Better messaging, decision-making would strengthen Athens Take Back the Night march

By Damon Krane
April 2, 2014
The Post (Athens, Ohio)

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Women marching in the 2005 Athens TBTN march. InterActivist file photo by Julie Van Wagenen.

As a male sideline supporter of most of the Athens Take Back the Night marches since 2000, I would like to offer a somewhat different take on this year’s controversy surrounding how men will relate to the march.

This year’s decision to invite men to march alongside women has been particularly contentious. With only a few exceptions, the event has been a women’s march since the late 1970s. Yet regardless of whether men march, every year Take Back the Night is surrounded by controversy. All of the controversy is educational. Most of it is inescapable. But some of it is more divisive than it needs to be.

Most controversial of all is not whether men will march in a feminist march, but whether anyone will. Every year that I participated in sideline support, male students opposed to the march shouted sexist slurs and rape threats from the balconies of Ohio University fraternity houses and the windows of residence halls. Most years marchers made too much noise with their own chants to hear much of this, but sideline supporters got an earful. The current debate over men marching pales in comparison to the kind of controversy that greets any expression of feminism in a society that remains plagued by patriarchy — and perhaps at Ohio University in particular, which, according to the U.S. Department of Education, frequently outranks even the substantially larger Ohio State University when it comes to the number of rapes reported in residence halls. (See my “Crying wolf about crying wolf: Debate over public sex incident teaches more than Grand Jury findings,” Athens News: 10/30/13 and “Students, faculty deem assault prevention inadequate,” Athens News: 1/31/02 and The Post: 2/1/2002)

By refusing to succumb to this patriarchal rape culture, Take Back the Night marchers and supporters create division, to be sure — a division between those working for a better world and those working for a worse one. So “controversy” and “divisiveness” aren’t always bad words. As Frederick Douglass pointed out, they’re absolutely necessary for progress.

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The author after just completing a banner inspired by feminist author bell hooks and first used during sideline support of the May 2000 Athens TBTN march. Photo from author’s personal collection by Monty Hunter.

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The author (far right) and other male sideline supporters, including former Athens City Council member Elahu Gosney (center), during the 2005 or 2006 Athens TBTN march. InterActivist file photo by Julie Van Wagenen

But the controversial aspect of TBTN that is mostly unnecessary and counter-productive is the divisiveness created among Athens feminists/sexual assault opponents over whether men will march. Some of this is unavoidable; even people who share the same goals will disagree about the best strategy for achieving those goals. But much of the conflict flows from two easily corrected but longstanding problems with the march – one of messaging, the other of decision-making.

If the purpose of Take Back the Night is to show opposition to sexual assault in general, then it makes sense for everyone to be welcomed to march, since men as well as trans and genderqueer people are also survivors and opponents of sexual assault. Conversely, if the march is a way for women to empower themselves to combat the overwhelming majority of sexual assault committed by men against women as an outgrowth of patriarchy, then a women’s march probably makes most sense. So which is it? That’s the problem of messaging. And who gets to determine the message is the problem of decision-making.

In her March 30 letter to The Post Devin Aeh argues that TBTN is a women’s march for women’s empowerment and against sexual assault. In an April 1 letter Erin Fischer contends that Aeh speaks for only “a few bigots” and that “TBTN is not about ‘women’s empowerment;’ it’s about standing up to sexual violence and assault.” Decades of local tradition are on Aeh’s side. So are tens of thousands of women and men I wouldn’t identify as bigots. But traditions and even majorities aren’t always worth heeding. So which is it?

In past years, Take Back the Night marches for women’s empowerment eventually gave rise to an additional march against sexual assault per se. This year it seems that a Take Back the Night march against sexual assault per se is giving rise to a separate march for women’s empowerment. Just like Aeh’s and Fischer’s arguments, these developments make two things crystal clear: 1) there is a big difference between these two types of marches and 2) there are people in Athens who feel the need for each type of march. Given that both types of marches are oriented toward worthy goals, perhaps there are even people who feel the need for both.

But whichever type of march the organizers of a particular year’s Take Back the Night choose, the march’s message needs to be made clear so people will be less inclined to continue to fight over it, and instead focus on fighting patriarchy and/or sexual assault.

Yet even if the message is clear, if the process for deciding upon that message isn’t considered legitimate, then there will still be unnecessary conflict and resentment.

The process for deciding TBTN’s message can be authoritarian or democratic. The authoritarian option is for one person or a handful of people on OU’s Student Senate to make the decision unilaterally, perhaps after receiving some degree of wider input (or not). This is what usually happens. Then the decision maker(s) can sit back and see how many marchers and would-be marchers resent not having a say. And by “say,” I’m not talking about mere input. I’m talking about people having a share of actual decision-making power through some system of majority rule or consensus that would constitute a more democratic approach to determining TBTN’s message.

In addition to clearer messaging, a more democratic process that’s open to a wider constituency of TBTN stake-holders would go a long way toward decreasing the unnecessary kind of conflict surrounding the march and increasing the necessary kind.

Editor’s Note — Damon Krane is a former weekly columnist for the Post, contributor to the Athens News, co-founder of The InterActivist magazine and its editor from 2005 through 2008. While a student at OU in 2002, he revealed OU’s violations of federal campus crime reporting laws and helped organize the campaign that both forced OU into compliance and proved instrumental to the establishment of the OU Women’s Center. A freelance journalist, artist and community organizer who currently resides in Georgia, his letter (co-authored with several other men) which argued against men marching (but in favor of one of the first showings of sideline support) was published in the May 8, 2000 edition of The Post and May 11, 2000 edition of the Athens News.

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