There’s an old dirt path that runs behind Orchard Hill, connecting it to the Sylvan Residential Area. It goes through a wooded area behind the hill, with parts that are unlit and dark at night. This path is known to the University of Massachusetts students as the “rape trail.”
This past August, on move-in day, a sign was draped on a private house across the street from Southwest. The sign read, “Drop off your daughters here!” for passersby to see.
UMass Memes, a page on Facebook, has a Harry Potter-themed Internet meme in which Harry states, “I raped all my OWLs today!” referencing the online homework tool at UMass. It has hundreds of “likes” on the page.
We have a rape culture here at UMass, and the time for it to end is now. These are just a few examples of the culture that encourages violence against women, a culture that still pervades our community no matter how progressive or forward-minded we like to think we are.
This week, news broke on campus of a horrific crime, the alleged rape of a UMass student in her residence hall by four men. This young woman showed great courage in coming forward; the majority of sexual assaults still go unreported, resulting in an estimated 97 out of 100 rapists walking free nationally, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). The alleged attackers have been arrested and processed by the justice system, with the UMass Police Department stating that there was no one else in danger as a result of this specific incident.
But while we should support UMPD’s efforts to bring these specific men to justice, we must also remember that rape is never an individual act of violence. On a campus that makes light of a violent crime by casually referring to it in memes and jokes, we must acknowledge that acceptance of rape and the normalization of violence against women are contributing factors to its occurrence. This culture not only allows for rape, but discourages victims and survivors from coming forward and speaking out.
This culture is, of course, far from limited to UMass Amherst. Right across town, there was an outcry at Amherst College in early October over a t-shirt that was distributed at a fraternity’s event, depicting a woman tied up over a spit under the words “Amherst College: Roasting fat ones since 1847.” This was followed by a recent first-hand account of a rape on the Amherst College campus that was published in their student newspaper.
One disturbing part of the Amherst College student’s account is the administration’s view of their own school compared to other places: “The people (outside the school) are different from the people at Amherst, they won’t be well-educated, and they won’t understand you. You’re going to a backwards place.” This is a huge part of the problem in the town of Amherst, one of the most liberal places in America: because the town is so progressive, it can use this as an excuse that it is doing ‘enough’ to combat rape and sexual assault. But no school will ever have done enough until rapes actually stop happening on campus.
Thankfully, we do have great resources on the UMass campus that work to combat sexual assault and rape culture on campus. The Amherst College student herself was referred to a support center at UMass Amherst, presumably the Center for Women and Community, formerly the Everywoman’s Center. This is exactly the type of resource that we, as a campus, need to be supporting: part of the reason the CWC changed its name is to show that the whole community – women, men, students, administrators, faculty, and the entire town – needs to be part of the work it does.
That support can come in many ways, and it can start with challenging the overt examples of rape culture we see in everyday life. We need to challenge our peers when they engage in victim blaming. We need to stop “liking” posts that joke about rape. We need to stop casually referring to an isolated path as a “rape trail.”
I am confident that our community can change this culture. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
The events of the past week matter. UMass will not be silent.
Billy Rainsford is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.