Friday, November 8, 2013

Campus activists say their university perpetuated 'victim blaming' because of the way it handled -- a false rape claim

I had to read this story twice just to make sure it said what I thought it said. It does a disservice to rape survivors and sets back the cause of raising awareness about sexual assault.

First, the back-story. On September 15, 2013, the University of Northern Iowa issued a crime alert that a sexual assault had been committed earlier that day inside a residence hall. But more than a month later, it was reported that UNI police had arrested the woman, Elizabeth Kathryn Richmann, 21, for making a false report to law enforcement. Investigators were able to identify the men suspected in the incident, and they told officers there had been consensual sexual activity, according to court records. The court records also show that Richmann later gave a statement admitting the sex was consensual.

End of story, right?  Wrong. The school newspaper has written an article using the false report to help raise awareness about . . . sexual assault.

The campus Feminist Action League claims that the September crime alert issued by the school after the alleged incident perpetuated "victim blaming."  Yes, you read that right: the school perpetuated 'victim blaming' because the crime alert indicated that "the victim" (that's what the Feminist Action League called the false accuser) had been drinking.

We can't find the actual crime alert that was issued -- the only crime alert we find on-line relating to the incident does not allude to any drinking by the accuser. But according to a news report: "Richmann told police that two white males drove her home from a bar around 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 15." It is possible that the crime alert issued on September 15 included this information, which is hardly inflammatory or suggestive of "victim blaming."  But according to the president of the campus Feminist Action League, revealing that the "victim" had been at a bar "just put emphasis on something other than the attack.”

We pause to allow you to do a double-take. The president of the Feminist Action League is upset because a crime alert regarding a false sexual assault put emphasis on "something other than the attack."  Um, there was no attack. And note that the president of the Feminist Action League is not upset because a crime alert was issued over a false sexual assault claim.

If you are shaking your head over that one, read on. The president of the Feminist Action League also took issue with "tips at the bottom (of the alert) that said how to protect yourself, like have a designated driver … basically saying that if she had done these things, she wouldn’t have been raped." The Feminist Action League says that the alerts should center on the assailant rather than the victim.

The president is missing something, isn't she? In fact, the woman who reported the attack was not a "victim"; there was no "assailant"; and the accuser was, in fact, perfectly safe -- she lied about being attacked.

But wait, that's not the end of it. The article quotes Catherine MacGillivray, the associate professor and director of the UNI Women's and Gender Studies Program, who weighed in on the incident: “These crimes are happening in a social context, where lots of other people could potentially intervene.” She added: “In my field, one of the things that we say is that we live in a rape culture. That means it’s a culture where rape is not only accepted, but also, in some ways, promoted.”

The article goes on to state that this was the first incident during the fall 2013 semester but "this isn’t the first time the issue has arisen. In 2011, UNI reported a total of eight forcible sex offenses and one nonforcible sex offense on campus." The context of the comments indicate that the article is conflating this false claim with real ones. It goes on: "As part of an ongoing effort to curb this kind of behavior, UNI has implemented and revitalized several programs and resources on campus in recent years." What does the article mean by "this kind of behavior"? If you keep reading the article you'll understand that its referring to sexual assault.

Raising awareness about sexual assault is a worthy and necessary endeavor. This article is going about it the wrong way, and it's having the opposite effect. I respectfully suggest that virtually every objective reader is having the same reaction I'm having: "She lied -- how is this evidence of 'rape culture' or 'victim blaming'?" But this is typical of so much of the advocacy in this field. Too often, it overshoots its mark.

This blog respects survivors of sexual assault and does not tolerate the trivialization of rape. Our mission is not to advocate for sexual assault awareness, but if it were, we'd be talking about real cases, not false claims. There are enough horror stories to focus on without pretending a false claim is the same as an assault. (And if we did mistake a false claim for a real one, we'd apologize for it.) For example, we'd be hammering the Steubenville case. We'd do posters of the unresponsive girl being hauled away like so much beef by the two teenage perpetrators who used her as their sexual plaything. We'd do TV ads with those two boys sobbing in open court -- and maybe other boys would think, "Gee, they look a lot like me."

We might even do a poster quoting the rape chant at St. Mary's University: “SMU boys we like them young. Y is for your sister. O is for oh-so-tight. U is for underage. N is for no consent. G is for grab that ass.” Maybe with a tagline: "Would you be proud of your son if he was one of them?" Or something.

What we wouldn't do is make outlandish claims that most people know aren't true -- comments that suggest that rape is part and parcel of our notions of masculinity, which is just silly to most people. And we wouldn't ignore or trivialize the horrors of false rape claims. We wouldn't pretend a false rape claim is the same as a rape claim. That's unfair to false rape victims, and it does no favors for rape victims. In false rape case after false rape case after false rape case, we read about judges who reprimand the false accusers for the harm they do by diminishing the integrity of rape victims. These reprimands, sadly, do not resonate on the pages of college newspapers or among sexual assault victims' advocates. We need to teach our sons and daughters what rape and consent are (the real, legal definitions), and insist that they respect not just the bodily integrity of other people but also the power of words -- and that means we cry "rape" whenever rape occurs, but only when it occurs.

But then again, nobody asked me.