Gender pronouns in sexual assault alerts can be triggering

While sitting in my afternoon class on a typical Friday, I couldn’t help but notice the title of an email that I received on my phone. It read, “Crime Alert: Sexual Assault.” I immediately read the rest of the email. Upon finishing the email, I got a text from a friend expressing their concerns and asking for my reaction to the alert. I replied that I was particularly troubled by one section of the email.

This portion read, “On Sept. 30 at 2:07 p.m., our Title IX Case Manager submitted a prohibited conduct report to Public Safety. A female student reported she was the victim of a rape. The alleged incident occurred on 9/24/16 at approximately 11:45 p.m. in a campus building. The accused is a male student at St. Olaf who was an acquaintance of the reporting party. The Title IX Coordinator is aware of the report.”

After reading this I spaced out for about a minute in complete distress and fear, as I tried to text my friend back to comfort them. As a non-binary/genderqueer person, I don’t identify as either male or female. I identify as both genders and have features of both. The email stated that a female student “was the victim of a rape,” and because I identify with the feminine experience at some level, I felt both triggered and targeted.

I was paralyzed in class upon reading the email and being made aware of the details of this incident. I felt threatened and unsafe, already anxious about going out on the weekend, something I normally do. I was scared for my female self, for my female identifying friends and anyone else that relates to the feminine experience.

From the beginning of my time at St. Olaf as an international student in the fall of 2015, there have been eight sexual assault alerts. All eight of the incidents were reported as occurring between a male perpetrator and a female survivor. While it is important that the student body is made aware of these events, I believe the gender identification of the people involved in such instances is problematic.

First of all, the extremely detailed email was sent to a large population of students without any sort of warning beforehand. The alerts clearly stated the gender of the students involved, which causes people who identify with the female experience to potentially feel unsafe on campus. Even though I strongly support disclosure during situations like these, I believe that there should be more attention paid to the way these emails are written.

The majority of rapes occur between a man and a woman. In most cases, the male is the perpetrator and the female is the survivor. The repeated inclusion of gender pronouns in sexual assault emails suggests that individuals identifying with femininity need to take extra precautions to protect themselves from sexual assault. This implies that female identifying individuals have been warned about the dangers present on campus. In many situations, there is a tendency to place blame on survivors of sexual assault, rather than the perpetrators. The phrasing of these emails as a warning further perpetuates this school of thought, as females should theoretically be safer if they are aware of previous instances of sexual assault.

Furthermore, these alerts are over- detailed. Mentioning the place where the incident took place, as well as the relationship between the perpetrator and survivor makes personal fears of sexual assault much more immediate to those reading these emails. They are extremely detailed and have the power to trigger students. The use of the word “victim” further perpetuates degrading ideology regarding rape culture and the continued victimization of sexual assault survivors.

Other universities around the nation have taken these concerns into account, changing the way they inform the student body of sexual assault incidents. The University of Notre Dame excludes pronouns and gender identifying factors from sexual assault alerts. They use “person” instead of “him” or “her” to refer to the people involved without bringing gender into the alert.

I support this approach of excluding gender in the description of these incidents and propose changing the usage of the word “victim” to another term that is more appropriate and respectful. The idea behind sending out an alert is to inform the community and prevent other incidents from occurring in the future. However, prevention should come through education, advocacy and training with careful consideration to gender and the role it plays in these situations.

Said Alhouseini ’19 (alhous1@stolaf.edu) is from Gaza Strip, Paltestine. They major in women’s and gender studies.

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