Something big is happening in Iowa

A little back story: Like many colleges and universities, the University of Iowa has had a sexual assault problem for a while. Examples herehere and here. And statshere.

It's not just a problem of too many rapes; many argue that the way the university handles them is a huge part of the problem.

Whenever a sexual assault is reported on campus, students and members of the university community get a "Timely Warning" email. One recent email (forwarded to me by a friend) included this language:

"In response to this incident, the University of Iowa Police are providing the following information on acquaintance sexual assaults. This information is general in nature and has no relation to this specific incident. Victims are never responsible for the offenders' behavior.

[...]To help decrease the risk of sexual assault in our community, it may be helpful to keep the following in mind: Alcohol and drugs are often used to create vulnerability to sexual assault. Studies of sexual assault incidents show a high correlation between acquaintance rape and drug/alcohol usage.  Be alert to people pressuring you or others to use a drug or alcohol. Always trust your instincts.  If you feel uneasy or sense something is wrong, do what you can to get out of that situation.  Be an active bystander if you see others in harms way; call the police to ask for assistance.

If you engage in sex, be sure you understand your partner's limits, and communicate your own limits clearly. Don't engage in sexual activities without affirmative consent from your partner. For more information see:"

This may be more than many universities would do, in that it specifically states that sexual assault is never the victim's fault, and includes a line about understanding your partner's limits and even a link to information about consent. But the bolded line has left a lot of people cringing, as have lines like this one, in another recent "Timely Warning" email:

"Alcohol and drugs are sometimes used to create vulnerability to sexual assault and may impair yours and your acquaintance's judgment. Studies of sexual assault incidents show a high correlation between acquaintance rape and drug/alcohol usage. Keep control of your drink."

Again, the bolded language and the passive tone ("alcohol and drugs are sometimes used," instead of "rapists sometimes use alcohol and drugs") have rankled. The emails seem to put responsibility on the victim for preventing a friend, boyfriend, acquaintance or stranger from taking advantage of them, activists say, even if reminders about consent and bystander intervention are sprinkled throughout.

Concerned students and faculty say the emails are just one example in a widespread tendency at the university toward the "don't get raped," as opposed to "stop raping," method of addressing the issue, and after a recent spate of sexual assaults and controversial comments from the university president, a group of them launched a protest Sunday.

It was a small protest, just a dozen or so women with signs and tape on their mouths, a few of whom removed said tape and interrupted university president Sally Mason's intro to her annual presidential lecture. Part of the goal, according to the Daily Iowan, was to draw attention to the following comment about rape, made by Mason during a Q&A with the paper last week:

“The goal would be to end that, to never have another sexual assault,” Mason said. “That’s probably not a realistic goal just given human nature, and that’s unfortunate, but the more we understand about it, the better we are at trying to handle it and help people get through these difficult situations …”

One of the organizers of the protest, Chelsea Bacon, interrupted Mason -- who appeared to have known that the interruption was coming and prepared remarks -- to say that the university does not, in fact, have a "zero tolerance policy for rapists" because it encourages rape culture with the language of its "Timely Warning" emails and comments like Mason's "human nature" remark. (You can watch a video of the protest here.)

It was a relatively quiet protest. It was not violent, and no one was arrested, though Bacon says (in comments on the linked Daily Iowan article) that Mason "used police force to threaten us with arrest at an event open to the public." Mason did not seem angered, and after the group left she said that she "supports them 100 percent."

So why the focus on this tiny event? The protest spawned another, larger one today, and a movement to change how sexual assault is addressed on college and university campuses is growing. The events at Iowa, which appears very aware of its issue and has taken some steps toward addressing it, beg the question -- why does it seem to be so hard to get it right?