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PSUAlerts: Instead of Victim Blaming, Try This

Since Penn State transitioned from PSUTXT to PSUAlert earlier this summer, several timely warnings have been sent out to students regarding instances of sexual assault on campus. These warnings include a section that tells people how to avoid becoming victims of similar crimes.

“In order to reduce your risk of becoming a victim, please keep these tips in mind,” the alert reads. It goes on to suggest going out in a group rather than by yourself, getting to a safe place and calling for help if you feel threatened, and bringing along money for a taxi instead of accepting rides from people you don’t know very well.

“This is in no way our way of saying ‘you should do something else to avoid becoming a victim,’ ” said Clery Act Compliance Manager Gabriel Gates. “It’s more of a reminder to avoid certain environments.”

Hang on a minute. You’re not telling us ways to avoid becoming a victim? Because that contradicts the alert that reads, “In order to reduce your risk of becoming a victim, please keep these tips in mind.”

Although I believe these safety tips were written with the best of intentions, the administration’s delivery leaves something critical to be desired: a cognizance of word choice and a more complete presentation of reports of rape and sexual assault on campus.

The harsh message of prohibition in PSUAlert’s “don’t” commands — such as “don’t let yourself become isolated” and “don’t accept walking accompaniment” — suggests that victims are somewhat complicit in crimes perpetuated by sex offenders. It’s important to acknowledge the danger in suggesting that it is the victim’s responsibility to prevent rape. Rape, by definition, is beyond the victim’s control.

Many people would look at these safety tips and simply think, “Aw, man, come on. They’re just trying to be practical and keep potential victims safe by telling them to avoid being alone and take a taxi home.” The problem is that this issue is bigger and more complex than that.

The idea that victims can do something to avoid being sexually assaulted affirms and normalizes the (all too common) pattern of thinking that if someone does fall victim to sexual assault, they should have done something to avoid it — which implies that they are somehow to blame for this horrific thing that someone else has done to them.

Victim blaming messages, unintentional or not, make victims of sexual assault even more reluctant to report incidents when they happen — and according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Study, a terrifying 60 percent of sexual assaults already go unreported as it is. Even fewer victims are going to come forward to report the trauma they have experienced if they’re just going to feel blamed for the instance, or if people are going to tell them that they should have taken more precautions.

Though I believe these practical suggestions were made with a genuine concern regarding some of our darker societal realities, it’s imperative that we remain vigilant and perform our due diligence in conveying messages that don’t marginalize victims or shift blame away from perpetrators. There’s a fine line between grappling with reality (and making sound, pragmatic suggestions based upon these realities) and blurring the line between victim and perpetrator, which we must always be aware of when crafting messages that will be disseminated to our entire community.

In no way am I trying to frame the authors of PSUAlerts as “the bad guys.” They’re doing their duty by providing timely warnings about sexual assault crimes occurring on campus.

“We are required by the Department of Education to publish these timely warnings,” Gates said. “The language is adapted from established best practices and in no way implies that a victim bears responsibility for the crime. We are making every possible effort to provide information to keep our community safe while meeting the requirements of federal law, and we must continue to do so at all of our campuses.”

Clearly, the authors of PSUAlerts did not actively intend to blame victims for their crimes with this list of safety tips — the point is simply that there are better ways that they could interact with students about how to prevent rape.

A good start might be implementing educational programs directed toward potential perpetrators (which would rely on educating current and incoming students about the definitions of consent and sexual assault, and teaching them how not to rape) rather than targeted toward potential victims (which rely on teaching them how not to get raped).

We all have to fulfill GenEd requirements to ensure that we earn a well-rounded education, rather than simply spending our time at Penn State learning just about the topics directly related to our majors and minors. So if the university can require us to earn three credits in Health and Physical Activity, what is stopping them from making a three-credit “safety course” that includes units on prevalent campus issues like excessive alcohol consumption, drug use, and non-consensual sex? This seems like such an obviously simple fix. We all have to take freshman seminars. Why not make those seminars safety-based and ensure that our student body is educated on these topics from the start?

Until then, let’s skip the list of safety precautions and focus on all of the ways that the university actually helps potential victims as well as survivors of sexual assault — educational resources at the Center for Women Students, sexual assault services at UHS, counseling services at CAPS, and the Sexual Assault Response Team, comprised of the State College Police Department and the Mt. Nittany Medical Center. Offering links to these valuable resources in a PSUAlert would be much more effective method of preventing assaults than simply listing safety tips.

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About the Author

Alicia Thomas

Alicia is a senior with majors in Print Journalism and Spanish and a minor in International Studies. Chances are that she's somewhere talking about her semester abroad or ranting about sexual assault prevention right now. She can be reached via Twitter (@aliciarthomas) or email ([email protected]).

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