Editorial: Building against sex assault


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Though it came and went without much fanfare, April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month, an issue those on the University of Iowa campus are certainly aware of. Events such as the annual Take Back the Night rally to change the culture surrounding sexual assault arrive at a time of heightened attention, with 12 reported sexual assaults on campus so far in the academic year.

Controversy around UI President Sally Mason’s comments on sexual assault helped to fuel outrage on the issue in Iowa City, leading to the formation of a Student Advisory Committee on Sexual Misconduct as well as additional prevention measures as part of Mason’s six-point plan to combat sexual assault.

The UI held its first student advisory panel meeting last week to begin planning for the coming year as action on sexual assault began in earnest nationwide. From Ivy League schools such as Dartmouth, whose president called for an end to “extreme behavior,” including sexual assault, to Brown University, whose president promised “aggressive steps to ensure that our campus is safe for everyone,” momentum for aggressive action against sexual assault is building.

The White House took up the issue on Monday with a report on campus sexual-assault prevention as well as the launch of a website for survivors: NotAlone.gov. The site provides resources for students and schools to learn how to respond to and prevent sexual assault on campuses, including crisis services and how to report an attack.

The report outlined preventative steps for campuses to take, including providing schools with a toolkit for conducting “climate surveys” to “find out what’s really happening on campus.” This is a vital part of the information-collecting process, especially when reports of sexual assault to authorities don’t provide a full picture.

Campus sexual assault is historically underreported. Only 2 percent of incapacitated sexual-assault survivors and 13 percent of forcible rape survivors report the crime to campus or local law enforcement. The reasons for these jaw-dropping statistics are varied. According to a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, 40 percent of college survivors fear reprisal by the perpetrators. Others cite anxiety about their treatment by authorities and the lack of independent proof. Some just don’t want anyone to know what happened to them.

Whatever the reasons, this silence is deafening. If these statistics hold true for the UI campus, and there’s no reason to think they don’t, then there are far more instances of sexual assault taking place than have been reported.

“Colleges and universities need to face the facts about sexual assault,” Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement accompanying the White House report. “No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist. We need to give victims the support they need — like a confidential place to go — and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

The UI has taken good measures in response to the reported assaults, and events such as Take Back the Night and sites such as NotAlone.gov help to spread the word that survivors have places to turn to. We urge the UI to conduct the climate survey backed by the White House in addition to the steps it is taking.

This is not yet a crisis in decline. Speaking out against sexual assault often seems like preaching to the choir when there’s no tangible change in the numbers, nationwide or at the UI, where not a month goes by without a warning from the Department of Public Safety. Twelve reported assaults on campus were enough to change the system. How many will be enough to change the culture?

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