The Thistle Volume 13, Number 4: June/July, 2001.

Campaign for a Rape Awareness Program in MIT Orientation

by Radha Iyengar

Rape awareness programming should not be a controversial issue. With the large numbers of women and men across the country who are raped, and the surge in such incidents in college, university administrators should be actively seeking opportunities to raise awareness about these issues to inform incoming students about the potential for rape. An orientation for first year students is a crucial part of any such awareness. MIT, one of the finest academic institutions in the US and the world, should seek to be a leader in such programming, accepting its responsibility to give all of its students the chance to excel in their chosen field of study. However, since I began studying here in 1998, MIT has had no such awareness events. Perhaps administrators and orientation planners were not aware that the risk of rape peaks in the first 3 months of college and so did not implement a program during orientation. Perhaps they were interested in preserving the image of the Institute and feared acknowledging that rape happens on this campus as on all college campuses might affect that image. Yet what is surprising and disheartening is that a group of professional educators, who should want to promote a healthy, safe working environment, have instead focused on preserving MIT’s image causing many members of the administration to become hindrances to rather than agents for the changes necessary to unify this community against the rape. At MIT, fear of public scrutiny seems to trump concern for the many women victimized on this campus each year. Perhaps some administrators see rape as something beyond their control, “isolated incidents” perpetrated by a few bad apples, or not one of the “big issues” that the administration should work to affect. It is surprising then how many people these few “bad apples” can traumatize-one in four college-age women have survived a rape or attempted rape, one in a hundred MIT students reported rape in 1998. Rape is a terror campaign launched against female students at college campuses across the country. It seriously disrupts the survivor’s and the survivor’s circle of friend’s academic and social lives, and it instills fear in those who have not been raped. Administrators should be embarrassed that MIT is a university that will ignore what students want and need to effectively fight the war against rape. We are told we are “not experts”, but we know that. We are dismissed as “biased”-I guess if thinking rape is wrong makes me biased - I wear that title proudly. We are certainly not worthy of respect since we “have an axe to grind” - that axe being what, effective orientation programming? And worst, or best depending on your politics, we are just students. Perhaps it is not that we are just students, but that we are students. We are not fanatics, proposing radical, impractical changes, or a zealots, trumpeting a cause of little relevance or significance to most students. We live in the community of fear and violence that rape has established at so many college campuses and we just want to fight back. Until last year, I would have thought the administration did too.

Unfortunately, such faith in MIT administrators has been proven not only unwarranted but also unproductive. Before and during the summer of 2000, two student groups independently approached orientation planners suggesting a program focusing on rape be added to the week of events. The first group met with stiff resistance by administrators fearing such programming would be “too heavy” for orientation week. Perhaps, they suggested, we could make it part of the police presentation. While the campus police, specifically Sgt. Mary Beth Riley, are an excellent resource for survivors or rape, a police only program would miss important aspects of the issue. Knowing that rape happens in dark alleys, in dangerous parts of the city, at night, by masked strangers might help avoid about 16 percent of all rapes. The more comprehensive programming that was necessary was shot down, and students in our group were told they would be contacted at a later time, since it was too early in the planning stages. We were never contacted. Later that summer, another student group asked for similar programming. This group’s proposal was also rejected however this time; the reasoning given was that it was too late to plan such events. Unfortunately for the class of 2004, no events were added and rape went largely unmentioned during orientation.

After a divided effort produced absolutely no results and now determined to succeed, these two groups joined with several others concerned with the issue of rape to push for rape orientation programming during the 2001 Orientation. While promises were made from several of the same administrators that “something would be done”, we had little reason to believe these statements. The same feeling that this was a heavy issue, that this is not really a problem at MIT, was still present and made us cautious in our acceptance of empty rhetoric. Moreover, different stories were told to different students, and administrators refused to meet with us to simply discuss the issue. Unfazed but disappointed we turned to the MIT community for support. We circulated a petition garnering over 600 signatures demanding that rape-awareness programming be added to the first year orientation. Some students were shocked to learn that rape happens at MIT, others were shocked at how irresponsible MIT is in failing to include such programming in orientation, but some students treated petitioners with mockery and occasionally, open hostility. Students joked that they supported rape and argued that rape was simply a set of false accusations. Moreover, the administration’s concern over image had suppressed any mention of rape on campus and instilled the student body with the belief that rape is not an issue at MIT. By neglecting to publicize the importance of rape on campus and ignoring the issue during first year orientation, the administration helped reinforce the attitude that rape doesn’t happen here. One need only look at the stories posted before Take Back the Night rally this year by survivors in the MIT community to clearly understand that RAPE HAPPENS AT MIT (these stories are available at

Our unified efforts to introduce programming had a happy ending. In early May we were informed that Katie Kostener would be invited to speak during orientation, afterwards breakout groups would discuss the issue more in depth. Students would be involved in planning these breakout groups. The administration announced a program that met all of our criteria, and we were very excited. Some of us even felt a little sorry that we had mistrusted the administration. We greatly appreciated their planning an ideal orientation program and their promise to work with us to make it has effective as possible. We were pleasantly surprised and very grateful that the administration seemed to support effective awareness programming. Our excitement and trust soon dwindled as we were sent to the wrong administrators to discuss planning for the breakout groups. Shuffled around and largely ignored, we become somewhat worried about how the planning process would work. Would we be able to help plan the groups? Who would facilitate these groups? If already recruited orientation leaders were forced to do this, we might end up with some of the very hostile people undermining the discussion and entire event. We were summarily informed that graduate students could not help facilitate discussions, undergraduates would be required to come early for a training session but no housing would be provided, and students would not be involved in the planning for breakout groups. Naturally these decisions posed serious structural problems. Excluding graduate students cut the potential labor pool by more than half, as most graduate students are already on campus and housed during the summer months. Undergraduates who are interested would have to accept homelessness for a week to participate, unless they are involved in some other orientation event, in which case they would likely be too busy to help facilitate. Finally, excluding student input into planning did little except ensure that the programming would be less effective than otherwise and likely not in touch with student views.

In short, the administration has been little help and has largely served to thwart efforts at student involvement and organization. What is most disappointing though, is not the difference in opinion, but the utter and complete lack of respect granted students by the university. Do we not deserve to be told the truth? If they were not planning to include student input, why not say so from the get-go? And, the situation has gotten worse. After being ignored by the planners, the Coalition on Rape Awareness sent a letter to the administrators involved demanding better treatment and a voice in some matters. Please notice we never have requested control over programming, only the chance to give our input and be involved in decision-making. We recognize that the administrators who plan orientation have extensive experience in planning such programs; unfortunately, they do not recognize that students are best situated to evaluate what will and will not be effective and that members of The Coalition on Rape Awareness have valuable experience and expertise in rape awareness programming. In suggesting a joint effort, we seek to produce the best possible programming. Yet our request at representation was labeled “bad behavior”, and we were informed that we lost the trust of the administrators who are working on this program. I wonder who lost whose trust, and what counts as bad behavior? Do we lose trust for voicing our opinions in a private letter to the relevant parties? Is bad behavior having opinions, demanding fair representation for programming that directly affects students, or simply disagreeing at all with administrators? For our part, we have told the truth and stuck to our goal of producing the best possible programming. Sadly, many members of the administration cannot say the same. Unfortunately, being a professional educator at MIT does not make one immune to the deep degree of denial about rape and dating-violence that permeates our culture. How many more students need to face the threat of rape without any help from MIT? What will it take for the administration to believe? Do they need to see the bodies of those who have been affected by rape piled up on the side of the road? If so, there is not enough room at MIT for all these people. What needs to happen for the administration to value its student’s beliefs? Does the program need to fail first in order to succeed later? I invite the administration to get things right on the first try. Let’s work together to fight back against the rape culture we both want ended.

One out of four women will be sexually assaulted on a college campus.
--Hirsch (1990). National Victims Center.

One out of eight women will be raped while in college.
--Martin, Laura C. (1992). A Life Without Fear.

84% of women who were raped knew their assailant.
--National Victims Center (1992).

57% of rapes occur on a date.
--Koss, Woodruff (1990). Koss Study.

75% of male students and 55% of female students involved in date rape had been drinking or using drugs.
--Koss, M.P. (1998). Hidden Rape: Incidence, Prevalence and Descriptive Characteristics of Sexual Aggression and Victimization in a National Sample of College Students.

About 3 percent of college women experience a completed and/or attempted rape during a typical college year.
--Justice Department's National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) 2001


The Thistle Volume 13, Number 4: June/July, 2001.