Minnesota Women’s Press asked experts on college campus assault, media, and violence prevention to reflect on elements of our past gender-based violence coverage. How far has Minnesota come in 30 years, and where is the state headed?
In the 1990s, at colleges across the state, students devised underground reporting methods to keep each other safe from known abusers when schools were inefficient at serving justice. At Macalester College in Saint Paul, students wrote in an anonymous notebook housed in the student union. Survivors recounted instances of abuse, named assailants, and offered sympathetic words to one another. On the third floor of the Carleton College library Women’s Room, students posted flyers that cautioned others to ‘‘stay away’’ from certain individuals, in addition to cultivating an informal word-of-mouth network.
“I think most people would prefer another method, actually, but when we don’t have any other systems or resources that are going to be effective [in preventing rape], then you have to be creative,” said Janet Thomas in April 1991, then–assistant director of counseling at St. Catherine University.
Outside of academia, informal reporting networks emerged in Duluth, organized by the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA), which printed a newsletter naming convicted rapists as they were released from prison.
“The unwillingness of women to talk does not indicate failure on the part of the women, but rather a failure on the part of society to support them. Until women feel safer to do so, they will seek more anonymous ways to protect each other and validate their experiences,” added Thomas.
Kate Lockwood Harris, author of “Beyond the Rapist”:
Thirty years later, it is still challenging to hold perpetrators accountable and to make long-term cultural shifts that prevent sexual violence. Legally, some key changes have occurred. In 2013, the renewed Violence Against Women Act expanded universities’ obligation to report dating violence, and students have relied on Title IX legislation to improve college responses to assault. Culturally, conversations about consent have become more nuanced. Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement has grown awareness and solidarity among survivors, and communities pay more attention to how sexual violence works alongside ableism, heterosexism, and racism.
Nevertheless, rates of sexual violence remain high. By the end of college, one in four women and nearly half of LGBTQ+ students experience sexual violence. One in six cis men experience sexual assault in their lifetimes, usually before they reach college-age. Amidst this violence, communities often focus on removing individuals who repeatedly assault. That accountability is important. I also see increasing recognition that sexual violence does not end simply by removing “bad apples.” The problem is much more pervasive and systemic than that.
In 1991, the Mankato Free Press decided to print the names of the accusing parties in several civil assault cases. The Free Press editor defended his decision by saying it would be irresponsible not to publicize the names of both the accused and accuser in a civil suit (in criminal court cases, victims were legally required to remain anonymous).
The Star Tribune likewise decided to publish names in civil suits. But as civil assault cases became more frequent, many advocates argued that rape survivors deserve privacy no matter the legal avenue they choose.
One woman quoted in Minnesota Women’s Press in January 1991 said, “Rape survivors deserve respect, and they have a right to privacy. They don’t need to be raped over again in the [media].”
Marianne Combs, Managing News Editor for “Racial Reckoning: The Arc of Justice”:
While the law has made some significant changes since 1991, the media is barely getting started.
Thanks to legislation passed in 2016 (Minn Stat 604.31 Subd 5), survivors of sexual assault can seek anonymity while filing a civil suit. If anonymity is granted, survivors are referred to as John or Jane Doe in all public court documents, thus protecting them from scrutiny. If the case goes to trial it is much harder for them to maintain anonymity, but even then the media tends to respect the court’s decree and refrain from naming the plaintiff.
Many survivors would like to avoid a burdensome and traumatic legal process, and are uninterested in a financial settlement; they just want the abuser to stop abusing. Some will turn to the media directly for help — and they will most likely be disappointed. Minnesota media is loath to take on any risk of libel, even if the evidence is overwhelming. However, a piece in the Star Tribune in March 2021 enumerated accusations against a local musician without naming any of the accusers. Hopefully it is a sign of more changes to come.
In 1988, Minnesota Women’s Press began running a column titled Violence Viewpoints, which included an anonymous writer explaining why she leaves her house every morning with a handgun and switchblade. She writes, “It is up to us, I think, to respect and value ourselves highly enough to take some action, whether it is strictly legal or illegal.”
Alongside the anonymous report is a sermon given by a pastor in the wake of the rape and murder of two local women. The speaker places responsibility on those raising young men to instill respect for women. She asks of men: “Expand your concern for the welfare of your wife, daughter, mother, sweetheart, sister, friend, co- worker, or neighbor to the welfare of all women.”
Ashley Taylor-Gougé, Sexual Violence Center:
Individualism is a learned trait. It is a response to navigating a society that turns everyday survival into a competition. Individualism exacerbates violence and draws us further away from each other. When we teach that the goal is to only look out for ourselves, we repeat this never-ending cycle.
There is no situation in which one person is safe unless we are all safe. As a community, it is up to us to look out for each other, care for each other, and hold each other in collective accountability.
This is not to say that individuals should not take the precautions they feel are necessary, but ultimately, individualized responses to systemic issues will never solve the problem at its root.
It may seem idealistic to believe that community-based approaches to gender-based violence are possible today. Still, now more than ever, it is crucial not to turn inward.
At the Sexual Violence Center, we believe preventing gender-based violence through a community-based approach involves unlearning toxic behaviors, teaching our children comprehensive and affirming sexual education, navigating conflict with love and care, and meeting the material needs of our neighbors.