Jess Tomlinson doesn’t want to be called a survivor.
“For me, when you attribute [the term] to a whole community of people, the rhetoric behind it becomes almost a hero mentality,” said Tomlinson, a senior majoring in journalism. “It’s like, this is something you’ve survived, so this is something you’ve overcome, so your healing is done, so you need to take up your armor and start fighting.”
For people who have experienced trauma, Tomlinson said, healing isn’t always a linear process, and no one owes it to others to broadcast their pain.
“Not everybody wants to share their stories, and that’s OK,” they said.
But for Tomlinson and several other students rallying for reproductive and sexual justice, Saturday’s “Walk of Shame” gave them an outlet to own and to share what many have kept private.
The “Walk of Shame” was founded by juniors Annabeth Mellon, who studies creative media and gender and media studies, and Emily Triolet, a public relations major, in 2017 to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus. Each year, Mellon and Triolet have organized a march and, starting last year, a rally, which were mostly funded from their own pockets but with some support from groups like Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity and the Women and Gender Resource Center.
Now in its third year, participation has more than doubled from the 11-person bunch the group spawned from.
While Beyoncé and Lily Allen songs blasted from the tent, 28 students gathered near Denny Chimes. Some donned crop tops and fishnets, while others sported tank tops and T-shirts.
The protestors marched down fraternity row, holding signs that said things like, “You are ALWAYS allowed to say NO” and “Only rapists are responsible for rape.” As they passed the black tarps that shrouded the yards of Kappa Alpha, Phi Kappa Psi and Sigma Phi Epsilon, some protestors handed pamphlets about consent to darty-goers, who mostly accepted them with a smirk.
“However we dress, wherever we go, yes means yes, no means no!” some of the marchers shouted, as “Sweet Home Alabama” playing from one of the houses changed to “Racks on Racks” down the road, and some other men sneered and signaled for the more scantily-clad protesters to join the party.
As they reached the corner of University Boulevard and 2nd Avenue, Mellon ended the chants to share a statistic.
“Fifty-five percent of assaults take place at or near the survivor’s home, not in dark alleyways,” she shouted, quoting a study from Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
The group looped onto Fraternity Lane, where Mellon added that “one in four college-aged women will be sexually assaulted,” and that fraternity men are “four times more likely to commit sexual assaults than non-fraternity men,” which she later corrected to three times more likely.
These statistics are supported by two 2007 studies. Funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Campus Sexual Assault Study states that 26.3 percent of college seniors reported experiencing “attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college.” Another study published by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators found that “fraternity men may be three times more likely to engage in sexually aggressive acts and to endorse rape-supportive attitudes or beliefs at a higher rate than their unaffiliated peers.”
“So I think if you love your fraternity, maybe you should do something to change those statistics,” Mellon shouted as the group snaked their way back to University Boulevard.
On their final stretch, away from the fraternities and toward the Quad, the group was met with a few smiles and waves, but mostly blank stares, from passersby. Mellon raised the bullhorn one last time to acknowledge that any person of any gender can experience or be a perpetrator of sexual violence.
“We’re going to create a campus where people don’t have to fear for their safety, where sex is a decision that happens between two people – two sober people who know what’s going on and who don’t feel pressured,” she said. “… We’re going to stop the violence, stop the rape.”
Back at Denny Chimes, Tomlinson took to the steps to share the story of Cassandra, a princess who saw the fall of Troy but wasn’t believed. As a member of the Alabama Student Association for Poetry, the first time they told this story was at a slam competition, but the poem has managed to maintain its relevance.
Their voice raspy from chanting, Tomlinson spoke of the “Cassandra Complex,” their poetry revealing how stories of rape can both be doubted and exploited. They ended with a plea to “write to remember that you hold your own holy.”
“I wrote this poem as an outline of how rape victims construct their letters,” Tomlinson said. “… People who have been raped don’t process the memory the same way. You remember some details, but you don’t remember a linear storyline, which is a lot of the times what police ask you for.”
As if she was responding to Cassandra’s call, Triolet, wearing white slacks and a blue blazer with nothing underneath, wrote her own letter addressed to her perpetrator, which she read to the crowd.
“You don’t deserve anonymity for your actions,” she began, before listing his name, all the pain he’d caused her, the jiujitsu lessons she felt compelled to take and the time she almost took her own life.
Mellon said the recent crimes of Aziz Ansari, R. Kelly and Melanie Martinez reveal how silence and complicity can often drown out stories like Triolet’s. However, these stories, she said, are crucial, and they come as a response to a more local reality.
According to the UA Police Department’s 2018 Campus Security Report, 22 on-campus rapes were reported in 2017, with 21 occuring in a residence hall. Triolet was inspired to start the Walk of Shame after Emma Mannion, one of her freshman suitemates, was arrested for filing an allegedly false rape report. Just months after the inaugural walk, Megan Rondini, another UA student, took her own life after reporting that T.J. Bunn, the heir of a local construction mogul, had raped her.
“We’re here to honor Emma, and we’re here because Megan Rondini is dead,” Mellon said before introducing keynote speaker Helmi Henkin, a recent UA graduate who co-founded the University’s first sexual assault awareness foundation and currently serves on the board of directors at the Yellowhammer Fund.
Henkin addressed the crowd to share her own story of sexual assault and to offer words of encouragement.
“What happened to you is not your fault,” she said. “I want to tell you that it does get better, and better is worth waiting for.”
Mellon and Henkin both acknowledged resistance to the march, but Mellon also noted some “looks of recognition” from behind the darty tents and among passersby. For them, and for the many others who weren’t in attendance that day, she had a message.
“I see you and I hear you and I believe you and I hope you find healing and justice, whatever that looks like for you,” she said.
For those who have experienced or are experiencing sexual assault or harassment, resources include the Women and Gender Resource Center, the Tuscaloosa SAFE Center, Turning Point Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services, University of Alabama Police Department, The University of Alabama Counseling Center and the Title IX Office.