Why the 2,505 purple pinwheels around campus are important
Editor’s note: This article contains discussion of sexual assault and rape culture. If you or someone you know has been impacted, resources are available at the bottom of the page.
When walking around campus last Thursday, I noticed something different almost immediately—purple pinwheels lined the edge of the field across from the DUC. A friend pointed out a sign nearby: the Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Helpline (S.A.R.A.H.) had installed 2,505 pinwheels around campus for sexual assault awareness month, and each pinwheel stood for one Wash. U. student who had been impacted by sexual assault, according to the Campus Climate Survey in 2019. That’s when I looked in the distance and saw that the pinwheels weren’t just right by my feet—I could see purple specks lining the other side of the field as well. These purple pinwheels lined the entirety of Mudd Field, and even more were scattered elsewhere throughout campus. As I walked to classes throughout the day, I noticed these miniature pinwheels popping up everywhere.
While I was aware of the prevalence of sexual assault at college campuses across the country—Wash. U. included—the pinwheels brought a tangible image to the numbers. As a freshman, to see the pinwheels lined up around the entire field and scattered throughout campus for the first time was powerful, and the image remains powerful every time I walk onto campus. These pinwheels also feel personal—they represent individuals on our campus, people we live with and have classes with and share a community space with. The issue is personal because it is our community’s issue. It is happening on our campus to our fellow students.
For many, sexual assault is an uncomfortable topic. We don’t want to think about how big of a number 2,505 is, and we avoid confronting the prevalence of the issue. We tend to brush aside that friend who jokes a bit too much about girls who “ask for it.” We push away our concerns with the belief that we are overreacting, or that a trusted friend would never act with malintent. The purple pinwheels force us to confront the uncomfortable.
Yes, the pinwheels are just pinwheels—at the end of the day, they alone won’t change anything. The pinwheels don’t have meaning unless we give them that meaning. But processing that each of the 2,505 pinwheels represents one person impacted by sexual assault on campus gives weight to the pinwheels. If each student truly takes the time to reflect on the significance of the pinwheels and understand the urgency of the problem, the pinwheels become more than just miniature plastic decor. They are there to serve as not just a reminder, but as a means for each student to grapple with the severity and seriousness of sexual assault on our campus.
While reflection is important, change requires more than just recognizing the issue. According to the 2019 survey, 42.5% of women and 20.1% of men experience sexual assault during their 4 years at Wash. U. Grappling with these numbers means confronting the real prevalence of sexual assault in our day-to-day lives. It means calling out our friends when they make that harmful joke. It means not discrediting a friend’s concerns about another student. It means believing friends when they share their experiences. It means educating ourselves about how our culture perpetuates sexual assault.
To comprehensively lower the prevalence of sexual assault, we must confront systemic problems like rape culture that reinforces the silencing of victims, the lack of consequences that perpetrators face especially in universities, the lack of trauma-informed support that victims need when reporting and other national-level concerns. But tackling those larger issues starts with individual action. Confronting that friend may lead them to question their own problematic behavior in the future. Recognizing your own contributions to rape culture through excusing a friend’s behavior or using harmful language yourself can help in the broader goal of eliminating a culture that excuses behavior rooted in silencing and blaming victims. Validating a friend’s experience can have significant results: A 2014 national study of female rape victims found that positive disclosure encounters can help encourage survivors to pursue further action and report their experiences. It all must start at the individual level. And for those individual actions to start, it takes reflection. For that reflection to occur, there must be a reminder: in this case, the 2,505 purple pinwheels scattered across campus.
My hope is that the broader campus community has taken the opportunity to reflect on the seriousness of this issue. Each pinwheel has significant weight, and the sheer number of pinwheels serves as an important and personal reminder of the prevalence of sexual assault on our campus. That reminder can cause reflection, which can spark meaningful conversations, which can ultimately lead to action.
The Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Helpline (S.A.R.A.H) provides confidential and anonymous support and can be reached at 314-935-8080 24 /7 during the fall and spring academic semesters.
There are counselors at the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) Center. The office can be reached at 314-935-3445 or by email at [email protected].
The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at 1-800-656-4673.