University of Iowa students protest, say sexual violence is 'not in my nature'

UI President Mason's comments on sexual assault triggers

University of Iowa student Becca Booth (far right) holds a sign during a protest on Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, at the Pentac
University of Iowa student Becca Booth (far right) holds a sign during a protest on Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, at the Pentacrest in Iowa City, Iowa. About 40 students and residents protested against University of Iowa's sexual assault policy. (Justin Wan/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Reports and warnings of sexual violence at the University of Iowa and in the community are up this academic year, and some students and alumni are demanding the university improve its response.

Through a series of ongoing protests and online petitions that began Sunday and continued Monday on the Pentacrest, dozens of UI undergraduates, graduate students, alumni and community members are asking – among other things – the UI to adopt a “zero tolerance attitude and policy.”

A student coalition – through a website and online petition at – lists three demands in addition to the zero tolerance policy. They want the university to reform its sexual assault warning emails, provide additional attention and funding to address the “rape culture on campus,” and they want UI President Sally Mason to apologize for comments she made in the Daily Iowan on Feb. 20.

During an interview with the student newspaper, Mason said the goal would be to end sexual assault on campus, but that’s “probably not a realistic goal, just given human nature,” according to the article.

“Mason’s comments show how pervasive the culture of rape is at the University of Iowa and reveals the university’s reactive stance toward sexual assault,” according to information on the group’s website, which gets its name from Mason’s comments about human nature.

The issue has emerged following an increase in “timely warning” notifications about reported sexual assaults on or near the UI campus this academic year. Since the start of the year in August, the UI has issued eight warnings regarding sexual assault or misconduct and one more about an assault on a woman that didn’t involve sexual contact.

Six of the nine cases occurred on campus, five involved acquaintances, and three of the victims asked law enforcement not to investigate the report as a crime, according to UI News Services.

Several factors are behind the rise in notifications, including an increase in victims making reports and improved communication and coordination between the UI Office of Sexual Misconduct Response Coordinator, UI police and UI housing staff. The UI this year also is issuing notifications for more than just “stranger sexual assaults,” said Monique DiCarlo, UI sexual misconduct response coordinator.

It’s difficult to know whether sexual assault instances actually are increasing this year or whether reporting has just improved, DiCarlo said.

RVAP, short for the Rape Victim Advocacy Program based in Iowa City to provide sexual abuse services across the state, has reported an increase in crisis calls related to rape and sexual misconduct. In the 2013 budget year, the program took 306 “crisis calls” involving rape, up from 224 in 2010.

Regarding sexual misconduct-related reports from individuals known to be UI students, RVAP received a total of 117 calls in the last budget year, up from 75 in 2010.

DiCarlo said she believes the university is taking the issue seriously – as evidenced by increased efforts to issue campus-wide warnings, ramped up education for students, and training requirements for faculty and staff.

The UI recently has encouraged more students and staff to sign up for a bystander training, which teaches participants to recognize high-risk situations and how to intervene, if appropriate. It also in January sent UI law enforcement to an eight-hour training involving sexual assault response and last week participated in a national training to learn best practices around adjudicating sexual misconduct.

"The UI is not only deeply engaged in this effort,” DiCarlo said, “but is also providing leadership on this topic at a national level.”

Sexual harassment prevention training is required for all UI employees, and – before students come to campus – they’re required to complete an online course focusing on sexual violence education and prevention.

DiCarlo said her office will work with the protesting students and their demands and ask them what they mean by “zero tolerance.” She said allowing less severe penalties and interventions for minor, but still concerning, behavior – like aggressively pursuing someone romantically – can be a valuable part of the UI policy.

“I feel empowered to stop something hurtful before it becomes egregious,” she said. “That, to me, is zero tolerance.”

A message of ‘don’t rape’

But some UI students say administrators could do better. For example, the UI’s emailed warnings about sexual assault reports include language describing “risk factors” associated with sexual assault.

“Studies of sexual assault show a high correlation between acquaintance rape and drug/alcohol use,” according to the warnings. “Alcohol and drugs are often used to make someone vulnerable to sexual assault.”

The warnings also say that “being at risk in no way shifts responsibility for sexual assault to a victim/survivor.” But student activists say that message needs to be stronger, and any content associated with “victim blaming” should be eliminated.

“We appreciate the timely warning emails … but we want to see them cleaned up and free of victim blame,” said UI graduate student Elizabeth Rook, 25. “We want it to be a message of don’t rape rather than don’t get raped.”

Rook, who is helping to organize the “not in my nature” efforts along with UI student Stacia Scott,  acknowledged measures UI officials have taken to address sexual violence on campus. And, Rook said, her coalition is looking forward to helping them do even better.

Regarding their demands for a “zero tolerance” attitude and policy, Rook said her group wants to work with administrators to determine what that might look like. Simply using the phrase “zero tolerance” is one thing the university could do to let perpetrators know how seriously the UI takes the issue, Rook said.

Iowa State University, for example, has policies and procedures in place for reports of sexual assaults and misconduct that are similar to those at the UI. But, unlike the UI, its policy states, “It is the position of the university that sexual misconduct in any form will not be excused or tolerated.”

The UI also could do better at making sure students know what the punishments are for such behavior and that they are strongly enforced, Rook said.

The student demands are listed on the “not in my nature” website, where an online petition had gathered hundreds of signatures on Monday. The group also is collecting letters in support of the demands that group organizers on Monday delivered to Mason’s campus office every two minutes – representing the statistic that someone is victimized by sexual assault every two minutes.

‘She wasn’t standing with us’

On the same day that Mason’s comments about sexual assault were published in the Daily Iowan, she issued a statement responding to the timely warnings that said, “Sexual assault is a terrible crime, one for which there is no excuse.”

“The UI will take all the actions in our power to prevent rapes, to support victims and to prosecute offenders,” she said in the statement. “Even one sexual assault in our community is too many.”

Still, based on Mason’s comments in the newspaper, a group of students, alumni and community members staged a protest Sunday afternoon during the 2014 Presidential Lecture as Mason introduced the event’s keynote speaker.

UI alumnus Chelsea Bacon, who helped organize that event, said the protest was meant to be silent and involve hand-drawn signs. But, Bacon said, when Mason began speaking in support of the students’ cause, she took the duct tape off her mouth and interrupted the president.

“I said that she wasn’t standing with us,” Bacon said. “We were standing with the victims, and the university was protecting the rapists.”

Bacon said her group’s demands line up with those outlined on the “not in my nature” website, and she’s encouraged by the response the protests have elicited so far.“It’s hard to tell what long-term affect it will have,” she said. “But it’s gotten a lot of people interested.” 

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