By Yasmina Khasoggi
They moved fast. In the middle of the night, under the moonlit sky with only their smartphone flashlights and hundreds of posters in their hands, they combed the Northeastern University campus. A team of activists were launching a campaign against sexual violence on their campus. This was their first strike.
According to the United States Department of Justice, by the time they finish college, 25 percent of female undergraduates will be victims of some form of sexual assault. Antonia Marulli, a fourth-year Communication Studies major at Northeastern is trying to change that by creating an online space for survivors to share their stories. The website, called NUEToo, is drawing attention to an often-overlooked problem, and Marulli plans to expand the project to seven other Boston schools later this year.
“My experience with sexual assault starts in high school,” she said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about this subject.”
During her freshman year of college, Marulli said she was physically assaulted by someone in her friend group, followed by a semester of emotional and psychological abuse. According to Marulli, he sexually assaulted two of her other friends during the same year, and she later found out that he raped her best friend during their senior year of high school. A few months ago, she said that he assaulted another one of her friends in a taxi on the way home from a party. The next day, they both a filed a report with NUPD.
Marulli started the website NEUToo as a class project, under the supervision of Associate Professor Gregory Goodale. NEUToo is a platform for survivors of sexual assault to anonymously share their stories. It is also intended to pressure the current school administration.
“We want to nudge Northeastern in the right direction,” Marulli said. “A lot of perpetrators have not been kicked off campus, or they’ve been told they can finish their semesters online. We are challenging the administration and holding them accountable for the people who were found guilty by OSCCR (Northeastern’s student conduct board), who we feel should not be receiving a diploma from Northeastern, who are still receiving that diploma.”
Based on her personal experience and those of her friends, Marulli felt that sanctions were not being sufficiently imposed. She wanted to make Northeastern to honor its Title IX policy. Goodale welcomed her ideas into the classroom.
“We were doing a class on propaganda and institutions and how they control our arguments and how they control communication,” said Goodale. “Antonia started to talk about her experience with Northeastern University controlling the conversation about sexual assault on campus. And the students were coming to this conclusion that it’s a really dangerous thing for institutions to control particularly that kind of discussion.”
Northeastern officials were contacted numerous times for this story, but only provided The Scopewith a prepared statement. The Office of Prevention and Education at Northeastern University stated, “Northeastern has updated its Title IX policy, including a new adjudication process for cases, updated definitions, providing more clear and transparent information for people looking to learn about rights, resources, and procedures.”
The Campaign Begins
Marulli and her classmates decided that their first strike would be to paper the school with posters. They modeled their posters after Northeastern’s official posters hanging all over school. Half of the posters showed students’ faces with red tape covering their mouths, and the other half had quotes from students’ stories about sexual violence.
“We all woke up at midnight that day and, with hundreds of papers in our hands, all 24 of us scoured the campus and put them up,” Marulli said.
Four days after plastering the school, they had more than 30,000 views on the NEUToo website, 6,000 of which were unique viewers. They also had more than 60 story submissions.
Here are some of the stories shared anonymously:
“I was not assaulted on campus, but a close friend was. For her privacy, I won’t share the story of her assault. I accompanied her to OSCR to talk to someone and report the assault. She didn’t want to involve the police because she was afraid of being blamed or not believed. We thought it would be enough to ask for a No Contact order so she would feel safe at school. No notice of the order being confirmed ever came. No one ever followed up with her. Both of us felt completely abandoned by the very people who promote Title IX and safety on campus. I lost all hope that day.”
“My friend was raped by someone he thought was his friend. He woke up to this man performing sexual acts on his unconscious body. He only told three of us. He was afraid to tell anyone else and only spoke of it once to us, never mentioning it again. I learned this same man had raped at least three other men in the past year at Northeastern, and was sent home by the university to take classes online. THIS is how Northeastern treats rapists. They allow them to still graduate with a degree and leave the university untouched. And they allow people like my friend to feel like they have no way to speak out against these criminals.”
“I experienced a really bad sexual assault earlier in the year that affected me very intensely and when I came forward to NEU and just wanted someone to talk to, it was automatically reported to the Title IX office. From there, it was reported to NUPD. I told my story multiple times within the week following the incident. NUPD really pressured me to give them the name of my abuser and go forward with formal charges, so I did. However, even though I had to tell my story right in front of him and many others, nothing came of it, and now I feel more lost. When I utilize UHCS counseling, I feel like they don’t really care and don’t want to spend their time giving me support, and again I feel worse. A lot of the offices here have told me that they’re here if I need something, but then I am either ignored or sent off to another department when I contact someone. I wish there was an ongoing professional support on campus where we could talk to someone whenever we need it but I have yet to meet someone like that. I just want someone to talk to sometimes.”
Activism that can Trigger
A few days after plastering posters around the school, the NEUToo team received some backlash from sexual assault survivors who found the images triggering. For them, the posters brought up memories of a traumatic experience and caused emotional distress.
“There’s no right way to be a victim and there’s no right way to deal with things. If a girl walks out of her dorm room and there’s a poster that reminds her of her rape, what should we do?” said Marulli.
Goodale and his students ended up listening to the victims, and understood where they were coming from.
“It opened up a dialogue with the students who have been triggered into talking about their problems and helping to empower them to take advantage of the mental health services that are available. So even the negative stuff turned out to be quite positive,” said Goodale.
But this new conversation raised difficult questions: how can activists get their message across without triggering victims? How can they advocate for change without discussing causing more distress?
“If you’re going to change the world there are going to be some people who are upset, and that’s an unfortunate reality. But you can’t talk about rape without triggering people,” said Goodale. “I think all of us in the class decided that we were doing significantly more good than bad.”
Universities throughout the country often have to wrestle between protecting their students and maintaining their image. Reputation often wins out.
“No president in the country wants to come out and say, ‘We have a problem with rape culture,’ because it’s going to signal to parents across the country that that university has a problem,” said Goodale. “The fact is every university has the same problem… but no university wants to be the first one to say it because it’s going to just crush them in terms of applications, and in terms of money. The university has a ton of incentive to make these things go away.”
When it comes to sanctioning offenders, schools face another risk. By kicking someone off campus for a sexual assault violation, universities open themselves up to potential lawsuits.
According to estimates from Samantha Harris, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, “one new due process per week was filed last year against a college by a student who had been found guilty of sexual assault by a campus tribunal.” Some of the most notable lawsuits include Yale Universityand University of Oregonbasketball players. Students, after being expelled or suspended over sexual assault allegations, sued their respective schools and won significant settlements. With colleges increasingly facing legal backlash from individuals accused of sex crimes, they have reason to feel caught in the middle.
Many stories on NEUToo include details of perpetrators being let back on campus. After seeing their perpetrators return to campus, some survivors described a lack of communication from Northeastern. According to Jaclyn Friedman, author of the book ”Yes Means Yes: Visions of Sexual Power and a World Without Rape,” this is part of the reason that some survivors don’t come forward.
“If you look at conviction rates for sexual assaults that are reported, they’re woefully low. So there’s not a lot of incentive to report,” she said. “Many times they’re (sexual assault survivors) blamed and questioned and treated like they’re crazy.”
Until there’s enough pressure on university administrations to increase transparency about sexual assault, progress will continue to be slow. Reporting of sexual assault by universities has been increasing over the past few years, but still has a long way to go.
“It went up from less than 10 assaults a year on one campus to maybe 30. But that’s still vastly underreported,” said Goodale. “If we got rid of all the ranking services, that would be fantastic for every university everywhere. Those numbers are actually not relevant. And they disincentive universities from doing a lot of good because they have to worry so much about their reputation and retention rates and rankings.”
Marulli and the team at NEUToo is planning to launch another site called “MyCampusToo,” which will feature seven other Boston colleges. They hope to provide a safe haven for students all over Boston to express themselves freely and anonymously. Ultimately, Marulli wants administrators to take action to solve an issue plaguing schools throughout the United States.
“A lot of people are reaching out to us saying, ‘I wish my campus had something like this,’” said Marulli.