Take Back the Night offers healing for survivors of sexual and interpersonal violence this week

A handwritten placard that reads, "How do you know if someone wants to make out? Ask. How do you know if someone wants to have sex? Ask. How do you know if someone wants to hug or a kiss or to be touched? Ask, ask, ask."
Photograph courtesy of TBTN by Mike Arrison.

“Can you describe what it feels like?” I ask Andrea “Cookie” Noel, one of the lead organizers of Philly’s Take Back the Night (TBTN), an international event with the mission to end sexual and interpersonal violence.

“For me being a survivor of domestic [violence] and rape, it’s like a lot of stuff that happened to me that I didn’t remember. I put it in my subconscious, things that I totally forgot about. Hearing someone else’s story made it click, and I remembered things I had totally forgotten about,” she says, recalling her first experience at a TBTN event. 

She related to me horrific abuses she’d endured at the hands of an ex, violent clients, and even friends to whom she had been close. Hearing the testimonies of other survivors gave her the strength to recall and speak out on her own experiences “to let myself know that I’m not ashamed, it wasn’t my fault and to make them accountable for what they did.”

“To get it out was a big relief,” she says. “It’s good to talk about it, it’s good not to bottle it, to put it in a box and forget about it. You gotta deal with emotions. And that’s the reason I was doing drugs, partly, and headed downward in a spiral.”

In the environment of TBTN Philly, founded in 2010 by a committee of folks who knew each other from a South Philly recovery clinic, Cookie found the warmth and safety to begin healing. She has been drug-free for 13 years, including 7 years without alcohol – except “only on vacation” she explains, “at home I don’t drink a drop” – is employed and living, according to her,  a much more satisfying life. 

The beginning is what sets Philly apart

Cookie spoke with me alongside Amanda Spitfire, who, like Cookie,  has also been on the planning committee since it formed 12 years ago and is involved in planning the return to in-person events this year, on Thursday, April 28.

While most TBTN events have been based on college campuses, a group of activists all connected to one another through recovery started this Philly coalition, almost all of whom were survivors of domestic violence but who had never been involved in TBTN. 

“Why has it typically been on college campuses? One: because it started that way,” Amanda, who uses they/them pronouns, says, but a lot of it has to do with which kinds of survivors are “allowed to” speak out about their experiences. 

All survivors should be heard

Historically, Black communities did not talk about sexual and intimate partner violence, they add “because it’s been normalized under the history of white supremacy” and there’s resistance to wanting to participate in the system of arrest and imprisonment. 

“Then there’s also aspects around substance dependence, intoxication, and violence against sex workers.”

Their last point touches on a particularly harmful reality. Predators, including at times police, often target people in the sex trade in part because these survivors rarely speak out when it happens. 

“If you are a sex worker and you tell someone you’ve been assaulted, they’re gonna say all the victim blaming things you can think of times 10…There’s a lot of stigma around sex worker and substance dependence that’s like ‘if you weren’t doing this, then you wouldn’t have been assaulted.’”

Amanda says that these groups often see “their autonomy, independence, and safety stripped” and Philly’s Take Back the Night event came from a varied group of “otherized” people who with lived experience who were passionate about ending violence.

The original team of eight organizers worked in tandem with trauma therapy and recovery clinics in the area to create their first event. They say the first TBTN in Philadelphia brought out a small crowd of 30-50 participants who marched, made banners, and shared their stories and feelings in the Speak Out, giving testimonies and busting myths about rape and abuse. Since then, the event has grown tremendously, with participants counting in the hundreds before COVID forced the organizers to turn to virtual events. 

A return to an in-person event

The organizers are excited to return to the in-person rallying and speaking out this year. Amanda is most excited for the Bust The Myths part of the action. 

“Our Bust the Myths are 25 myths and facts about sexual, domestic, interpersonal, and intimate partner violence that span the gamut of substance use, profession, gender, race, capitalism. We talk about statute of limitations and how long you have to report an assault. We talk about the myth of the Black rapist, we talk about accountability when substances are involved.”

Amanda says that every year people come in from the street action and join in the Speak Out after hearing a myth busted they’d been indoctrinated to believe. “They’ll say ‘I’m speaking because when I heard that myth, I knew that was me,’ and then they come inside and find community and break their silence and start their healing process.

“We’ve all heard the term ‘you’re not alone,’” they add, “but what I love about this event is that it’s experiential, and we prove it to you, we prove you’re not alone. If I put my trauma therapist hat on, that is something that is so healing. You can’t force a brain to believe it’s safe, you have to prove it.”

How to attend and support

The 12th annual event will begin April 28 outside the First Unitarian Church at 22nd and Chestnut streets at 6 p.m. for the rally and “Bust the Myths” street action, then continue inside the church with a Speak Out and story sharing, wrapping with a candlelight vigil at 10:45 p.m.

Supporting organizations set up tables with resources for survivors, childcare is available, and Food Not Bombs will provide food and beverages. Organizers welcome donations and welcome and encourage promotion on social media. Survivors, family, friends, and all other allies are welcome to join for the event.s

    • Timaree Schmit Headshot

      Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.

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