Shining a Light
In the spring of 2013, a Beloit College student took to the opinion pages of the Round Table and publicly revealed that she had been sexually assaulted by fellow students. Twice, by different individuals, on two separate occasions.
“Sexual misconduct is as much a part of our campus as the small class sizes and friendly faces,” wrote Kristina Erickson’13. That year, in a series of eloquent and eye-opening articles for the student newspaper, Erickson spoke bluntly about her experiences.
Caitlin Paterson’15, Sarah Miller’15, and Haleigh Thomas’15 were sophomores when Erickson’s pieces on sexual assault were published, and each cited her bravery as a turning point in campus awareness. Last May, the three women crossed the Commencement stage and made a prompt U-turn, returning this past fall as three of 13 students to pursue honors terms, a Beloit program that grants a graduate an extra semester with full tuition remission in exchange for a project that benefits the Beloit community.
In focusing their post-graduation honors term projects on issues of sexual assault, these women are part of a national sea change, as activists and college students across the country work to shed light on an issue endemic to residential institutions of higher education. Instead of looking away, the three Beloit women we profile in the following pages decided to put sexual assault under a magnifying glass, each making it the focal point of their honors-term research, using the lenses of survivors’ experiences, the visible involvement of campus men in prevention efforts, and educating bystanders in intervention tactics, respectively.
“I think honors terms reflect a significant component of Beloit’s DNA,” says Provost Ann Davies. “What I love about Caitlin, Sarah, and Haleigh’s projects is how different they each are. They remind us of the multiple modes of inquiry and experience.”
All three women consulted with or interviewed Dean of Students Christina Pape Klawitter’98 and staff in her office regarding their projects.
“The college is so lucky that they stepped forward and with their talents wanted to tackle something as complicated and fraught as sexual assault,” says Klawitter.
Klawitter’s office and campus security are responsible for publicly reporting sexual assaults and other crimes every year due to the Clery Act. The most recently reported numbers indicated that six forcible rapes took place on campus in 2013 and nine were reported in 2014. For the college and for Klawitter, though, complying with the Department of Education’s required reporting stipulations is not enough. It’s about more than checking off boxes.
Over the past several years, Klawitter’s office has been collaborating with others to deepen and broaden education and prevention efforts around sexual assault. The college has implemented faculty and staff training, too, and made efforts to increase students’ trust in the reporting process. This spring, Klawitter’s office is conducting a survey of the entire student body, with the aim of better gauging the campus climate around sexual assault, including perceptions about how pervasive it is, as well as how students perceive the college’s response.
Having been in many, many meetings with peer institutions who are discussing this same issue, “I aspire for us to do better,” Klawitter says. “Doing the bare minimum won’t actually make our students’ experience better. We could be a hundred percent compliant with what’s expected of us, and still our students could be sexually assaulted. That’s not acceptable.”
Caitlin Paterson: Prevention
Despite double-majoring in sociology and critical identity studies—two disciplines heavy on activism and gender and identity politics—Montpelier, Vt., native Caitlin Paterson’15 admits that before her semester abroad, she hadn’t spent an enormous amount of time dwelling on campus sexual assault.
“To be honest, I didn’t really think about it before I went to Denmark,” she says. “I honestly don’t know what changed. I think a couple of really brave people started speaking out.”
Though she also considered Turkey and Britain as study abroad destinations, she settled on a program that allowed her to study and compare sex work industries in several Scandinavian countries. It was there that the strands of her academic interests tangled with her first-hand observations, laying the patterns that would develop into her senior thesis and, ultimately, her honors term.
While she was abroad, Paterson started reading about prominent cases of campus sexual assault back in the States.
“I remember when I was in Denmark and thinking about masculinities, then reading the New York Times article about Jameis Winston at Florida State University and that whole trial. I was just like—are these my friends at Beloit? Are they doing this? That’s crazy,” she recalls. “What I’ve learned throughout this whole process is that it’s naïve to think ‘that’s crazy!’ because it’s happening on every single campus.”
Paterson played soccer and lacrosse at Beloit, and ran track and cross country. Beloit athletes were her friends and peers, her people.
But somehow she found the experiences she was having as a young woman navigating the streets of Amsterdam resonating with what she was reading about in the news, about the aggressive and entitled behavior of certain college athletes. In Amsterdam, she and her classmates observed that solo men who were passing through the red light district posed no threat to them and generally left them alone, but when they encountered groups of men, the men were often rude and aggressive, catcalling and giving off weird vibes.
“That led to my thesis, which was specifically looking at male student athletes,” Paterson says. She turned her keen theoretical eye on her own crowd, interviewing male athletes on campus, and researching and writing an 80-page thesis on the subject in her senior year: “(Dis)Connections Between Collegiate Athletics, Masculinity and Sexual Assault: A Case Study of Beloit College.”
Her findings? That the men cared about sexual assault, but didn’t always have a space to talk about it. But somehow her thesis didn’t seem like enough. She wanted to do something, create something meaningful, with impact.
In the summer prior to her honors term, Paterson worked with Klawitter and Bruce Heine, head of College Security, to compile and write the college’s Title IX compliance report.
To get her honors term project off the ground, Paterson recruited five men to a leadership team, and together they developed a new Beloit College club, Men Against Sexual Violence.
“I wanted to create some type of space where men could feel comfortable coming in and talking about this, and then go out and talk with other men, and be part of the solution,” she says.
According to Klawitter, to see real change in campus climate, everyone needs to be involved.
“Having men not be involved with preventing sexual assault is like saying white people don’t have to be involved in dismantling racism. I think it’s pretty well-recognized that that’s not true. This is an all-of-us issue,” Klawitter says.
Some of the obstacles included treading the line between creating a men’s club to talk about sexual assault and trying not to step on any toes or squelch dialogue.
Frank but tactful in conversation, it’s easy to imagine Paterson putting a room of disparate opinions at ease with her forthright friendliness, diffusing tension with a wide smile while offering up some disarmingly direct discourse.
She didn’t try to sugarcoat it for MASV’s leadership team, telling them, “Don’t have the typical ‘savior complex.’”
Instead, the club’s aim was to educate. They organized film screenings and tabling sessions, recruited new members, and, thanks to Phi Psi President Brian Alcorn’17, hosted anti-sexist activist Jackson Katz in October.
Fellow honors-termer Sarah Miller, for one, was heartened by the formation of MASV. “Just to hear the five men who have taken leadership roles in Caitlin’s organization is so exciting,” she says. “Because four years ago if the topic came up, it was ‘sad,’ or ‘disappointing,’ or felt irrelevant to any male students I interacted with.”
Most importantly, Beloiters of all genders are paying attention, and talking, just as Paterson hoped they would. At the end of her senior year, she had felt dissatisfied, like her time at Beloit hadn’t reached its natural conclusion. After she completed her honors term, however, she felt differently. She’s confident that MASV is sustainable (her number one goal), and in good hands.
“I needed to leave it with other students,” she says. “This is their community to change now.”
Sarah Miller: Survival
“Dancing around the topic” is an idiom for someone taking evasive action, skirting away from the truth, or shying away from sensitive subject matter.
When you apply it to Sarah Miller’15, you can bet that if she’s dancing around anything, it’s because she has placed it squarely center stage and thrown a spotlight on it, daring the audience to try and look away.
Not that you would want to. She is, as Chris Johnson describes her, “an entrancing performer.”
Johnson, a Beloit College dance professor, met Miller as a prospective student. “When she first arrived at Beloit College she was already extraordinarily talented—in fact she performed for me in Chicago, replacing a dancer who was injured at the last minute, four days after classes began her first semester!” Johnson recounts.
Miller recalls the last-minute substitution fondly now, calling that weekend her “baptism by fire.”
“I was so convinced that my first [dance] class didn’t go well. It took like the scariest weekend of my life, in terms of dance, but after that it felt so much like home,” says Miller, who’d studied ballet for much of her childhood and teen years, in Minnesota. “It took that really hard challenge for me to realize that this was a place that offered a lot of challenges, a lot of growth.”
Unfortunately, there were challenges of a darker nature ahead of her at Beloit, unforeseen scary weekends for which no amount of rehearsal could help her prepare. Like the one in early February of her sophomore year, during which she was sexually assaulted in her dorm room by a visitor to campus, a friend-of-a-friend from out of town. It was the Saturday night of Chelonia, Beloit’s premier annual dance concert, and it left the event inextricably linked with the trauma.
“It was one of those situations, because of what my perception of what assault was, I didn’t think of it as anything other than my own fault for about a year,” Miller says.
Initially, there wasn’t much time to process the realization at Beloit. Shortly after she began to recognize the enormity of what had taken place, she took an off-campus term, studying writing for social change through the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs in St. Paul, Minn. It was there that she started to tell her story.
“There’s something that’s so nice about a new group of people. You get to decide what’s important,” she says. Her identity as a survivor of sexual assault informed her writing at HECUA. It was there that she wrote a poem that she later used in her honors term project, titled “Pet.” Its avian imagery involves winged creatures with telling names: Trauma, Angst, Pain. The eponymous pet of the title is Wound, a pet the first-person narrator didn’t want, but looks after anyway.
Before she returned for her final semester at Beloit, she considered how it had gotten easier to tell her story. With each telling she felt lighter, stronger.
“Over winter break I started thinking about: where could this go? Because I started telling my own story, is there another way for other people to tell theirs?” she says.
By December, Miller had interviewed numerous professors and campus stakeholders, but also 17 current or former Beloit students with a story to tell regarding assault. Of the 17, 14 were female-identifying, and three were male-identifying. Fifteen were survivors of sexual assault, and two were men who had served as part of support systems to partners or friends who had experienced sexual assault. The interviews were anonymous and confidential; Miller used them to create five written, spoken-word narratives to be recorded or read in conjunction with choreographed dance pieces at a performance slated for mid-April. Her honors term is unique in that it’s spanning two semesters, rather than one.
“I’ve walked around this campus for so long knowing there are so many of us. That number is already huge and I can’t change that, so to know that so many of them have found this project interesting, or that they think this is a good idea, is so meaningful to me,” she says.
Johnson says it’s fitting to see Miller tackling this subject in her art. “Sarah has always been deeply concerned for others’ well-being, and finding ways to make a positive difference through her art and writing is a logical extension of all she has done while at Beloit.”
As she worked on creating the narratives to tell the survivors’ stories, and the choreography to fill in where the words fall short, Miller has noticed that, despite the complete individuality of each narrative, every interview had at least one moment or sentiment that resonated deeply with her own experience.
“It’s become so clear that though all the experiences are so different, there’s this through-line of being torn apart, then the gathering of those pieces.” Miller says. “And then eventually coming to this point of acceptance, of feeling like really strong people, even if they’re still in the turmoil. Feeling steadfast, and that they’re leaning into that wind.”
Haleigh Thomas: Intervention
It was a morning-after debriefing session that Haleigh Thomas’15 found herself having one too many times. That it had to happen even once was one time too many.
She’s had several friends who were sexually assaulted at Beloit. “And usually that morning-after discussion is a group of friends who are trying to piece together the night, of where you saw them last, what they were doing, and it’s this whole big timeline of ‘where did it all go wrong?’” she says.
Thomas is many things, including a born-and-raised Beloiter, but if forced to describe her in one word, it’d be this: She’s a do-er. Listening to her describe her life at Beloit College could make your head spin, and not just because of her animated, rapid-fire delivery. She triple-majored in psychology, philosophy, and critical identity studies, held off-campus jobs and multiple internships, studied gendered violence in Morocco, and had a job offer lined up by the time she’d graduated. The woman who’d originally come to college thinking she’d be an engineer credits Professor of Psychology Suzanne Cox with nudging her towards the humanities and helping to plot out the course of her four years at Beloit.
“Suzanne really got my life going for me, honestly,” says Thomas.
While Cox played a huge role in Thomas’s academic career, her father, a long-time Beloit College staffer, was the one who encouraged her to take a second look at the school, and also the one to suggest she stay on for an honors term. In mulling over the possibility of staying on campus for that extra, post-graduation semester, she thought back to those morning-after conversations with her friends, trying to sort out where a night went so terribly wrong that it ended in an assault.
“That’s when I started thinking, how could we create more of an environment of being responsible friends?” she says.
With her arsenal of academic accomplishments, work, and lived experience, Thomas set out to produce a bystander intervention education program. “I think one of our biggest issues is it’s not that people at Beloit don’t care, it’s that they don’t know how to talk about it with their friends, and don’t know how to talk about their expectations of how to keep one another safe,” she says.
To establish a baseline for the campus’s collective thoughts on sex, drinking, and hooking up, Thomas began with an online survey for Beloit students that plumbed the college’s social culture.
“I really wanted to start off with a baseline of what people think about bystander intervention. I wanted to see what kind of pressure there is on campus to have sex, and then how do those pressures—if at all—correlate with bystander intervention,” she says. After compiling the results of her survey, Thomas created a PowerPoint and talking points, and worked with a group of Resident Assistants to create a workshop about bystander intervention.
“Getting facilitators was really difficult. But once I got the RAs involved, they were a godsend, they were great,” she says.
One of those RAs was Nadir Carlson’16, who’d had a wealth of experience dealing with the college’s sexual assault policy as a member of student government, as a student policy director, and as student-body president. The targeted, small groups are what make Thomas’s program more successful, Carlson says, along with her short, pithy, engaging style of presentation, and her realistic approach to intervention. “The peer-to-peer part of this makes it easier to connect with students and helps create a culture of intervening.”
Both Carlson and Thomas found the sexual-assault-prevention videos they’d watched as part of their first-year seminars—which have since been updated—to be less than stellar.
“A lot of this information we learned freshman year, and that was great, but we learned it in a room full of strangers that we’re never going to talk to or implement these things with,” Thomas says. Her tactic was to take her bystander intervention training to already-occurring “kinship groups,” the social circles in which we naturally spend the most time. “These are the people you see on weekends. These are the people you’re going in clusters with to parties,” she says. These are also the organizations that most often host parties, which makes this kind of training especially relevant.
“If someone is falling over, if someone looks like they’re trying to make eye contact with someone in the crowd to get away, or if you go and try to talk to someone and say ‘hey, how are you doing?’ and the other person answers for them—those are all little warning signs,” she explains. She’s well aware that intervening can be, for lack of a better word, awkward.
“How do you approach your friends without coming off as ‘you don’t know what’s right for you,’ or ‘you don’t know what you’re doing!’” she says. “I really had to emphasize, there’s a difference between protecting and policing.” She used interactive scenarios to get workshop participants talking and practicing—identifying the ifs, whens, and hows of intervention, and a reminder to reach out for help from resources like College Security.
She conducted her workshop with multiple campus groups. Other students are interested in carrying on with the workshops as facilitators as well.
Wherever Thomas lands next—she’s applied to a master of social work program, and continues to work as a counselor—she’s hoping her bystander workshop has left a legacy that will have older Beloit students setting the tone of zero-tolerance for sexual misconduct. The next step, she hopes, is an increase in reporting.
“I hope with my project, and the other projects, that students know they have support if they reach out to the administration, and there are people who have their back and are willing to fight for them,” she says.
Lynn Vollbrecht’06 is a freelance writer and editor living and working in Beloit, Wis. She is hoping to see many of her fellow Beloiters this summer when the class of 2006 celebrates its 10-year reunion.