LOS ANGELES — Savannah Badalich had fallen asleep during a student government retreat one night in fall 2012 at a mountain resort east of this city. She recalls waking up to a shock: A respected student leader was sexually assaulting her. He urged her to keep quiet as she elbowed him and told him to stop. “Shhhh,” she remembers him whispering. “It’s okay.”
Badalich, then a sophomore at UCLA, said she didn’t report the incident to authorities because she feared no one would believe her. She kept her pain almost entirely to herself. At one point, she tried to commit suicide.
But during her junior year, Badalich stopped keeping quiet. She went public with her story, joining other students in a nationwide uprising against sexual violence that has shaken colleges and universities and seized attention in state capitals and in Washington.
“I decided, I’m going to go a different way to find justice,” Badalich said. “We’re getting there. The revolution’s happening.”
The 22-year-old graduated Friday from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in gender studies and a minor in global studies. But she also got a parallel education in the politics of college sexual assault, here in the first state to establish affirmative consent — or “yes means yes” — as the rule for sex in college.
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block gave Badalich a shout-out at the commencement, saying that she “transformed an experience of personal trauma into a student-led movement offering healing and support to survivors of sexual assault and violence. And in doing so, she has become a crucial voice and resource to survivors both here and across the country.”
A new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of current and recent students found that 1 in 5 women say they were sexually assaulted in college. Most of the young women and men surveyed said they don’t consider sexual assault a big problem at their schools. Nearly three-quarters said the subject rarely or never came up in discussions with friends.
Activists such as Badalich are seeking to get campuses to face the issue.
They are mobilizing under banners national and local: End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX (referring to a federal law that prohibits gender bias), One Less, Stand Up and many more. They are the engine for Take Back the Night, Consent Week, the Clothesline Project, Project Unbreakable, It Happens Here, the Red Flag Campaign, and other events and programs that reflect a demand for a cultural shift in attitudes toward sexual violence.
No more victim-blaming, they say. Better yet, no more victims.
The activists sometimes provoke controversy. At Columbia University, Emma Sulkowicz carried a mattress around campus during her senior year to protest the school’s response to her report that another student raped her. “Carry That Weight,” as her performance-art protest was known, became a viral image. But the man she accused denied her allegation, and the university cleared him of wrongdoing through an internal inquiry. He has sued Columbia, saying the school failed to protect him from a “harassment campaign.”
Last fall, Rolling Stone magazine published an article about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house, but key elements of the story fell apart under scrutiny, leading the magazine to issue a retraction. The journalistic debacle posed a challenge for the activist movement, with some fearing that it would fuel doubts about the credibility of survivors’ stories.
At UCLA, Badalich and others called their campaign 7,000 in Solidarity. The name derived from their estimate of the number of UCLA’s 28,000-plus undergraduates likely to be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. When the campaign launched in September 2013, Badalich identified herself as a survivor through an article in the Daily Bruin student newspaper. In April 2014, she wrote a narrative of her assault and its aftermath for the Huffington Post. It described her alleged assailant as “a friend and fellow Bruin” but did not identify him.
But Badalich didn’t just tell her story. Her campaign sought to engage the campus in a dialogue about sexual violence. She and her allies gathered thousands of signatures from students who made a “True Bruin” pledge to “only engage in consensual sexual activities,” be an “effective bystander” in preventing situations that could lead to violence and “support survivors of sexual assault.”
They also pushed UCLA administrators to beef up policies and educational programs, and they hosted discussions with an array of student groups on how to spread the message of affirmative consent. The approach, Badalich said, was to seek cooperation rather than confrontation.
“We totally are feminists,” Badalich said. “But we didn’t want to be branded as radical or man-hating.”
When she met with fraternity leaders, she said, she was careful to avoid saying anything that would create the impression that she had prejudged them. “If you go into a community and tell a community how to act,” she said, “they’re going to be pissed off.”
Someone from a fraternity, she said, might fire back: “Are you calling us rapists? We don’t rape.”
Avinoam Baral, 21, a graduating senior and outgoing president of the undergraduate students association, said Badalich displayed skill in navigating those minefields. “Savannah’s awesome,” he said. “What makes her really effective: She is an activist but also somebody who is good at engaging people where they’re at.”
Leaders of the campus chapter of the Sigma Chi fraternity said they joined with 7,000 in Solidarity this year in an event to promote awareness of sexual violence. They said their members, like others in the Greek community, also have participated in numerous workshops on issues related to sexual consent.
“The mission is to eliminate the taboo of talking about your sexual intentions with your partner or even the topic of sex in general,” said Zachary Scheinholz, 21, a vice president of Sigma Chi at UCLA. The goal has not been completely achieved, he said. “But I think we’re a lot closer than we were even a year and a half ago.”
Recent developments in California have elevated the issue of sexual assault. In September, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed the groundbreaking law that requires colleges to adopt an affirmative-consent standard for student conduct cases involving sex. The “yes means yes” law drew national attention to the principle that consent is valid only if it is “affirmative, conscious and voluntary.”
At the same time, the University of California was on a quest to improve its response to sexual assault in a world-renowned system with 10 campuses, 233,000 students and more than 150 reports of forcible sex offenses in 2013. Badalich served on a task force to develop reform proposals, including expansion of training and prevention programs and more institutional support for those who report sexual violence. The Post-Kaiser poll found that just 11 percent of students who experienced an unwanted sexual incident told police or college authorities.
“When you go through the nuts and bolts of our task force recommendations, you can hear Savannah’s voice in there,” UC President Janet Napolitano said. “How great is that?”
Napolitano said that Badalich is “as influential as any student I’ve come across on any issue.”
Bonnie Reiss, a member of the UC Board of Regents and former state secretary of education, recalled a task force meeting in 2014 when Badalich grew teary-eyed. The activist said she worried about getting her hopes up too much at the prospect of progress. Reiss, admiring Badalich’s courage, said to herself: “I’m not going to have us let her down this time.”
The daughter of a rocket scientist and a small-business owner, Badalich grew up in Simi Valley, a suburb northwest of Los Angeles perhaps best known as the home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. In high school, she was a docent at the library, a long-distance runner and a class valedictorian. She entered UCLA with an interest in nutrition and plans to major in biochemistry.
Her parents were as protective as any others who send daughters off to college. They were mindful of a scary day in high school when a man flashed Savannah while she was out walking the family dog. They talked with her about staying safe at UCLA and bought her a pink canister of pepper spray. It wasn’t of any use on the night Badalich said she was attacked.
Badalich said she had been drinking at a student government retreat in the Big Bear Lake resort area, about two hours from UCLA’s campus. She excused herself from the gathering and walked downstairs to fall asleep on a bed. She said she awoke to the assault about an hour later.
Cyndi Badalich said she didn’t learn what had happened to her daughter for a year, until Savannah called to tell her about the article in the Daily Bruin. “It just cuts you to your core,” the mother said. “You feel helpless.”
She is astounded at what her daughter has accomplished since then: “She’s taken it and empowered other people, and herself.”
Now Savannah Badalich is handing off the issue to others after traveling thousands of miles in a campaign that took her from the sun-splashed Westwood campus to Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, Washington (for a White House event) and Charlottesville (for a conference at the University of Virginia). One of her long-term goals is to explore the world, perhaps conflict zones in North Africa and Asia, promoting human rights and gender equality.
Her campaign is being rebranded as the Bruin Consent Coalition. New student leaders hope to build on the momentum.
“My big worry is we make sure to sustain it,” Badalich said. “And we don’t stop working just because the press and the president aren’t looking.”
Scott Clement and Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.