Issues with sexual assault reporting at Tufts Daily newspaper
This is lengthy, but I really care about this and would love people's feedback.
This week I wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Tufts daily newspaper, in response to a horrible editorial in which he asserted that some women "may choose to wear more conservative clothes if they know they're going to be walking alone late at night, or they may be especially vigilant at night if they know they're dressed more revealingly."
The Dean of Student Affairs has invited me (and a group of other students who complained) to talk about options in response to the Tufts Daily's comments.
What I would like from this (LJ) community is to help me better connect my heart and mind on these issues. I know in my feelings that there is something deeply wrong with the tone and content of the editorial, and I have some intellectual grasp on the way in which such statements perpetuate rape culture (regardless of how earnestly well-intentioned they may be). But I am a man, who has had the privilege of not having sexual assault a lifelong issue on my daily radar. I am also someone who has NOT devoted years and years to considering these issues, academically as well as among my peers, like many of you have. So here I am, knocking on your edoors for feedback, advice or just a good ear.
My strong conviction is that it is NEVER a good idea to report on the manner of dress of a sexual assault victim. I am curious to know if you folks agree/disagree with that, and why.
Here's the Daily's editorial: "Safety first, political correctness second" http://www.tuftsdaily.com/editorial-safety-first-political-correctness-second-1.2660570#.TrQOSPQr2so
Here's my Letter to the Editor: http://www.tuftsdaily.com/letter-to-the-editor-1.2663793#.TrP3A_Qr2so
I've been at Tufts for almost 6 years now, and sexual assaults on campus have been reported by the Tufts University Police Dept (TUPD) throughout that period - I haven't kept exact track (see: I am a privileged man...) but I'd guess at the rate of multiple times per year, sometimes several per month. The Safety Alerts that TUPD issues have always seemed professional and informative, including descriptions of the assailants with a reasonable level of detail (attire, height, gender, age, physical appearance, etc).
The latest such sexual assault on a female Tufts student happened on Saturday October 22nd. The TUPD immediately released a Safety Alert, with a detailed description of the attacker ("Hispanic Male, 5'5" to 5' 7" tall, thin build, late teens, dark short hair, dark eyes, wearing a dark hoodie."). I have no problems with that safety alert.
Later that day, the TUPD issued an update alerting to the fact that this sexual assault was "similar to others reported in different parts of the city [of Somerville] beyond the Tufts area." The new information being reported was the following:
"In these incidents, women have reported being grabbed from behind by a man and indecently assaulted before scaring off the attacker. The target is typically a lone female, usually wearing a skirt or dress, who is walking late at night or early in the morning from the Porter Square or Davis Square MBTA Stations. Descriptions of the suspects in these incidents varies."http://publicsafety.tufts.edu/police/?pid=51
This safety update was also mentioned by the Boston Globe that weekend, including the section describing the victims' "usual" dress.
The following Tuesday, the Tufts Daily newspaper published a Letter to the Editor by a Tufts student, strongly criticizing the TUPD's inclusion of the victims' attire in the safety alert, and the Boston Globe for repeating that. http://www.tuftsdaily.com/letter-to-the-editor-1.2658807
The Tufts Daily's first report on these sexual assaults came out on Wednesday: a feature story entitled "Campus Comment: Safety in Somerville"
in which Tufts students were quoted on their level of concern regarding these assaults. http://www.tuftsdaily.com/campus-comment-safety-in-somerville-1.2659743
. Six of the eight students quoted (including all four males) gave answers minimizing the possible impact of these attacks on them, with statements ranging from "I don't feel less safe" to "I'm not worried at all".
That same night, another Tufts student offended and concerned by this article submitted a bias incident report against the Tufts Daily. She contacted the Tufts Daily's Editor, Carter Rogers, to explain that her intent in submitting the incident report was not to accuse, but rather to stimulate discussion around her concerns with the Daily's:
* inability to push forward the conversation about sexual assault
* its portrayal of sexual
assault as an isolated problem
* taking uninformed perspectives and putting them front and center in a way that both perpetuates ignorance and can be triggering for survivors of sexual
The Daily's editor accused her action of being "rather extreme" and suggested it could be interpreted as an attack on free speech and freedom of the press. The following day, he published an Editorial column in which he dismissed the criticism raised by "some on campus" about the TUPD sexual assault safety alert, and he vehemently defended its choice to include a description of the women's dress in the safety alert. ("Safety first, political correctness second", http://www.tuftsdaily.com/editorial-safety-first-political-correctness-second-1.2660570
In response to this Editorial and the lack of any response to her bias incident report, the student submitted an email enquiry to the Associate Dean of Student Affairs, Marisel Perez.
Five days later, the student had not yet heard back from either the bias incident office nor from the Dean. This is when I got involved, hearing of all this through a call for direct action issued by the student on the Tufts Occupy Boston list-serve. The goal was to flood the bias incident report website with complaints against the Daily, in the hopes that someone would then pay attention to the issue.
I was unable to submit a bias incident report myself, due to a technicality (apparently, students are allowed to submit them online but not staff). I then wrote a letter instead and sent it both to the Dean's Office and to the Tufts Daily editor, for publication as a Letter in the Daily. The Letter got published immediately (http://www.tuftsdaily.com/letter-to-the-editor-1.2663793#.TrP3A_Qr2so
), and two days later I got an email from Bruce Reitman, the Dean of Students, inviting me (and the other concerned students) to meet and discuss the Daily's recent coverage of sexual assault. We are planning to meet this week, and will be posting on how things evolve.
* * *
Martin's technical thought-details:
I don't believe the TUPD acted in conscious disrespect of sexual assault victims. They have also been open-minded, meeting with concerned students at a Community Conversation the week after the safety alert went out, and seeming to understand the objections to the safety alerts which were raised.
I have two objections to their safety update, though.
The lesser one is technical: basically, that the information they're giving is bad science (sloppy statistics). When they say that the victims were "usually wearing a skirt or dress", what does "usually" actually mean? - what kind of percentage is that? is that a weaker statement than "typically"? But more importantly, don't women who do NOT get sexually assaulted also wear skirts and dresses, possibly with the same frequency? And how about the purported "similarity" between the Tufts campus rape and the others across Somerville, which notably does NOT include similarity in appearance of the attacker? So, the things that WERE similar were, let's see: "Being a woman, wearing a skirt or dress, walking alone at night in her neighborhood". Great, thanks for that information, TUPD!
My second, and deepest objection, is that I don't think it's ever a good idea to say anything about a rape victim's dress in a safety alert (or any other public platform like, say, in court). Let's say, for argument's sake, that it is true that women who dress "revealingly" or less "conservatively" get sexually assaulted more frequently. The mysogynist trolls who lambasted me over my Letter would argue that, given that information, women should obviously not walk alone at night showing their legs, or they'll be more likely to be raped. In this scenario, their argument would be statistically sound and if women followed their advice, it would be true that the number of women sexually assaulted would go down. In the most limited utilitarian sense, that could count as "increasing the safety in our society". But how about the psychological torment brought about on rape victims in that world, who will necessarily be burdened by the general condemnation of "You knew better!", or "You were asking for it."? What if we addressed instead the issue of sexual assault itself, and how to eradicate that crime and sickness? The one person who posted something awesome in response to my Letter said it like this:To the commenters and the Daily:
I want to run a scenario by you. And then I want you to think about what kind of society you would like.
You are a woman who has just been raped.
They catch the rapist. A week later you are called into court to testify.
Other than when you were raped, facing your attacker in the light of the
courtroom is the worst day of your life.
You take the stand, point your finger, and tell the jury that this is the man who did this to you.
The defendant's attorney cuts in, "What were you wearing at the time of the incident?"
"A knee-length skirt" is your reply.
"A skirt?" the lawyer responds. "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, not two
weeks time before this woman claims she was raped, a campus-wide e-mail
was sent out, telling everyone that the majority of victims of recent
sexual crimes in the area had been wearing a skirt at the time. Ladies
of the jury, suppose you were tacitly warned that wearing a skirt could
increase your chance of danger. Why in God's name would you test those
Turning back to you, "You were warned that other victims were wearing skirts. Why then did you
wear one anyway? What were you thinking?"
"I ask again. You were warned; why did youwear the skirt anyway?"
"I...I don't know. I just wore what I wore. It was nice out. I guess I should
have listened. I guess I should have wore jeans. I...he raped me. "
"So you say. The defense rests."
* * *
I do not want to live in that world.
Because if we follow down that path, what's next? Let's see, if you're a woman, you should not walk alone on the streets at night wearing a dress. Actually, you should not walk alone on the streets at night, no matter what you're dressed with. Oh, and statistically, you shouldn't be walking out during the day, either: there's a significant higher probability of being assaulted than if you stayed home all day. Wait, we've done that already? It was called the 50s? Oh... And women went insane?...And they were abused by their husbands...?
* * *
Thank you for your patience listening, and forgive me if I am an intellectual bull in a china shop here; I am sure I have many blind spots.