U.Va. Take Back the Night vigil honors survivors of sexual assault

Public vigil held in the Sprint Pavilion on the Downtown Mall for the first time

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An unknown group painted over Take Back the Night's advertisement on Beta Bridge Wednesday morning though the group sent an anonymous apology and the committee repainted the bridge. Courtesy Emma Tillitski

The Take Back the Night vigil — the first of many University events being held throughout the month of April to raise awareness of sexual assault — was held Wednesday night at the Sprint Pavilion on the Downtown Mall. Featuring a list of student and community volunteer speakers that testified about their experiences with sexual violence, the event was accompanied by musical performances by the University acapella groups the Academical Village People and Hoos In Treble.

Take Back the Night is an international event with the ultimate goal of ending sexual assault worldwide. The first Take Back the Night events were hosted in the United States in the late 1970s and have expanded to hundreds of events in over 30 countries every year. At the University, events have lasted the course of a week. This year is the first year events will go throughout the month of April.

Over 100 students and community members gathered at the Pavilion as the event began. Members of the Sigma Psi Zeta sorority and the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity stood by the entrances, handing out teal ribbons — the color of sexual assault awareness and prevention — in honor of April’s status as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Pi Lambda Phi’s philanthropy is the Sexual Assault Resource Agency of Charlottesville and Sigma Psi Zeta raises money to combat the violence against women. Audience members were given small candles to hold throughout the event, lit in recognition and reflection of survivors. 

The Take Back the Night Vigil encountered several logistical setbacks leading up to the event itself. Wednesday morning, the Take Back the Night's freshly painted advertisement for the event on Beta Bridge was painted over by an unknown party, replacing the original text “Take Back the Night 2018” with the phrase “It’s a Great Day!”

An anonymous apology was sent to Take Back the Night Thursday following the incident. According to the email, the anonymous party explained that their painting over Beta Bridge was carried out as an annual tradition among a group of friends. The letter expressed both deep regret for their actions and great respect for the organization. 

Emma Tillitski, a third-year College student and Vigil Chair of U.Va. Take Back the Night, spoke about the Beta Bridge incident at the vigil before the committee received the anonymous apology letter.

“While their intent might not have been malicious, the effect was,” Tillitski said. “We repainted it almost immediately, and we’re going to keep fighting to be heard — that starts with you guys.”

In addition, the Take Back the Night vigil, traditionally held at U.Va.’s Amphitheater, was not granted permission by the University to use amplified sound this year. According to speakers at the vigil, this development occurred a week prior to the event, leaving the vigil without a venue until the Sprint Pavilion was offered as a location, free of charge, for the event to take place.

Despite these setbacks, the event came together and each speaker received applause and encouragement from the listening audience as they shared their stories.

Alex Smith-Scales, a third-year College student and co-chair of the University’s Take Back the Night, described the significance of the event in an interview with The Cavalier Daily.

“It basically is a moment of remembrance and to hear testimonies of sexual assault and intimate partner violence,” Smith-Scales said. “To really take time to reflect, learn, and listen, and for the survivors, a chance to heal and feel empowered and held by a community that cares and loves them so much.”

In an era of the #MeToo movement — a social media-based movement of individuals sharing their stories of sexual assault online — and an evolving dialogue about survivors conveying their experiences, Smith-Scales commented on the significance of events like the vigil.

“Sexual assault and intimate partner violence and gender-based violence has always been a problem in our society,” Smith-Scales said. “I think that it’s important more than ever that, since we are in an age where survivors do speak up … it’s important that we stop and listen, and support them, and hold them, empower them, be there for them.”

The vigil is designed to allow both the audience and the survivors a space to share and listen.

“To be aware and to be present in the space that survivors are sharing their stories is important. I also think that getting survivors a platform to share their stories is really important, and can be really cathartic,” Tillitski said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “[Survivors] get to be heard by the U.Va. community in a non-judgemental way, and they have a lot of control over how they get to share their stories, which is not usually the case.”

The importance of sharing and reclaiming narratives was echoed by Garrison Grow, a second-year College student and co-chair of the University’s Take Back the Night.

“[To share their stories] in a public space where people can make a proclamation … ‘I am taking back control of my story’ And then that not only empowers them but also empowers others that hear that,” Grow said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily.  “That can be powerful for people’s recovery arcs, but also for people in the community who aren’t aware of the full scope of sexual violence, especially on Grounds.”

Several survivors took to the stage and shared their stories with the crowd. 

Although speakers were given the opportunity to present anonymously, two survivors elected to present their stories publically to the audience. One survivor anonymously shared their experience from a closed-off tent area on the stage. The tent was offered to speakers who wished to retain their anonymity while testifying about their experience.

There were several letters submitted anonymously to the event detailing individual experiences of sexual violence, which were read by members of Take Back the Night on stage. One of the anonymous letters of survivor testimony spoke about the dangers of “revictimization” in which an individual is statistically more likely to suffer trauma again after experiencing it for the first time. Other letters detailed the testimony of sexual assault and domestic violence and the survivor’s experience after these traumas.

After the event concluded, several local and University organizations that advocate for victims of sexual assault, such as Hope on Grounds, OneLess and Not On Our Grounds, stood by at tables with brochures and information to share with attendees.

Beginning with Wednesday’s vigil, events hosted by Take Back the Night will continue throughout the month of April. 

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