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We can't ignore an environment that is hostile toward women

One afternoon last week, I was walking on Washington Road when a bus passed me, slow enough so that I could hear the catcalls from the male high school students inside. A shiver of discomfort passed through me, and I hastened my step.

Why was this my response to some kids who were quickly out of sight? It is because I interpreted that incident as a symptom of a greater disease in our society: sexual violence.

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Unlike one in four female college students — as determined by a Wellesley study — I have never been raped. And though I have never been sexually assaulted, I, like many women with male acquaintances, have been rendered uncomfortable by certain physical contact that sits on the delicate line between friendly and harassing.

It is quite unsettling to me that contact with a friend can put me on edge — friendships should evoke feelings of security, not discomfort. But it is difficult for me not to be apprehensive with the knowledge that, according to a 1988 survey of college students, 84 percent of women who were raped knew their assailants.

I have not always felt so uneasy, but several incidents that have occurred during my time at Princeton have changed that. It was hearing about last year's Take Back the Night event that prompted my own involvement in the planning of this year's event. When participants in last year's Take Back the Night walked through Holder Courtyard, they were greeted with loud, obscene and sexually suggestive remarks. This was supposed to be Princeton's opportunity to express support for survivors of sexual violence. If that was the level of support the Princeton community could show for survivors of sexual violence, what does that say about the general atmosphere on campus?

I go to extreme lengths to avoid walking around this campus by myself at night, a resolution that owes itself in large part to the fact that a (male) friend and I were threatened while walking back from the 'Street' one night last year. And even before I read the report about the man who exposed himself to a female jogger on the towpath one afternoon, I always felt a bit unsettled running there without a companion, even in the light of day. But I have not run there since.

This is the effect that sexual violence has for the people beyond its immediate victims. The existence of stranger rape, acquaintance rape and sexual assault in our society and on this campus prevents many women like me from ever feeling entirely comfortable. I think it is very difficult for men to understand this phenomenon. Certainly, it is true that men are raped too: The fact that between seven and 10 percent of all adult rape victims are male is a statistic that is overlooked far too often. But I have yet to meet a male who feels the same sense of discomfort I feel while jogging along the towpath in the middle of the day or who is wary of walking alone at night on this campus, a remarkably safe place indeed.

It is because I feel this way that Take Back the Night is important to me. Only by increasing awareness of sexual violence on this campus — and providing a safe and supportive forum for survivors to come forward about their experiences — can we combat sexual violence here at Princeton and in society at large. Not until we have faced the problem of sexual violence, and worked to decrease its incidence, will women feel entirely at ease walking around Princeton and interacting with male acquaintances. That is what it means to Take Back the Night — to reclaim that feeling of security and comfort in our surroundings.

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Because if I do not feel safe here, then I can hardly imagine how a Princeton women who has been raped or sexually assaulted must feel. Julie Straus is from Potomac, Md. She can be reached at straus@princeton.edu.

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