Students, professors Take Back the Night to break silence on sexual assault
A group of 50 students gathered in front of the Cook Carillon Tower at Grand Valley State University. Silently, they marched across campus, sloshing through puddles left by earlier rain, until the shrill sound of 50 whistles shattered the silence, followed by yells of “The night is ours.”
“Together we can take back the community,” said Zachary Wilson, president of Eyes Wide Open. “Let us break the silence together and end the silence around sexual assault.”
On Wednesday, the Women’s Center partnered with the student organization Eyes Wide Open to host the 10th annual Take Back the Night event.
The first documented Take Back the Night happened in October 1975 in Philadelphia. Since then, they have occurred across the world, working to raise awareness and end sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual abuse and all forms of sexual violence.
“The work that we are doing tonight helps us to create change,” said Theresa Rowland, VAWA grant coordinator for the Women’s Center. “You’re all shifting the culture with us, and it’s taking a new direction in the sense that we’re shifting responsibility away from victims and survivors and to an area where we are all responsible for preventing and ending sexual assault.”
According to a 2006 ALERT Labs anonymous sample survey, one in five women and one in 15 men at GVSU reported experiencing sexual assault at some point in their lives.
“This must stop,” said Michele DeVoe Lussky, professor of writing at GVSU and a trained comprehensive sexuality educator. “We need to educate ourselves and our friends. We need to empower ourselves and our friends to stand up and take back the night.”
Lussky was the keynote speaker at this year’s event and shared her own experiences with sexual assault with around 200 people.
“In 1986, 27 years ago, I was 17,” Lussky said. “A senior at a rural high school here in West Michigan. I loved talking about philosophy and religion and politics. I was an independent and idealistic person.”
In October of that year, she and her friends drove to Michigan State University in her 1974 Ford Mercury Montego, nicknamed Rego. The girls were headed for the Cedar Village apartment complex, where later that night almost 5,000 people would form a swarm of drunken bodies swaying from keg to keg at the infamous Cedar Fest.
“I wasn’t much of a drinker,” Lussky said. “I just didn’t have a taste for it. I took one red solo cup and filled it up and held on to that for the whole night.”
Along came a 22-year-old MSU senior named Christopher.
“He was not particularly handsome, but he had a sweet, clean-cut quality about him,” Lussky said. “He was very yuppie looking. You know, with the Princeton haircut, and the Oxford shirt, and the khakis and the Sperry Docksiders, and we had struck up a heated political and philosophical conversation on the stoop of a building. After a fight broke out in front of us, he suggested that we continue our conversation at his apartment where we would be quiet and safe. I truly believed he just wanted to discuss his love of Reaganomics and family values and his hatred of abortion and welfare, and I was eager to prove to him that he was wrong about it all.”
Lussky abandoned her friends—and Rego—and left the party with Christopher in his Volkswagen Jetta.
“After we got to his apartment, he offered me a drink which I declined,” she said. “We sat on his fancy leather couch, and I was struck by how affluent he must be. There was a giant stereo with a CD player, and artwork and an espresso machine. I was overwhelmed and totally out of my element.”
Lussky then brought up topics they were discussing at the party, “but his mood had changed, and it was suddenly clear to me why he’d taken me here,” she said. “I felt so ‘effing’ stupid, and I thought—of course, college girls have sex, this is what happens in college.”
Lussky said no three times: “Gosh, you know I’m just not feeling it tonight; Well you know my friends will be worried about me—I’m their ride home; How about we get going? I’m super tired and it’s a long drive home.”
Christopher replied, “Hey, how about we get this over with now so I can take you to your car.”
“If I gave into him I could go home,” she said. “I felt so stupid. I felt like it was my fault for going with him and not realizing that this was going to happen. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I felt so small and so powerless.”
Creating her identity
“I wish I had told someone right away,” Lussky said. “I wish I had sought medical help right away. I sat shamefully on this information hoping it wouldn’t affect me, but it did. I didn’t really realize what was happening, but I was changing.”
She cut her hair and shaved the sides of her head. She stopped wearing makeup and jewelry and instead donned combat boots and a trench coat.
“I would wear garbage bags and hospital gowns,” Lussky said. “I realize now that I wanted to make myself as unattractive as possible. I realize now that I felt like a piece of garbage that was used up and thrown away. I realize now that I felt perpetually wounded, thus the hospital gowns.”
She didn’t tell anyone about that night until two months later, when she realized she had missed two periods. Her friends didn’t think she had been raped, though, because she hadn’t been violently attacked.
“Let’s look at the word ‘consent,’” Lussky said. “Con means with. Sent—feelings, sentiment; with the same feelings. You both have the same feelings on this active agreement, both parties on the same page. Consent is not coerced, assumed, forced or implied. Like in my case, the absence of the word ‘no’ sure didn’t mean yes, and if either partner is incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, consent cannot be given. If you do not receive clear consent or give clear consent, then it is sexual assault.”
Lussky decided to keep the baby and do an open adoption. Her daughter is now married and is a researcher at Princeton University. After the adoption Lussky started her freshman year at GVSU. She went through a string of abusive relationships with cocaine addicts and dealers, an alcoholic and a stalker.
She didn’t talk to a counselor until nine years after first being assaulted. By then, she had earned a bachelor’s degree at GVSU and was halfway through her master’s degree, but “I didn’t feel like I deserved to be well and whole,” she said.
She still blamed herself.
Now, 27 years after the assault, Lussky is the mother of three children and has been happily married for 18 years. She is a local writing consultant, an editor and an activist for LGBTQ rights, the environment and the arts.
“Here’s what I’ve learned,” Lussky said. “I am not my history. I am not my prior suffering. I am not every bad decision I’ve made. I am not everything bad that’s ever happened to me. I am not the story people write about me. I am not even my identity. I just am. You write your story. You define your boundaries. You create your identity.”