Content Warning: This article contains references to sexual harassment and abuse.
Early in the summer of 2020, when many of us were sequestered in our homes because of social-distancing restrictions, Instagram took a turn toward activism. After the murder of George Floyd and the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a wave of public reckoning around systemic and overt racism, social media became a way for people to connect, share stories, educate, and distribute resources. Users created accounts, shared colorful infographics, and posted nutshell explanations of terms like “anti-racism.” “Instagram activism” became a catch-phrase, sometimes used to applaud the platform, other times to dismiss and condemn its performativity. While social media-style activism certainly has its dangers—double-tapping and reposting are way easier than actually putting in the work to enact change—many people in the Instagram community became attuned to the ways our collective addiction to social media could refocus our attention to engagement with more productive issues.
Alongside numerous other accounts displaying and amplifying anonymous stories, @wesleyansurvivors was born. The page has nearly 250 posts, all narrative-style, with multiple slides and careful trigger and content warnings. The posts shared on the account range from personal traumatic experiences to commentaries on the University’s hookup culture. Many of the anonymous posters detail experiences that happened prior to students’ time at Wesleyan; many others tell on-campus experiences. Some lament the lack of action taken by the University in response to their experiences, others point to fraternities as a source of harm. In some cases, submitting to the account is the first time the anonymous author has shared their story.
The @wesleyansurvivors account was created alongside one of the most popular types of accounts that emerged last summer, “Black at [School]” accounts, including @blackatwesleyan_u. These accounts featured mostly anonymous stories and narratives submitted by Black students about experiences with anti-Black racism at their respective schools.
The creator of the @wessurvivors account, a member of the Class of 2021 who wished to remain anonymous, has been involved in survivor advocacy work since her first year at Wesleyan. She started the account in July 2020 after seeing several other schools’ accounts that were similar and currently moderates the account with two other people. After the creation of the page, it didn’t take long for it to garner attention among the Wesleyan community.
“I just put it out there,” she said. “Then I had a bunch of people sharing it. And by the end of the [first] day, we had like 30 submissions already. It was really overwhelming in those first few days because I didn’t expect it to [grow] that quickly.”
She added that she thought it was important that many of the posts were formatted as specific stories and testimonials, which she feels attract more attention than general claims about campus culture.
“[Publishing] stories and narratives makes people more invested in it and actually say, ‘Oh, wow, that’s how it can happen to someone,” she said. “Especially with a lot of things that are a more gray area.”
These “gray area” moments are one of her main concerns as the administrator of the account: the all-too-common moments that wouldn’t necessarily be defined as sexual assault in a legal sense, but are still damaging and still contribute to a culture of sexual assault.
“[The goal is to change] the way we talk about hookup culture and what it actually means and expanding what we think of as not necessarily sexual assault, but what we think of as, this shouldn’t happen,” the founder said.
“Just because it was technically consensual doesn’t mean it’s okay. I really want people to know that they’re not alone and that even if it wasn’t explicit, if it felt wrong to you, it’s not right.”
When asked what it was like to be in charge of sharing these stories, the source admitted that it was hard on her mental health. Several authors of anonymous submissions have sent specific names of perpetrators along with their testimonies, and the source said that having access to these names without being able to do anything concrete is a challenging experience.
“It is very traumatizing to read these,” she said. “I do have to go on breaks for awhile. I have a list of names. That very much weighs on my conscience, knowing I have this information.”
However, she and the other members of her team are actively brainstorming ways to release the names in a more private setting.
“We’ve thought about doing the old-fashioned away and writing names on the girl’s bathroom wall,” she said. “We’ve thought about making a private story where we post names and having people let us know if they want to be added.”
She recognizes that Instagram is not the ideal platform for these conversations, but does appreciate the way it allows for anonymity and can reach a broad audience.
“I think [Instagram] is effective at disseminating what I want to be out there [and] having people’s stories reach a large amount of people,” she said. “It’s all about having these conversations and that starts by having these firsthand accounts. When you see yourself in those stories, that’s when you can go message me being like, ‘I never realized this was problematic.’”
An anonymous source from the class of 2020 said that she submitted her story of sexual assault on campus after realizing that many of the stories on the account were similar to her own. Though her story might not fit a standard or legal definition of rape or sexual assault, she explained, she experienced a sexual encounter in which her partner made her feel unsafe and uncomfortable.
The source said that sharing her experience on the platform allowed her to give voice to an experience that she might not have acknowledged otherwise.
“I think it was honestly just a cathartic thing because I felt like I had never spoken to anyone about it,” she said. “Or allowed myself to say that I had gone through assault, because if I had, there was no way for it to be anonymous. And so I felt that thing of like, well, I wasn’t raped, so I don’t get to claim that title.”
The source explained that she did not choose to go through the University’s reporting process in part because many of her friends reported negative experiences with the Title IX process through the Office of Equity and Inclusion.
“I have friends who have reported and have had really shitty experiences with that,” the source said. “I’m not in the place to tell their story, but I know a lot of people who have reported and have not had the results or the like, support that they wanted going in or that they obviously deserved after that experience.”
The source added that she feels that hookup culture at the University perpetuates an environment in which people show their sexual partners very little respect.
“I think people feel like if they’re hooking up with someone and they don’t have to commit to anything like relationship-wise, then they also feel like they don’t have to commit to anything just in terms of basic human decency and consent and boundaries,” the source said.
A member of the Class of 2022, who prefers to remain anonymous, also decided to submit her story to @wesleyansurvivors after observing the popularity of the page over the summer. When she came to Wesleyan, she found it hard to share her story with her new peers and telling it through the account felt like a safe way to put her experience out there.
“I was thinking about ways that I could share my story,” she said. “With the whole anonymity of the Instagram account, it felt safe to do it that way.”
Reading other posts and comments also helped her understand and process her own experience more.
“Seeing some posts that were similar to my experience and reading them and being like, ‘Wow, that’s awful,’ and posting my own too and getting a similar reaction, helped me to figure out that what happened to me was not okay,” she said. “It was helpful seeing people comment and being like, ‘I’m so sorry.’ It validated my feelings and validated my experience because for a while, I was unsure if [my experience] was real or not.”
While she appreciated the opportunity to share her story through the platform, she said that she felt that Instagram does have its limitations. She indicated that she was unsure that the people following the account were the people who actually needed to hear the stories and work towards changing their behavior.
“I think [@wesleyansurvivors] is a great place for survivors, but I don’t know how it would make actual change because the people that need to see it aren’t seeing it,” she said.
However, the source also mentioned that she could envision ways that the @wesleyansurvivors account could spark larger actions among students. She cited the recent protests and walkouts at the University of Vermont, which were inspired by a growing social media movement for survivors on campus.
When asked about ways that she thinks Wesleyan could change to become a more supportive place for survivors, she said that creating more spaces, both for accountability for perpetrators and solidarity for survivors, would be helpful. However, she believes that is not the responsibility of survivors to be in charge of creating those spaces.
“There has to be some [space], maybe in orientation or hall meetings, where all male-identifying people have to meet,” she said. “And people have to tell them that you have to hold your friends accountable. So many men will not hold their friends accountable and it’s not our job as women or non-cis men to be the ones creating those safe spaces. I’m surprised there’s not a real affinity group for survivors on campus. As a survivor, I need to be empowered, and it just doesn’t seem like there’s that many empowering places to be on campus.”
Another anonymous source from the Class of 2022, who was assaulted before coming to Wesleyan, echoed these sentiments, saying that he was discouraged after unsuccessfully searching for a group to join that would connect him with fellow survivors.
“I looked at the CAPS website to see if there were any groups I could join,” he said. “It was really hard to find something that fit my personal needs.”
He, too, observed the @wesleyansurvivors page blossom over the summer and felt encouraged by its creation. Though he did not submit his story to the account, it was helpful for him to read through others’ experiences to help him understand his own.
“I was encouraged by the presence of an account that allows survivors to consolidate together and speak about their experiences, which is something I feel like [I wish] I had more of as a survivor who identifies as male because all of the unknowns about my experience contribute to more confusion and anger and rage and loneliness,” he said.
The account was useful to him in terms of understanding his complicated emotions surrounding hookup culture and tying them to his sexual trauma.
“The dialogue that’s been brought about by [@wesleyansurvivors] has been useful [for] coming to terms with my own experience and understanding of how my experience has resulted in a clouding of some other experiences I’ve had in college,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure to participate in the hookup culture. It was never appealing to me, and I didn’t know why. Looking back, I do think that my timid outlook on one-night stands and casual sex has been clouded by my sexual trauma. And the labeling of [Wesleyan as] a sex-positive school adds pressure that might further intensify feelings of loneliness that come with being a survivor of sexual assault.”
He added that as a student-athlete, he feels that the dialogue amongst male athletes about hookup culture is particularly toxic and needs to change.
“Sometimes in dialogue amongst [cis] men, there is this pressure and social clout that comes from participating in hookup culture,” he said. “Especially in athlete circles, there’s gotta be more sensitivity towards not only people who have been assaulted on campus, but also people who are coming to Wesleyan with a lot of baggage.”
In terms of thinking about ways that Wesleyan culture could change, he suggested developing more accountability spaces for perpetrators, as well as more general sensitivity with language and discourse around hookup culture and sex.
“The more that perpetrators are able to take responsibility for their actions and then teach others, that’ll hopefully lead to a better culture,” he said. “People should be really careful about what they say and understand that everyone is fighting their own demons…. You never know if what you’re saying is going to trigger someone or unlock feelings of their past that are unwanted. Having sensitivity in the midst of all these pressures is crucial to create an environment that is healthy and welcoming for survivors.”
An anonymous member of the Class of 2022 explained that they were forced to navigate the complex social aftermath of sexual assault when a known perpetrator auditioned for their student group. Their group went through a series of conversations about whether or not they should accept this new member, and if they could be responsible for ensuring that other group members felt safe with them in their spaces. After much deliberation, the group decided not to accept this new member in the short term but made a commitment to continuing the conversation in future semesters and to creating an active space of accountability.
Still, the source explained that their commitment to supporting survivors comes in the form of engaging in difficult conversations with people who have caused various forms of sexual harm on campus, beyond simply canceling them and moving on.
“I am deeply invested in working harder than cancel culture,” they said. “It’s just not something that I’m comfortable in. I feel like once these conversations are open, people are scared to push the conversations past canceling a perpetrator. I think people don’t know, cause we don’t have a language. There’s no process. There’s no way to know what the lines are…. My intention [is to]actually engage people in a process beyond the incident of harm itself instead of allowing them to just float around the school, unchanged, being canceled by everyone.”
The source acknowledged that their positionality as someone who has not experienced sexual assault allowed them to hold this perpetrator accountable without feeling that their own emotional wellbeing was at risk.
“I’m not coming from a positionality of trauma,” they said. “Sometimes I think that’s a huge part of my ability to engage in these conversations. Not that people who are coming from trauma backgrounds don’t do incredible transformative justice work every day, but I do think I have a specific privilege in my tolerance and ability to engage in some of the more subversive parts of this work of having emotionally exhausting conversations with people who have a lot to learn and helping them think through their own humanness in these instances of causing harm.”
The source added that the transformative justice process of holding perpetrators accountable is, particularly at this moment in time, something that can likely only happen outside of University administration, due to their commitments to a punitive justice system.
“In my mind, the first step is disavowing the University’s power and control over this process,” the source said. “Also because the University is functioning within a punitive justice system, the terms that we use for “justice” and whatever that means are defined by state policies and university liabilities—these things that could never feel like justice for survivors. I think there’s a limitation there to the university’s ability to see outside of that, just like inherently, and that’s scary.”
Title IX Coordinator and Assistant Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Debbie Colucci said that she has had minimal interactions with the @wesleyansurvivors account, beyond what students have brought to her attention. She added that she worries students may not be connected with the reporting resources they need when sharing their stories anonymously on the platform.
“The existence of the account was shared with me by some student leaders and, on occasion, some of the content has been shared with me,” Colucci wrote in an email to The Argus. “That is the extent of my interaction with the site. I think the site provides students with an opportunity to connect with each other. However, it is not a formal reporting mechanism, so I worry that some students are not ever connected with my office or someone who can connect them to specific options and resources such as counseling, academic or housing accommodations, no-contact agreements, and reporting for official action.”
Colucci explained that her work encompasses a variety of arenas beyond handling sexual assault cases, including ten key areas mandated by federal law for the purpose of ending sex discrimination. She emphasized that she is available as a support system for survivors who disclose varying experiences of harm.
“My work supports those who have experienced harm by providing options and connecting them to support, resources, and reporting options such that what happened does not interfere with the person’s education and/or ability to succeed as a member of the community (student, faculty, staff, etc),” Colucci wrote. “My work also supports those who have experienced harm by ensuring we have a variety of options for individual support, including the creation of the SHAPE office and that our processes are not only compliant with the law, but are also implemented fairly.”
The SHAPE office was not available for comment.
Colucci added that her responsibilities in the office are constantly changing as federal regulations and the needs of campus community members change, and that she always values student feedback with respect to the Office of Equity and Inclusion’s role in better supporting survivors and all students.
You can share your story to @wesleyansurvivors here.
You can find more information about support and resources that Wesleyan offers for survivors here.
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