Sexual Assault Activist Zoe Ridolfi-Starr Isn’t Nice, And That’s a Good Thing

“They used to call me ‘condom girl’ in high school, now I’m ‘rape girl,’” Zoe laughs. “It’s even less glamorous.”

She’s reclaimed the once-offensive nickname peers gave her. Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, deputy director of Know Your IX, a nonprofit aimed at stopping sexual violence on college campuses, has always been an activist.

In high school, she worked for Planned Parenthood and advocated for women’s reproductive rights. When Zoe was sexually assaulted the summer before her sophomore year at Columbia University, she found an even more personal cause.

After a tough sophomore year in the wake of her assault, Zoe decided to study abroad in Argentina to try to get away from it all.

While she was there, a friend sent her a couple of articles: one investigating other sexual assault cases on Columbia’s campus, and another about survivors fighting for their rights through Title IX. She related to those survivors and was inspired by how they weren’t letting their experiences define them. They were taking ownership of what had happened to them and taking action.

When Zoe got back to campus, she decided to do the same. She co-founded No Red Tape, an organization aimed at getting Columbia to change their policies on sexual assault. Speaking out has helped her to find a sense of self and process her trauma.

When asked “Have you seen any changes at your alma mater, Columbia, since you started your activism there?” Zoe responded confidently, “Totally. A lot of real policy wins.”

First off, Columbia fired every single person in their Gender-Based Misconduct Office, the office that worked on investigating and adjudicating cases. Additionally, six new positions were created within the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Department. Zoe and fellow activists also got the school to distribute free Plan-B for all students, so students don’t have to mention they’re survivors to access it. They’ve also opened a second Rape Crisis Center, which is easier for students to access. Prevention Education has also been made mandatory for all students, graduate and returning students included. In addition, there have been changes made to their investigation policies.

That being said, Zoe likes to remind people that these changes have come from years of struggle. They are the result of hard work from activists who got media attention and fought for them. There’s still a long way to go too.

When I asked for one piece of advice she’d give to her former self in college, Zoe couldn’t narrow it down to just one. She gave herself the following wisdom, “Set your own goals. Don’t be distracted by others’ definitions of success. Work your ass off. Also, dump your boyfriend. Find your people. Don’t be afraid to lose friends, you can find better ones. People change.”

One piece of advice she’d give to readers is “Don’t feel you have to be nice. My mom has always told me ‘It’s important to be kind, but you don’t have to be nice.’” That’s a piece of advice Zoe tries to live by, even if it requires calling her mom for the occasional “don’t be nice” pep talk when she knows she has to tell people something they don’t want to hear. Also, “College isn’t always the best four years of your life–at least, I hope it’s not!” She advises readers to focus on what they love to do, that’s what’s most important.

Zoe faces many challenges working for Know Your IX. One thing she struggles with is operating digitally. It’s hard for her to connect with students on campuses across the country and support them without being there physically. It’s harder to form a community.

Structurally, she explains it’s also tough because there are activists graduating every four years. It’s a cycle of constantly losing the students with the most campus knowledge. As a whole, she struggles with how to help the issue help long-term.

She explained, “My dream vision is a cultural shift where instead of punitive measures for perpetrators, we focus on safety and center around the needs of those who have been harmed.”

For Zoe, the most rewarding part of working for Know Your IX is working with students. She excitedly whipped out some thank-you notes from recent participants of the IX Boot Camp student activist training and began reading them to me, a wide smile spreading across her face. “I love watching people win. Seeing them move from disempowered and isolated to owning their experiences and finding their voices, whatever that means for them, is amazing.” She also loves the friendships she’s made along the way.

What’s next for Know Your IX? They want to amplify diverse narratives, get people’s stories out there that will get attention. They’re also starting to work on legislative advocacy at the state level. They’re concerned that conservative lawmakers who are passing laws to chip away at women’s reproductive rights will do the same with gender based violence. Know Your IX wants to be proactive about it.

As far as what we can do to stop sexual violence on our campuses, Zoe had lots of advice. “There are two levels on which this issue operates: cultural and institutional,” she explained.

Institutionally, you can help by being aware of your school’s policies, resources, and how they actually work. What’s on paper versus what’s experienced are often two very different things. You can also demand transparency from your school. Have them release data on sexual violence like the number of reports per year, and what punishments were given.

On a cultural level, you don’t have to become an activist to make changes. This is harder to do than we’d like to admit, but, strive to have healthy relationships and sexual practices. That means speaking up if you’re uncomfortable with anything your partner does.

Zoe notes, “There are a lot of little ways we’ve normalized lack of consent in our society. It’s messed up.” For example, the common notion of buying someone drinks in the hope of hooking up with them. That’s essentially coercing them. She advises that we get comfortable being awkward and speaking up about these things. Little things build up, so its not just a joke. It builds up to what society accepts. Also,

“Support survivors in your own community. For me, my community’s reaction was worse than the assault itself. We need to change that. Pretty much everyone considers themselves anti-rape, until they know the perpetrator. Then it becomes ‘a he said, she said.’ I hate that phrase. Everything is a he said, she said. When supporting survivors, the best thing to do is ask what you can do to help. If that means you have to stop inviting their rapist to your parties, do it, regardless of how “fun” he or she is.”

Finally, Zoe cautions us to remember the quote “If you’re neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

To learn more about KnowYourIX and how you can fight sexual violence on your campus, visit knowyourix.org.

Kara Cuzzone

Editorial Contributor, Holy Cross Major: Undecided Her heart belongs to: Her dog Ella, Ashton Kutcher, sundresses, and summertime (yes, in that order) Her guilty pleasures: Country music, drinking far more chai lattes than humanly possible, and cozy little coffee shops

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