Challenges of reducing sexual assaults

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: March 7 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:15 am in

By Bob Elliott


We’re imperfect people living in an imperfect world. So it’s not surprising that confusion and misunderstanding is in abundant supply.

Given that, let’s take a look at the University of Iowa’s problem of increased reports of sexual assaults. Unlawful damage to person or property is terrible. But sexual assaults particularly are contemptible, because the victim often suffers serious and lasting psychological damage.

Controversy and campus protests spiked last week when the Daily Iowan quoted UI President Sally Mason saying, “I’m not pleased that we have sexual assaults, obviously. The goal would be to end that, to never have another sexual assault. That’s probably not a realistic goal just given human nature … .”

She later publicly apologized during an emotional public forum Feb. 25.

I believe theoretically that Mason’s statement was correct and she had nothing for which to apologize. But for public relations purposes, her apology badly was needed. Her statement exemplified that what you do or say often is less important than how you do it or say it.

A Feb. 28 Press-Citizen guest opinion (also published Monday in The Gazette) by Randy Nessler and three other UI student and staff representatives got it right: “President Sally Mason may have spoken unartfully last week. She has since both clarified her statements and apologized. Let’s move forward.”

The fact is, given extremes of human nature ... criminal activity always will be with us. The best we can do is work hard to make them as infrequent as possible. For instance, I’m contemplating being involved with an organized movement aimed at eliminating poverty. I take issue with those last two words.

The nature of sexual-related crimes involves unexpected times, places and people. Rape or even near rape can be a life-altering incident for the victim.

Add to that, the investigation and adjudication often comes down to “he said-she said.” And with such crimes, whether male-female or same-sex, too often victims are afraid to report the crime, let alone testify at a public trial.

Reactions to combating sexual assaults can be confusing. Years ago at a city meeting, I pointed out that a coed who reported being sexually assaulted after a binge drinking party at a downtown bar shouldn’t have been walking home alone at 2:30 in the morning.

A colleague responded, “There you go, blaming the victim.” I responded, “No. She was the victim of a despicable criminal act, but she should have used better judgment than walking alone in that area at that time of night.”

It’s further confusing that sexual assault, law enforcement and mental health officials make it clear, often has little to do with sex. More frequently, it’s an effort by one person for forceful domination over another person.

Hard, smart work is needed to combat the complex and heinous problem of sexual assaults, to apprehend and punish perpetrators, and sensitively care for the victims.

Bob Elliott is a longtime Iowa City resident and former City Council member. Comments:

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