Amid sexual assault epidemic, students are writing their own civil rights into law

For the Monitor
Published: 7/29/2020 6:00:41 AM

For decades, as evidence of epidemic-level rates of sexual violence on college campuses piled up, New Hampshire remained one of 30 states with no legislation in place to keep students safe.

On June 20, that all changed: New Hampshire became the first state to pass the Every Voice bill – legislation written by students and survivors to protect our own campuses against sexual violence. Today, it’s no understatement to say New Hampshire now has some of the most comprehensive protections against campus sexual violence of any state in the country, and it’s all thanks to the brave students and survivors who told their stories.

The significance of this victory should not be overlooked. For decades, survivors of campus sexual violence have been silenced, ignored, and erased. As recently as 2018, when students and survivors in our organization, the Every Voice Coalition, reached out to request a meeting with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, we did not even receive a response. So, instead of hoping those in the halls of power would open their doors, we decided to knock them down – by writing our own civil rights into law.

Today, one in five women in America fall victim to rape or sexual assault on our college campuses. You’ve probably seen the headlines. Emma Sulkowicz. Chanel Miller. The Vanderbilt gang rape. And those are just the cases that the media chooses to cover – for every one case of rape or sexual assault that is reported, hundreds or even thousands more suffer in silence.

When we began organizing, we chose the name “The Every Voice Coalition” because we believe that every voice deserves to be heard. Yes, every voice. Because there’s a lot the “one in five” statistic leaves out. It leaves out the 1 in 16 men who are assaulted on our college campuses – yes, sexual assault happens to men, too. It leaves out that the rate is even higher for people who identify as non-binary, for people of color, for LGBTQ students, first-generation college students, and members of other marginalized communities. It leaves out the human cost that sexual violence imposes on students, families, and communities.

As students and young alumni, this isn’t theoretical to us. It’s personal. We know the cost of sexual violence all too well – and we also know that more can and should be done to keep our campuses safe. No one is against gathering more data on sexual violence. No one thinks survivors should be forced to live in the same dorm or eat in the same dining hall as the person who assaulted them. No one thinks survivors should be punished for coming forward to report an assault, and no one thinks survivors should struggle to access medical care and counseling.

Now, thanks to years of grassroots advocacy, students and survivors in New Hampshire won’t have to.

And yet, across the country, 30 states still have no laws in place to keep students safe from campus sexual violence. What started today in New Hampshire can’t end here. Not when so many are still suffering in silence. Not when so many are still denied justice.

Today, it has been more than 50 years since researchers first published data showing the reality of campus sexual assault. It’s been more than 20 years since the American Medical Association declared sexual violence a “silent violent epidemic” and called for an urgent national response. And yet here we are, in 2020, and prevalence rates of sexual violence have hardly decreased since the 1970s. Like gun violence in our streets, sexual assault on our college campuses has become a fact of life. We can’t accept that.

After years of grassroots advocacy, the passage of the nation’s first Every Voice bill, written by students and survivors, sends a clear message: Enough is enough.

We won’t continue to stand by and watch statistics come to life in our lives and the lives of those we love. They may call sexual violence a “silent epidemic,” but students and survivors across the country are speaking out. From New Mexico to Virginia, from Nevada to Maine, it is students and survivors who are leading the charge in calling for real, structural change. If there was any doubt, this week’s news in New Hampshire makes it clear: Every email we send, every letter we write, every phone call we make, every meeting we organize, every rally we attend brings us one step closer to change. And we won’t stop until justice, at last, is served – not only in New Hampshire but all across this country.

(John Gabrieli is the executive director of the Every Voice Coalition.)


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