The U should avoid victim blaming

by Amy Horst- University Alumna

While finishing up work last Monday, I was dismayed to read the University of Minnesota’s latest response to the recent increase in crime on campus.

University Services Vice President Pam Wheelock sent students, staff and faculty a public safety update similar to those that University police Chief Greg Hestness sends out. In it, she stated she will be providing regular updates to the University community. However, if last Monday’s email is any indication of what those reports will be like, I fervently hope she doesn’t.

In her email, Wheelock wrote that “in too many instances, the actions of students give criminals the advantage they need.” Now, this is a pretty callous thing to say about any crime victim, but consider that Wheelock sent this email less than a day after the University community received an alert about a University student who was sexually assaulted by a man posing as a police officer.

I tried to get on with finishing my work, but as a rape survivor myself, Wheelock’s words left me shaken. I ultimately wound up leaving for the day without completing my work.

In hopes of lifting my spirits, I decided I would go for a quick swim at the gym before heading home. However, as I approached the intersection in front of the gym, I realized a trio of female students was animatedly talking about the recent assault. Their conversation consisted of self-righteously shrieking about how stupid somebody would have to be to fall for a police impersonator — and blah, blah, blah, we all know the drill. I hurriedly crossed the street to get away from their smug superiority conference, although I could still hear them from the other side of the street.

What University administrators and students like that trio seem unable to comprehend is that violence is a public health issue, and victim blaming enables it. Rapists often get away with rape because the jury determines the victim’s actions were partly to blame. Research has shown that rapists plan their attacks to take advantage of society’s prejudices against rape victims and certain groups of people. Therefore, the homeless, transgender women, sex workers and others are disproportionately targeted. What will happen if the man who impersonated a police officer is caught and tried, but the jury has absorbed ideas such as Wheelock’s and decides to give him a lighter sentence or let him off because, you know, the student was also to blame? This is a regular occurrence in courtrooms nationwide. The University needs to think before disseminating crime alerts that include victim blaming.

Rape survivors and other survivors of violence often don’t report the crime, because they are afraid of the attitude found in Wheelock’s email. I didn’t report my rape for precisely that reason.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported, and 97 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how victim blaming will affect a survivor’s life when they hear other victims being blamed. For me, it opens old wounds up all over again. I would imagine survivors of all types of violence at the University are having a difficult time in their classes or at work as they listen to administrators and students callously depersonalize and judge their experience. The University can disseminate safety tips without Wheelock’s unnecessary editorializing. The University should be offering counseling and support to all students who’ve recently been robbed, raped or otherwise assaulted — not blaming them.

I understand that the University wants to make students aware of how to staysafe, but Hestness’ emails already give safety tips, and every student is likely already aware that walking alone at night isn’t an ideal situation. However, there are many reasons people walk alone at night, and in some cases, a student may have simply decided that walking alone is safer or better than the alternatives.

The fact is that staying out late (or working late) is a huge part of college life, and students shouldn’t be required to isolate themselves from normal college experiences. If this is what the University expects, it should be prepared for students to choose other universities, where they can engage in normal behavior without being shamed.