a student-run publication that seeks to provide space for voices that are not being heard on our campus. we are grounded by politics that are radical, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-homophobic, anti-ableist, and anti-transphobic (against all forms of oppression) and that reject the structural neo-liberal paradigm that characterizes middlebury college and its official publications
By beyond the green collective
CW: Sexual assault
On Tuesday Oct. 18 and Wednesday Oct. 19, all students, staff, and faculty received two emails from Public Safety, the first entitled “Timely Warning – Report of Fondling” and the follow-up “Community Update on Reported Fondling.” The subject of these emails, and the need to make them community wide raise important questions though concerning our campus’s response to sexual violence. At the time that the emails were sent, the individual had been arrested, and as Public Safety’s email discloses, “he is now being held without bail pending a weight of the evidence hearing a future date.” If the individual was already in police custody, why did we need his picture, his name, and his place of residence-all of which marked him as an outsider? Whether intentional or not, including all of this information reinforces the notion that sexual violence is something that is perpetrated only by ‘others’, and not people already inside of our community.
The emails not only heighten fear of outside perpetrators but deflects attention from the sexual violence that occurs on campus. This leads to the question of why we received an email about this case of sexual violence and not others? Why wasn’t an email containing information about the ‘John Doe’ case of last year sent out? Why don’t other cases of sexual violence on our campus receive the same response?
We also take issue with the use of the word “fondling.” Regardless of whether fondling is used as a legal term, the word fondling to describe sexual assault is incorrect and denies the experience of assault. Fondling means to stroke or caress lovingly or erotically. Fondling implies consent and pleasure. There is nothing consensual or pleasurable about sexual violence. We need to rethink the language we use to talk about these issues, at both the personal and the institutional level.
We recognize that because this particular case of sexual violence involved someone not currently affiliated with the College that Public Safety legally had to involve law enforcement. But we call into question Middlebury’s role as an institution in partnering with police forces to increase their use of surveillance and criminalization of residents of the town of Middlebury, staff, faculty, students, and visitors to Middlebury, particularly of Black and Brown people, immigrants, poor people, people with disabilities, and queer and trans people. Public Safety suggests the following two safety tips: “Report criminal or suspicious activity immediately by calling 9-1-1 or Public Safety” and “Report any suspicious people to Public Safety.” Who do we consider “criminal” or “suspicious”? In the US, our collective understandings of criminality are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, classism, xenophobia, ableism, and queerphobia. Middlebury College is not immune to these forms of oppression. And it once again raises the question of why other cases have not merited the same treatment-it implies that on-campus/in group/white perpetrators are not as criminal as an outside perpetrator, an attitude which contributes to the lack of accountability around sexual violence on campus.
Furthermore, Public Safety neglected to include content warnings in both emails. The use of the word “Warning” in the first subject line clearly denotes how the email was meant to be just an alert or cautionary information included for the physical well-being of students on campus, and not the emotional and mental health of those who might need resources associated with the information in the email. In addition to providing information on how to report “suspicious” activity, why not include the contact information of on-campus resources dedicated to helping survivors of sexual assault, like Middsafe and WomenSafe?
We cannot imagine a practice of reporting “suspicious people to Public Safety” that does not result in reaffirming the criminalization of marginalized groups, while simultaneously allowing perpetrators from more dominant identities to avoid consequences. Encouraging us to report “suspicious people” endangers students on campus who are often already harassed for their “otherness” by Public Safety and Middlebury Police Department.
People who experience sexual harassment and violence should have a right to report, or not report depending on their immediate and long term needs. Our point is not to demonize those who choose to report sexual violence to the police. We stand in solidarity with them and we trust them. We do not excuse sexual violence. But on an institutional scale, we recognize that our “choices” are limited because we exist in spaces where the primary (and often only) mechanism offered to address violence is through retributive punishment.
We recognize the gravity of sexual violence and its impact on the survivor and the greater community. It is important to call attention to sexual violence and abuse that occurs in our communities, but we must do so in a way that doesn’t utilize previously established notions of oppression. There is a different way of addressing these issues through restorative justice that empowers the survivor and the community rather than focusing all attention on an ‘other’ and to avoid addressing intra-community violence. We need to question whether these emails represent a shift in policy, or if Middlebury is once again avoiding accountability for its failure as an institution to address rape culture on this campus.