A campus-wide safety alert pertaining to the alleged sexual assault that occurred in mid-October was sent out on Halloween.
The overall tone and the language used in the email has raised concerns and sparked outrage among students, who find the lack of empathy expressed in the email as well as the details provided and their underlying connotation of victim-blaming disturbing.
“Based on the victim’s statement, she was never ‘grabbed’ or ‘forcefully pulled into the vehicle’ as stated in the social media post but was picked up by someone with whom she was in communication with on a dating app.” The email reads.
While Dr. Brenda Friday from University Relations says these details are included in quotations because they are taken directly from the social media posts, it seems that the potential for misconstruing their meaning was not considered.
Upon reading the email without this context, these words in quotations almost come across as mocking, even if that was not the intention.
In any form of communication, and perhaps especially in mass communications such as campus safety alerts, the message being properly interpreted by the receivers is just as important as the encoding of the message being sent.
In sensitive situations, one would expect heightened attention to detail but it appears that in this scenario that was not the case.
On ESU’s website, the process for creating a campus-wide email is described: “Once a message is prepared it should be forwarded to the individuals below for approval. All listserv messages should be approved in the following order: Department director or chair, or faculty/staff advisor for student organizations, Dean of the college or vice president, Director of university relations”
“The process varies depending on what kind of email is being sent” Dr. Friday said.
How could a message this poorly constructed and phrased have been approved by multiple people?
When asked about the objective of the email as a whole, Dr. Friday said it was to correct the details of the social media post with information from the victim’s statement to the police.
Is making these corrections as important as considering the victim and their feelings?
If the safety alert’s purpose is to correct what was said on social media, is the discrepancy worth detracting from the larger issue that someone was sexually assaulted? Is that not a bit insensitive?
“Imagine being that girl and having that happen to you on your college campus and then seeing that email. I mean if it were me I’d feel like the campus doesn’t give a sh- – and that they only care about saving their own as—“ said Montana Gates, a senior.
It takes bravery to come forward, and one can only imagine how hard everything must be for the victim, from the sexual assault itself to it being a topic of conversation across campus.
No mention of sympathy for the victim or their family was expressed in this email
Instead, the semantics of a social media post and the fact that she had communicated with the alleged via a dating app were the focus of the safety alert.
As if her using a dating app or not being forced into the vehicle has any bearing on the assault that allegedly occurred.
In 8 out of 10 rape cases, the victim knows the attacker according to Center for Family Justice.
Knowing someone, communicating with someone, dating someone, or getting into a car with someone does not at all equate to consent.
According to USLegal “Victim blaming is a devaluing act where the victim of a crime, an accident, or any type of abusive maltreatment is held as wholly or partially responsible for the wrongful conduct committed against them”
Shifting blame, even implied, to the victim whether or not that was the intention of the way those details were phrased is irresponsible and can prevent other victims from coming forward in the future.
Victim-blaming stems from the need for one to separate themselves from a traumatic experience, to “other” the victim as a way to maintain a belief in a “just world” or render oneself invulnerable.
In this case, perhaps these undertones stem from a desperate need to maintain feelings of safety or security on campus, to minimize how much of an issue this actually is, to make it an isolated incident, to not have to accept the fact that not enough is being done.
“They’re probably just worried about maintaining the students that they have and saving face since admissions are down and they’re worried it reflects badly on the campus” Gates said.
Then there is the fact that the phone number for campus police that was included in the safety alert was incorrect.
“People make mistakes, I take full responsibility, it was an oversight on my part and I did my best to correct it as quickly as possible,” Dr. Friday said.
People do make mistakes, however botching the campus police number comes across as careless and again points to a lack of attention to detail in handling an especially sensitive topic.
Other resources for those who are also victims of sexual assault or those who may be triggered by hearing about the assault were also noticeably absent from the email, such as resources on campus.
Ariel Tucci, interim director of the Gender and Sexuality Center informed me about some resources on campus such as the Mind and Body Lab in Sycamore, of the therapy dogs that are on campus every Tuesday and Thursday.
When I asked about what new ways ESU plans on addressing the issues of sexual assault and rape culture on campus, perhaps focusing on identifying predatory behavior on the end of a potential perpetrator and not always addressing potential victims as though it is their sole responsibility to prevent assault from occurring to them, most of the answer I was given again defaulted to risk reduction.
“It is important for everyone to remember that part of sexual violence prevention efforts focus on risk reduction, which is how all members of our community come together to recognize the risks associated with any activity and help to minimize potential impact.” Dr. Friday wrote after posing this question to Dr. Solis, vice president for campus life and inclusive excellence.
One of the efforts that was mentioned was “developing some active and passive programming to bring attention to the use of dating apps as potential facilitation of violence and sexual assault.”
While I agree that one should be wary of meeting people online or offline it could be argued that talking to someone online offers an arena for a vetting process – a place to chat and get to know someone better for an extended period of time before going out with them.
How can we solely focus on limiting activities as a way to prevent sexual assault from happening and not focus on the behavior and mindset of a perpetrator? On the societal issues and toxic personality traits that can fester into predatory behavior?
“That is like telling someone not to carry money if they don’t want to get robbed.” said a father of a student.
Why does the fact that a revealing Halloween costume is not consent for sex have to be plastered on a bathroom wall?
Why isn’t the money used to laminate that poster allocated to a more in depth curriculum on consent, on warning signs, grooming, predatory behavior?
We can’t continue to foster a society where our actions are dictated by the fear of other actions.
Regardless of who wrote the problematic safety alert, it is clear that now more than ever we as a campus and as a society need to change the way we handle and discuss sexual violence and stop perpetuating rape culture.
Women’s Resources of Monroe County can be reached through their 24-hour crisis hotline at 570-421-4200, or online at wrmonroe.org.
The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline can be reached at 800-656-4673.