“There is no space we can create in a world as damaged as the one we live in which is absent from violence. That we even think it is possible says more about our privilege than anything else. Our only autonomy lies in how we negotiate and use power and violence ourselves.” – from Safety is an Illusion: Reflections on Accountability by Angusita Celeste
Violence is not an isolated act that is done by a “bad person” to someone else. The causes for violence do not lie within the individual but within the community, within the societal institutions that allow violence to occur in the first place. Sexual violence is not the failure of one person but a failure of a community. This violence occurs because of and further perpetuates the patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism.
Sexual violence at Davidson is not an isolated phenomenon, and the power dynamics that allow for violence to occur here in the first place have existed since the time the institution was founded. Davidson College is built on land that has been seized from indigenous people through their displacement, injury, and genocide. Our college was built by the labor of enslaved Black workers, and from wealth that was accumulated from their exploitation. Davidson would not exist as an institution without the terror and violence of white supremacy. The “ownership” of people extended to the ownership of their bodies, and many enslaved people were subject to violent acts including sexual violence by those who enslaved them. The pattern of sexual violence against enslaved people can be inferred from the fact that many records, such as the records of Brevard Davidson, who was part of the Davidson family, do not list the fathers of enslaved children, making it easier for white assaulters to get away with fathering children though acts of assault.
The relationship between white supremacy and sexual violence is visible and documented in the archives of Davidson’s history: in the first year that the college was established, a student was expelled for “keeping the company of a female slave.” Sexual violence against a Black man has been used as a form of punishment for a white student: in 1836, “a group of students beat another student and after blacking his face with soot and tallow,” tried to make a Black “boy kiss him.” The racialised and homophobic nature of the incident makes it apparent how sexual violence is an act of power and not an individual issue.
One of the first recorded attempts to address sexual violence on campus was the formation of the RAPE Committee (Raised Awareness and Protection for Everyone). RAPE published an article in the Davidsonian (January 11, 1985) in which they wrote about dismantling the unhealthy attitudes in Davidson life leading to sexual violence. They pointed out important phenomena influencing patterns of sexual violence at Davidson, including the fact that, “The attiude exists in some circles here — especially in some fraternities— that to be a member of the group, or a “real”man, or whatever, one must achieve sexual conquest.” Fraternities continue to provide the spaces and conditions for violence to occur, this is largely normalised, and the measures taken to prevent violence are largely punitive and not aimed towards changing the culture of violence as a whole.There are multiple studies that show how men in fraternities more likely to commit sexual violence than those who are not. Fraternities promote a culture of binge drinking, toxic masculinity, as well as a pressure to have “sexual conquests,” a culture that promotes sexual violence. Victims are often scared to report sexual assault due to fear of retalitation from other fraternity members. Fraternity brothers will often protect one another in order to protect their organisation. The IFC as an institution is rooted in a history of racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heterosexism. The need for a transformation not only in the policies of the fraternities themselves but in the very existence of them as institutions is apparent in their response to claims against the toxic culture that they promote: in 1985, a member of a fraternity wrote a piece in the Davidsonian about how the RAPE Committee was doing more harm than good by promoting a culture of fear and going against the supposed ideal of community and trust that Davidson is built on. They continue to adopt punitive measures and accuse those who criticise them of spreading fear and distrust when it is apparent that they continually promote toxic masculinity and the very power dynamics that allow violence to occur in the first place. The pattern of accusing their critics of spreading fear dates back to 1985 when, in response to the actions of the RAPE committee, a student wrote a piece in the Davidsonian accusing them of doing more harm than good. By punishing a few people who commit sexual violence they claim to remove the threat of violence from their spaces but do not challenge the power structures that create conditions for violence to occur in the first place.
Sexual violence is not just limited to fraternities but exists in any and all spaces where there are dynamics that perpetuate the idea that “women owe their men their bodies and that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” something that the RAPE comittee wrote about in their very first article. Sexual violence is the result of gender roles, and the idea of the ownership of bodies is rooted in white supremacy, misogyny, and heterosexism. Fraternities are an example of a space that is created to largely serve the needs of cisgender, heterosexual white men. They are exclusive communities that are largely limited to these people with the most power in our current society. Members of these groups either engage in or are complicit in acts of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexual violence. Their institutions are rooted in these power structures, hence they can never be safe and positive spaces on campus until their very foundation is dismantled.
Since 1985, there have been a number of attempts to visibilize sexual violence and take measures to prevent it from occuring, but these have not been totally successful as they have not transformed the power dynamics and cultural attidues that cause sexual violence in the first place. Such attempts include the formation of the RAPE Committee in 1985 (now the Rape Awareness Council), a volunteer group to patrol campus to keep it safe, Bystander Education, Educational Programs for the Fraternities and Sports Teams, the Clothesline Project, and a taskforce to change campus policy on sexual assault that was formed in Fall 2015. The way sexual violence has been dealt with at Davidson has largely been through strengthening punitive measures while the more successful ones have been to increase support and resources for survivors of sexual violence. Even then, the people who commit acts of violence continue to hold power based on their race, gender, and class position.
We believe that transformative justice is the only way to actually prevent sexual violence from occuring as it will allow people to hold themsleves accountable and unlearn all the factors within which this harm occurs. People who perpetuate sexual violence have power, and this is because they have institutions that support them and allow this violence to occur. Through transformative justice, we can create networks of support, community, and accountability for all and establish conditions that will actually put sexual and other forms of violence to an end: through dismantling white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism.