAG did a project entitled, “Sex Secrets: A Wall of Stories” which brought forth numerous testimonials from Bates students who had been assaulted during their time at Bates, yet whose experiences have not been addressed or properly dealt with. It was a project where students could anonymously submit sex-related “secrets” in attempt to promote dialogue and provide an alternative form of therapy to victims of sexual crimes. Anna says, “The Amherst rape article has been enormously important and motivational because it is finally making this ‘private’ issue a public one and both WAG members and individuals of the student body are using it as the platform of power they need to fight even harder to make a change at Bates.”

In the next month, WAG is planning to facilitate a dialogue in order to deal with sexual assault at Bates. Some of the issues they plan to address are the ambiguity over the term “consent” and examining how incoming freshmen are taught about assault during Orientation and by their JAs. In addition, Anna expressed concern about the shocking fact that both the sexual assault help-line and webpage are both currently out-of-order and in need of proper maintenance. At their last meeting, WAG members also talked about how people need to be made more aware of the role of Molly Nelson, Bates’ SAVA (Sexual Assault Victim Advocate) and the ways in which she can be a resource to the community.

Munter explained that in general, sexual assault is an uncomfortable issue, but one that affects everybody, either directly or indirectly. As co-coordinator of the WAG, Anna said one of the biggest concerns of the group is finding the best way to discuss such a difficult issue appropriately and sensitively. The upcoming dialogue is meant to foster an environment where students can have a frank conversation about sexual assault and the ways in which it affects them or the people they know here at Bates.

Without a doubt, there was an overwhelmingly unanimous feeling in the group that this is an issue that must be addressed.

Munter reflected, “If

I thought that the type of experience described by Angie Epifano never happened at a place like Bates, I’d be kidding myself. It is easy to choose not to think about sexual assault if it has never happened to you personall

y, but chances are almost every Bates student has had or will have an interaction with either a sexual assault victim or perpetrator during their time here.”

“One of the most heartbreaking things about Epifano’s story was how she felt as though she was fighting her battle alone. One of the things Bates has going for it is the intimacy of its community. It is a setting where we can have this type of campus-wide dialogue and where an attitude-change toward sexual assault is not impossible. However, we need to stop pretending like this issue doesn’t apply to us and sit down and actually have the conversation. Students are responsible for taking care of other students and in order to make that happen, there must first be dialogue,” Munter concluded.

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Overall, WAG co-coordinator Pamela believed the soirée “was definitely a success.” She said that, “Turnout was fantastic and I’ve gotten positive feedback from everyone who attended.” Pamela thinks Batesies appreciated the more relaxed social approach and saw it as “a welcome alternative” to typical weekend activities. “We got to inform many students about WAG and its mission. I think the event’s success helped us gain momentum, which we’ll need to complete the many projects we have planned.”lose to unveiling this multi-stage anti-sexual violence campaign in conjunction with students from the Sociology Department. Together, the students want to better educate peers about the flaws in the sexual culture at Bates and how they can be fixed. The WAG will also be collaborating with Women of Color again this year for National Women’s History Month in March. The group is also in the process of planning a public debate, a panel on feminism, and the Women At Bates Dinner which they’d like to become an annual tradition.