Sexual violence survivors speak out at ‘Take Back the Night’

Taking place in the Marshall Student Center Amphitheater, the three-hour long event saw 16 speakers, a silent march and guided meditation as well as a musical performance. ORACLE PHOTO / ULIANA LEARNED

As they stood in front of a crowd of 29 people and fellow sexual violence survivors for the second time during the night, a student, who wished to remain anonymous, read aloud for the first time a text they wished they had sent to their male co-worker who had sexually assaulted them.

“There’s a reason why no one knew for at least three weeks. I had somehow trusted you by mistake. And now I know I would never feel comfortable opening up to anyone like that again. That’s where I’m upset,” the text read.

“Because I think you somehow finally did it. You were the one that made me finally see the whole picture and shut off sunlight in me…shut off the hope of ever having a real friendship with anyone. You are going to have a great rest of your life and just remember me as a mistake. But, so unfortunately, you’ll be the person who finally broke my light and I’ll never be the same.”

The student also celebrated the fact that they had quit the job where they worked alongside their assailant the same day of the event. They said this was not them backing down or trying to please someone else, but rather because it was the best option for themselves and their own mental health.

Sharing similar stories and echoing feelings of coming to terms with their own experiences of sexual assault, 16 students and guest speakers shared their stories either themselves or through anonymous written submissions read aloud by staff at Tuesday’s “Take Back the Night.”

A majority of the speakers shared that, though they had not initially planned on speaking, hearing others’ experiences inspired them to do so.

The event, which took place in the Marshall Student Center (MSC) Amphitheater and lasted three hours, gave students a place to speak out.

“Take Back the Night” is a global initiative which aims to raise awareness about sexual violence and to give survivors a forum to speak comfortably, according to Assistant Director of Advocacy Services and event organizer Megan Deremiah.

Inspiring words also surrounded the survivors within the venue as the pillars of the amphitheater were decorated with heart-shaped notes reading messages such as “You are loved, you are respected, we believe you, we support you” and “Show what you are capable of, it will get better.”

Assistant professor Colby Valentine, the night’s keynote speaker, shared her own story escaping her abuser and the five words that saved her own life – “I want to taste you.” Valentine said when her abuser uttered those words, it shook her to her core and showed her she had to run.

“I just needed to run. As I heard him speak, not actually hearing his words, but just static noise coming from his mouth. It felt like I was having an out of body experience. And I said it over and over and over again. I just want to leave. I just want to go,” she said.

“Something clicked and he asked me a very specific question. I felt like I floated back down to earth and back into my body once again. And when he asked ‘Will I ever see you again?’ I raised my head looking him straight in the eyes. And I certainly said no.”

Valentine said speaking out at the event isn’t easy even for her. Still, she said she felt supported by the audience despite it being made up of strangers.

“Believe it or not my strengths each night come from each and every one of you. I feel supported by you. Even if I do not know you, and I hope you feel the same,” she said.

One survivor, who requested to remain anonymous, said they had been sexually assaulted by a man they were in a relationship with on the same day as the event four years prior. The student said their assailant had later gotten a tattoo of a ghost, similar to one they had always wanted in honor of their favorite movie, but refrained because they wished to separate themselves from him.

A year ago, however, the student said they got the tattoo as a way to reclaim it, and on the same day as the event, they got another in honor of their first creative writing story they had written for him.

“I went and I got a ghost tattoo because I wanted to get a ghost tattoo and I thought ‘He did not invent those. It’s mine.’ Today, I went and I got another tattoo of a moon and the men in a canoe because that was the first story I ever wrote and it’s the story that got me into writing and into creative writing,” they said. “And I like to think that both ghosts and the story I wrote are mine and not his.”

Other speakers recounted their own stories or those of their loved ones who experienced sexual violence. Many of them spoke to the importance of knowing it is not the victim’s fault and telling others they should never think that.

Ensuring the comfort of the ones who spoke was also a priority. Advocates from the Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention were available throughout the night to provide support, and often had conversations with speakers before and after they had shared with the audience to check on them.

Another survivor held back tears as they opened up. They said at first, they did not plan to share their story because they thought they didn’t have a story to share. The survivor said that in their experience, they initially thought sexual intercourse was something they wanted, but they became unsure and realized they did not want to do it. When they tried to communicate this, the man continued to make advances.

Feeling unsafe, the student waited until the next morning when they lied about an appointment so the man would leave their apartment.

“I just remember being really scared and like not kicking him out of my apartment because he was strong and I didn’t know what would happen if I tried to get him out,” they said. “I had to wait until the next morning when I lied and said that I had an appointment so I could kick him out.”

Following the speak out portion of the event, the survivors and students conducted a silent candlelight march through the MLK Plaza and Student Services Building breezeway as well as a guided meditation as a way to honor the stories shared throughout the night. USF’s acapella group “Tones of Gold” also performed for the audience, singing Andra Day’s “Rise Up.”

The event is incredibly important for sexual violence survivors, according to Valentine, as it serves as an opportunity to fight back against myths and misinformation about sexual violence. Valentine said communities must stand behind survivors, listen to them and believe them.

“Nights like tonight make me want to push back against those who want to push us down. Those who want to silence us, because it’s important for all of us to have a voice. Like I said before, healing takes time. And it takes a lot of courage to speak out at a night like this,” she said.

“If you’re not ready, that’s okay. Hopefully tonight, I can be your voice. But for those of you who do speak out tonight, just know you may also be speaking out for someone else who just isn’t ready.”

Editor’s note: The Oracle received permission from the speakers to include their stories. For privacy reasons, The Oracle refrained from providing names of those who requested to remain anonymous.