Author: Anonymous Middlebury College Student
A close friend of mine recently explained to me that she struggles with the word powerful. She’s afraid that feeling too powerful will leave another powerless so she’s trying to envision a world where power can be shared. I believe in the importance of this but I also can’t quite find another word to explain the survivors of sexual violence that I have met. They are the most powerful people I know. So I’m left believing in two forms of power.
This same friend once stood up here and shared her own experience of assault with a clarity and insight so resonating that I return to it every time I must grapple with the anger, sadness and confusion that sexual violence engenders. She spoke about refusing to remain angry with her rapist, but instead, trying to speak out, to change a society that teaches us to objectify, to dominate, and shame, and to rape. Now graduated, she teaches sex education to high school students, focusing on consent and pleasure. She teaches pleasure workshops to adults and also interns at PeaceWomen in the UN. If you ask me what powerful looks like, I see her up here shaking with passion as she shared her insight with hundreds of students, vowing to never give up on her goal of ending violence.
Another survivor I call a close friend worked on a social norm campaign, highlighting students holding a poster stating why they stand up to sexual assault. She single-handedly took hundreds of individuals’ photos, scheduling individual meetings for each shot. She has also gone on to implement a compassionate and much needed support group for survivors of assault at Middlebury. I have witnessed her support many other survivors at Middlebury with kindness and love. The college is a kinder, warmer place because of her.
I have had the good fortune to meet another student this year whose essence to me is power. Since I have known her, she has started a positive sex column, fought to improve justice for survivors of violence and is one of two candidates for the Truman Scholarship because of her plan to improve policy around immigrant survivors of sexual violence. She’s brilliant and kind and I have no doubt that the world will be a better place because of what she has in store for it.
This year, you have probably seen the photos of Emma Sulkowicz, a survivor of sexual violence at Colombia University, carrying her mattress through the streets of New York. She is one more incredible example of the un-worldly resilience, determination and strength that survivors of violence have shown.
I’m still trying to find the words to express my gratitude and awe for the work survivors are doing and have done. I also struggle with the word to describe someone affected by sexual violence. A victim is defined as “a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious action.” A survivor is defined as “a person that survives.” The people I know and love that have been affected by violence are neither of these things. They are not the violence inflicted on them, and they are not merely the aftermath of that experience either. As individuals, we are the collection of so many moments and experiences. Many individuals that I know are advocates for a more peaceful, respecting society—and others may not be. So often we forget that it is not the job of the affected to teach and to rally.
But when they do just that, they do it with knowledge, compassion, resolution and bravery. And for that I am so, so thankful. Thank you to the advocates in my life that have taught me about love and forgiveness, society and change, resilience and determination. And about a power, different from that which causes hierarchies, violence and oppression. A power based on compassion, bravery, and love and the audacity to fight to dismantle an old, fucked up system with something better.