A problem with our sexual dialogue


On Monday night, the DePauw community received an e-mail from Public Safety director Angela Nally with the subject line, “Timely Warning.” The e-mail notified students of an investigation currently underway to examine a recent incident “involving students who showed signs of a high level of intoxication that was not consistent with their intake of alcohol.” It then proceeded to offer bullet-pointed reminders to students to “Report any suspicious activity,” “Watch your beverages at all times,” and “Do not ingest anything from an unknown source.”

At first glance, one might find Nally’s warning merely a helpful word of caution regarding a horrific but unfortunately common occurrence. We did. But a more thoughtful examination, and one voiced by recent DePauw alumna Jennifer Peacock (’15), underlines the problem with this type of discourse. On Tuesday morning, Peacock screenshotted the e-mail and posted it to Facebook, accompanied by the following message: “Dear DePauw, This email makes my heart ache for the victims but makes me angry at the institution. We understand this was sent out to warn others to protect themselves. But maybe your ‘timely warning’ should also warn students that drugging others is a serious crime and could result in expulsion. When you only focus on victims you become part of the problem.” 

This argument, nor the endless analogies that follow from it, is nothing new. If a neighbor’s house is broken into and burglarized, your immediate response likely would not be, “Darn. Lock your doors next time.” While this is certainly useful advice (thank you Captain Hindsight), the more appropriate response would be, “Oh my goodness, that’s awful. I’m so sorry!” In fact, we’re sure for most this would come as second nature. So why is it so different for cases of sexual assault? Another example: when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration releases advertisements to deter drunk driving, their slogan isn’t “Watch out for drunk drivers!,” but rather, “Don’t drink and drive.” The emphasis is on deterrence rather than prevention.

But here’s the sad part: The e-mail was actually well intentioned; a case of misfeasance, not malfeasance. Nally’s primary objective with the note was to protect the DePauw community from potential cases of sexual assault—that’s a good thing. And many, including us, didn’t even realize the harmful implications of the e-mail in the first place, particularly because this sort of rhetoric surrounding sexual violence is so commonplace not only at DePauw, but at universities across the country. The “victim as the actor” paradigm dominates these discussions, often leading to victim blaming rather than perpetrator condemning. As a result, the real issue is obscured and sexual violence is perpetuated.

So, DePauw, you’ve all heard this before, perhaps dozens of times, but it’s worth saying again: Let’s all be conscious of how we discuss issues of sexual assault and safety on our campus. Let’s acknowledge that the paradigm we use to discuss these issues matters, and that its roots are deeply and institutionally ingrained. While we often let this “victim as the actor” discourse go unnoticed, we cannot. So let’s work as a community to remove ourselves from that mode of thinking. It won’t fix the problem, but it’s a start.