Good Followers – Angie Epifano, Madeleine Smith, and Emma Sulkowicz

As I define the antonym of leader – which is follower – it is a person without apparent power, authority, or influence. In this sense the three women named above all were followers. They were, to all appearances, ordinary undergraduates at three different, as it happens illustrious, undergraduate institutions, respectively Amherst, Harvard, and Columbia.

However according to what became their public testimony, they shared a searing experience: they were raped on campus. Angie Epifano went public in 2012, in the Amherst student newspaper, where she published an extended account not only of having been “raped by an acquaintance” in one of the college dorms, but also of the traumatic aftermath. Emma Sulkowicz became “the talk of Columbia” this past winter, when an article, also in a student magazine, described in detail her sexual assault at school and the events subsequent, which were enraging to the point of being emboldening. Madeleine Smith, who was raped at Harvard, stood alongside Vice President Joe Biden this past week at an event at the White House, intended to to draw fresh attention to the problem of sexual assault on college campuses.

The problem is obviously not a simple one – it’s not as if college officials have turned a blind eye to a common casualty of campus life. But it’s safe to say that until recently – until women undergraduates started speaking out and organizing on their own behalf – the problem was hidden. It was infrequently articulated, less infrequently publicized, and only rarely successfully addressed and adjudicated.

There are two main reasons for the recent shift: as usual they are changes in culture and changes in technology. First, victims of sexual assault are not so willing any longer to stay silent, or to be permanently stigmatized by what happened to them when they were in school. Moreover more than before they are ready, willing, and even eager to fight the good fight – in their own name. Second, one of the ways they have become empowered is through social media, which enable them to gain information about other women in similar situations; to connect one with another to provide everything from emotional support to legal advice; and to organize to compound their clout through the power of numbers.

The problem of sexual assault in the American military is by now well known, in considerable part because of leadership on this issue by New York Senator Kristin Gillibrand. But though according to the National Institute of Justice one in five women is sexually assaulted while in an American college, this particular placement has so far been immune to the sort of public scrutiny with which the military is by now familiar. Thanks largely to the efforts of undergraduates across the country who are willing now to go public – women such as Epifano, Smith, and Sulkowicz among them – the problem of one college student sexually assaulting another college student has finally been exposed. It is now where it should be – out in the open.

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