Guest opinion: Sexual assault and sexism at the UI


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The recent reports of sexual assault at the University of Iowa are not indicative of a new problem. Sexual assault and sexism are persistent issues that plague the university as well as our entire society. In the case of the UI, as shown in my research, sexual assault and sexism are fueled not only by our larger culture but by bar culture, rape culture, and a campus culture that often values hypermasculinity, male-centered sports, fraternities, and men over women. I want to be clear that not all men, athletes, and fraternity members are a part of the problem, but all men can be a part of the solution.

There are great men at the UI and in the greater Iowa City community. However, if we accept the notion that rape, sexual assault, intimate-partner violence, and other forms of sexism are in our human nature, we insult great men and women, and we fool ourselves into believing that these social problems can’t be changed. Moreover, if we don’t get serious about changing our campus culture, then the legacy of the school and the lives of our students will undoubtedly be tarnished. Have we learned nothing from the Penn State tragedy? Is that the legacy that the UI wants?

I’m concerned by my dissertation research that revealed a significant amount of sexism on this campus. I examined racist and sexist micro-aggressions on college campuses. One of the study sites was the University of Iowa. I sampled nearly 1,500 women and men (undergraduates) here in 2012. I found that sexism and sexist micro-aggressions are prominent on campus and that sexism manifested in a variety of disturbing ways. Sexist micro-aggressions can be overt or blatant (micro-assaults); or they can be covert or underhanded (micro-insults and micro-invalidations). Sexist micro-assaults frequently include sexual and physical assaults, as well as blatant verbal attacks directed toward women because of their gender. Sexist micro-insults belittle women, while sexist micro-invalidations nullify their experiences.

In terms of specific findings, women experience more sexist micro-aggressions than men. This means that, within the same institution, women and men have very different college experiences. This also means that gender inequality and sexism are alive on the UI campus. While there are men who are sexually assaulted, my study and other studies overwhelming find that women are usually the victims of sexual assault, gender-based violence, rape, stalking, and intimate-partner violence. 
While white women reported the largest number of gender-based micro-assaults, women of color — particularly black, Asian, and Latina women — experienced sexism and racism at the UI. In other words, survey respondents with two disadvantaged statuses tend to experience greater victimization on campus.

If you need more motivation to generate change, imagine that the following statements from my research were made by a woman whom you care about:

“There isn’t much protection on campus. Men are not chastised when they say inappropriate/sexist things in class, in student org meetings, during events, on the street etc. Women’s opinions, intelligence, and safety are not respected or of concern.”

“As a women with a campus job in sports, my opinion is often undervalued, and I receive treatment that is dismissive. I also hear lots of women jokes, especially ones that humorize rape, abuse, traditional roles.”

While there should be stricter rules and penalties for perpetrators, our community is lucky to have dedicated and intelligent professionals who are working toward ending sexism and sexual assaults. The Office of the Sexual Misconduct Response Coordinator, Rape Victim Advocacy Program, Women’s Resource and Action Center, Domestic Violence Intervention Program, and hosts of advocates and allies of all genders are doing amazing work.

Aside from the professionals, I’m challenging you, the reader. There are many volunteering opportunities, internships, programs, and training available to help dismantle sexism (many are provided through the organizations listed above). You can choose not to take part in sexist jokes, conversations or activities. Let's be revolutionary; let’s not accept sexual assault or sexism. Let’s be known as a university that is known for generating meaningful positive change and not as a university where sexism and sexual assaults abound. Let’s ensure that our legacy is positive, not tarnished, and that the UI is safe for everyone.

Charisse Levchak, Ph.D., M.S.W., is a UI visiting scholar.

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