Lewis: Following reports, University administrators must take bold action

Cara Lewis, Op-Ed Contributor

It is extremely upsetting for me to write about my experiences with sexual violence and suicide, especially because I know others who share these stories can be deeply upset by reading about them. In the light of recent news, however, I feel obligated to share my story.

When I was 14 years old, my first boyfriend took my virginity without my permission. I woke up in the middle of this experience, in a strange house, on New Year’s Day, with nobody to stop him or to help me. I stayed silent. In the following few months, my mental health took an unsurprising but publicly unexplained downward spiral. I ended up trying to kill myself and voluntarily undergoing a stay in a mental hospital, followed by mandatory outpatient therapy. I never told anyone what had happened to me and never sought support specifically for the rape until many years later.

My first tattoo was a semicolon on the inside of my left wrist. It’s part of the Semicolon Project, a suicide-awareness movement that poses the metaphor of life as a sentence. A semicolon marks a point at which the author could have ended the sentence but instead decided to keep going. The idea is that you are the author and the sentence is your life.

It took me until I was 18 to share my experience in detail with a sexual partner, my boyfriend at the time. He told me that most men his age hadn’t thought deeply about the significant influence an incident of rape can have on one’s psyche long term. It did not change how I felt about him, and I did appreciate that he changed and learned from exposure to me and my experiences, but it did not make me feel more patient with the apathy apparent in so many people’s reactions to hearing or seeing either news of rapes and assaults or, worse, the acts themselves.

After seeing the news of these latest alleged assaults committed on our campus, what do we do now? I have seen people calling for Sigma Alpha Epsilon to be banned from campus. I agree that they must be banned, but I do not think banning one fraternity will solve the problem. I have seen people calling for more training for new fraternity pledges. Yes, they must be better trained, but I do not think this goes far enough either. The question we must truly face is this: How do we stop the repeated assaults that burgeon in organizations like SAE?

The University has to stand up for what is right and actually do something productive. The Greek chapters under the umbrella of the Interfraternity Council are granted official power and privilege in the form of physical space via housing on our campus (regardless of whether their national organization owns the property), financial and social support both through Northwestern and outside sources, as well as the legitimacy conferred upon them through their interactions with the University, despite their well-known circumventing of campus alcohol policies.

Their violations — in both alcohol infractions and sexual violence — go repeatedly un- or minimally punished with no lasting changes effected on the organizations or the culture of their chapters, and I only anticipate that the University will continue to dangerously underreact to the threats posed by fraternities here. What if NU were no longer a dry campus, and parties had more oversight? What if we banned all IFC member organizations from campus? Though we individually play our respective roles in shaping Northwestern’s culture, the administration alone has the power to address the ongoing systemic problems and must do better than mere trainings and empty words.

My second tattoo says “hasta que el aire se me acabe,” which means “until the air leaves me.” When I got it, I was hoping it would mean that I would keep fighting against the silence, pain and violence of sexual trauma until I die. The more these things go unpunished and the longer their social context goes unchanged, the more it feels like my tattoo actually means that I will keep seeing this same kind of horrific story happen to others.

To the administration, I say: Please prove me wrong. I beg you to do what is needed to protect students, not just the bare minimum of what is necessary to save the University’s reputation as these despicable acts are amplified by the national spotlight. Transgressions against campus safety cannot be ignored any longer; we cannot continue to be silent.

Cara Lewis is a Weinberg junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.