SPEAK hosts sexual assault awareness event

Anonymous stories written by survivors described a culture of self-blame, doubt and social stigma surrounding speaking out about sexual violence


Organizer Mansi Tripathi, ’22, gave opening remarks about the prevalence of sexual assault at Washington and Lee in front of a banner signed by students to show support for survivors. Photo by Shauna Muckle, ’24.

Shauna Muckle

Experiences of sexual assault at Washington and Lee took center stage at an event hosted by the university’s Sexual Misconduct Education and Prevention Club on Jan. 20.

The event, titled “Stand Up, SPEAK Out,” was the first major programming SPEAK had organized since before the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Prior to the event, SPEAK leaders solicited anonymous stories about sexual misconduct from students. The authors of the stories were able to redact their submissions at any point.

They accumulated around 20 submissions, more than initially expected, organizer Mansi Tripathi, ’22, said. 

The stories, ranging from a few sentences to full recollections of experiences with sexual assault, were read aloud anonymously by members of SPEAK.

Common experiences and emotions threaded many of the stories. Several survivors recounted blame, humiliation and doubt — from themselves and others — in the wake of sexual violence.

“Did I give him the wrong idea? Did I lead him on? I didn’t think so, but I kept asking myself these questions,” one anonymous survivor wrote.

Multiple stories described being taken advantage of while drunk or otherwise intoxicated, oftentimes at parties. Some survivors said they couldn’t even remember the details of their assault — they just woke up the next morning knowing someone had violated their consent.

“How can I stop it from happening again if I don’t know how it happened in the first place?” a survivor wrote.

Others described persistent social pressures to avoid speaking out about their experiences with sexual assault.

Washington and Lee’s size makes those pressures especially palpable, organizer Anna Dennis, ’23, said.

“It’s such a small school that sometimes if something happens to you you feel like you can’t say anything because of the social repercussions of it,” Dennis said. “It kind of feels like everyone knows each other, and that came up in a few of the stories.”

Tripathi said that the school’s Greek life culture also adds an “unspoken” expectation to engage in sexual activity, even if that expectation causes discomfort or pushes boundaries.

“I’m thinking about how Greek formals are coming up, and if a guy brings a girl, they usually stay in the same bed,” Tripathi said. “If you put two straight people in a bed, there is a pressure that, ‘oh, you’re going to hook up.’”

In the vast majority of the survivors’ stories, the perpetrator was someone they knew — often someone they were friends with, someone they trusted, or even a partner.

Some characterized how they felt after their experience with one word: “disgusting.”

Solidarity-building events like SPEAK Out play a crucial role in establishing a community of survivors, said Project Horizon Campus Services Coordinator Mikhala Stafford, who was present at the event distributing information about the domestic violence resource center.

“Part of the rhetoric of shame and guilt, especially with sexual violence, is really isolating and makes people feel like they can’t share, or if they do share then there’s shame associated with that,” Stafford said. “I think that hearing lots of stories together and having the space to share them is just proof that there’s strength in numbers and that there’s a lot of unity and solidarity to be made between people.”

Organizer Lily White, ’22, said that survivors, both those who shared their anonymous stories and those who didn’t, should take one key thing away from the event.

“There’s a community of people who understand and are here to support you,” she said.

Tripathi, Dennis and White said they were pleased with the turnout the event received. The Elrod Commons living room was filled with students sitting on the floor, couches and tables. Project Horizon and SPEAK distributed merchandise and information at the back of the room. 

General Admission, an acapella group on campus, also sang three songs in support of survivors to launch the event.

SPEAK is organizing another event in March where survivors will tell their own stories.

Tripathi urged students to be attentive to the issues and situations raised by the anonymous stories.

“Not to say it all comes down to active bystanders, but keep your friends accountable,” she said. “Make sure you find your friends, and if you see someone doing something, make sure both people are into it.”