Following an increase in reported sexual assault cases on campus, the university released a statement Wednesday about sexual violence, which many UA students thought perpetuated victim-blaming rhetoric.
Three students have reported on-campus rapes since the start of 2021, each of which occurred in residence halls, according to the UAPD Daily Crime Log. Prior to those incidents, the last reported on-campus rape was in January 2020. In one part of an official statement emailed to the campus community Wednesday, Dean of Students Melissa Harwood-Rom, Title IX Coordinator Liz Means and UAPD Chief Stephen Gahagans urged students to exercise good judgement in situations of heightened vulnerability.
The officials suggested avoiding leaving doors unlocked, and practicing caution when out alone at night or after consuming alcohol. After receiving the email, many students took to social media to voice their concerns. Lexi Acello, a third-year law student, said she was disappointed that the statement focused on encouraging potential victims to better protect themselves, rather than on the conduct of perpetrators.
“Any time you start talking about how a person can avoid being assaulted by exercising caution around alcohol and around social events, you imply and insinuate that at least some part of the responsibility of avoiding sexual assault is on the victim,” Acello said.
John Thomas, manager of university communications, said university officials appreciate the feedback from the campus community about the wording of the statement. The intent behind the message was to raise awareness of sexual violence and resources available to survivors, Thomas said.
“Despite the best of intentions, we recognize that the message had unintentional effects on many,” Thomas said. “For that, we apologize. Never would the university want anyone to feel responsible for a crime committed against them.”
Caroline Yakin, a junior and peer educator for Rape Education Services by Peers Encouraging Conscious Thought, said in an email that she thought there was victim-blaming rhetoric present in the university’s message. Victim-blaming is an element of rape culture, which normalizes languages and actions that perpetuate and excuse sexual assault, Yakin said.
Other elements of rape culture include pervasive jokes about rape, catcalling, disregard for consent, sexual harassment, assault and rape. By becoming educated on the ways in which rape culture leads to degradation and assault, people can learn to be better advocates for victims and help create a society that condemns rape as the devastating crime it is, Yakin said.
“An important message that victims and survivors of sexual assault should hear is that is it not their fault,” Yakin said. “There is nothing they could have done to prevent the crime committed against them. The rapist was the person who had the intention to rape and the control of their actions.”
UAPD Capt. Gary Crain said that in all three rape cases reported this semester, the victims knew the reported perpetrators. Most people have heard advice such as not walking alone at night to lower the probability of a stranger attack, but there needs to be an increased focus on cases where the assault is perpetrated by acquaintances of victims, Crain said.
Under Arkansas law, consent from both parties is necessary for any sexual act to occur, otherwise a crime has been committed. Consent must be maintained throughout the sexual act, and both parties must be capable of giving consent, meaning neither person can be under the influence of alcohol or other impairing substances.
Consent education is valuable because it helps people recognize that everyone has different boundaries, and understand the importance of asking for consent every time, for every sexual act, Yakin said.
Acello said she hopes the university issues an official apology acknowledging the email’s harmful effects and that administrators continue to educate themselves on the subject. She thinks consent is a critical topic that the email did not mention. Acello thinks the message should have included information about what consent looks like and individuals’ responsibility to withdraw contact if they do not receive enthusiastic consent.
“Institutions of higher education have a responsibility to bring consent into the conversation,” Acello said. “Instead of focusing on the victims’ conduct, (they should) focus on the conduct of the perpetrators of violence, of preventing that conduct and calling out that conduct as absolutely intolerable.”