Open mic provides platform against sexual assault

Standing Together: Molly Steffes-Herman, Washburn Victim Advocate; Dennis Etzel Jr., Department of English; Shelley Bearman, Project Coordinator of Sexual Assault Education and Prevention; and Emily Stermel, Public Education Coordinator at the YWCA Center for Safety and Empowerment standing in front of a poster with the words “I am an active bystander.”  

Yash Chitrakar

“Behind the playground’s maple/ they confide in me/ how they each have x-ray vision/ can see super-villains/ in fathers, brothers, men down the block.” These final lines of a poem by Dennis Etzel, English professor, kicked off the first Open Mic Against Sexual Assault on April 6 in the Union Underground. Student organizations such as STAND, TWLOHA, Sigma Tau Delta and YWCA, as well as the Sexual Assault Education and Prevention project, were in attendance and helped support the event.

The main purpose of organizing such an event, according to Etzel, was to provide a platform for speaking out against sexual assault. “People are against it, but they are not very vocal because they worry what other people are going to say about them,” Etzel said, referring to a time when one of his acquaintances expressed hesitance at participating in a Take Back the Night march.

According to Shelly Bearman, an organizer for the event and the project coordinator of the Sexual Assault Education and Prevention, there is an under-reporting of sexual assault cases. According to her, nationally, victims who report assaults are subjected to public shame and stigma.

“We have a small campus where everybody knows each other. A victim would know the perpetrator and their friends would know each other,” said Bearman. “So if a person were to come forward, then everybody would know about it, and it could be really difficult when you get groups of friends pitted against each other. And since it is a criminal case, when the perpetrator goes to jail, the victim really gets interrogated. That is overwhelming for the victim.”

This event aimed to show students that there are organizations and a community that will support and listen to sexual assault victims. Both Etzel and Bearman expressed their happiness with the high audience turnout. The mix of planned poems and impromptu poems spoke about the nature of consent, effects of assault and changing the norms. Brook Manny, sophomore history major, talked about how the number of students, faculty members and the organizations present, showed that people cared about and supported the cause.

Etzel also spoke of the potency of poetry and why, after Bearman’s suggestion, he chose that as a medium to speak against sexual assault. “There were certain things in my life that were obstacles, and poetry helped me in moving through those” Etzel said. For him, it is amazing how deeply poetry can delve into a subject with very few lines. He mentioned one of the poems recited on stage that talked about a woman covering her bruises with makeup, and talked about the powerful imagery it created. “So it’s things like that, emotions poems can evoke that essays cannot simulate that made us decide to use poetry as a means to convey our message.”

The event was the first of its kind, and Etzel and Bearman plan to do more in the future. They plan to make this event an annual one since April is Sexual Awareness Month. They also plan to conduct a poetry workshop concerning domestic violence in October, a few days before organizing an open mic similar to this one, but perhaps on a larger scale. For Etzel, Bearman and everybody present, the event was a first step toward eradicating the cultural norms that help perpetuate sexual assault. Etzel quoted a banner he had seen in the Take Back the Night rally to show the attitude we must have to combat sexual assault: “Believe survivors, change the culture,” he said.