It has been five months since Madeline Wilson ’16 began her campaign to fight shortcomings in the way the St. Olaf administration handles sexual assault cases.
After Wilson was sexually assaulted by a fellow St. Olaf student in May 2015, she reported her case to the college, hoping that the system would judge and prosecute her assailant appropriately. However, a variety of procedural errors led her assailant to freely hire a wall of lawyers and private investigators that argued for his innocence and made it difficult for Wilson to make her case.
Outraged by this outcome, Wilson began a movement called My College is Protecting Rapists that encouraged Oles to start speaking openly about sexual assault and to pinpoint the gaps in how the college handles cases like Wilson’s. The movement prompted administration to form the Title IX Working Group, a body which would reevaluate the college’s current sexual misconduct policies and present a list of recommded changes which the president of the college could then approve or reject. The suggestions included hiring a Title IX case manager, a coordinator for the Sexual Assault Resource Network (SARN) and a gender and sexuality coordinator. The report also recommended revising training materials on affirmative verbal consent and establishing a guiding principle and goals of each Title IX violation sanction. We will have to see whether these new changes will significantly impact the way sexual assault cases are handled, but I want to focus on how Wilson’s advocacy profoundly shifted my perspective.
In the early days of her movement, I did not hide the fact that I was completely skeptical about whether Wilson’s work would bring any change at all. With an unapologetic cynicism, I casted doubt on whether her movement would elicit the empathy of other Oles, let alone people off campus. Even as she began to pick up steam by advocating through local television networks and newspapers, my cynicism went deeper and I openly spoke about it in front of many Oles. I had my doubts about her movement, or any advocacy movement in general. The way I saw it, as soon as Wilson and her fellow advocates graduated students would quickly forget about the important issue at hand. For as noble as Wilson’s goals were, fighting human apathy is a never-ending war. However, despite all of that, she managed to cause changes that have pushed St. Olaf one step forward in how we address sexual assault on campus. In light of recent failures to prosecute sexual assailants appropriately, this is no small step.
Conclusion? I was wrong. I was wrong to assume that the cynical nature of human beings would dismantle her movement. I was wrong to think that grassroots advocates are naive in believing that they will bring the transformation they seek. Above all, from the continued conversations about sexual assault on campus this fall, I was wrong to assume that her movement would fade away as time progressed.
Nevertheless, as Wilson remarked in her reaction to the report, there is still much work to be done. One aspect that needs to be taken into account is how the report overemphasized handling sexual assault after it occurs, yet barely mentioned the need for a discussion on how to educate Oles on preventing sexual assault in the first place. It is one thing to establish a proper and just procedere for survivors, but another to prevent sexual assault from happening at all.
Being the cynic that I am, my conviction remains unchanged. We are not going to change human nature anytime soon. Sexual assault will continue to occur, lives will be torn apart, injustices will happen and ignorance will still find a place to rest its head. I also believe that change will continue to emerge and perseverance will trump the cowardly nature of cynicism, and the change it brings will prove me wrong again and again.
For I’d love to be wrong. If I’m wrong, I win.
Samuel Pattinasarane ’17 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Jakarta, Indonesia. He majors in political science and Asian studies.