As college students across the country head back to class for the start of the fall semester, that will likely put attention back on the campus sexual assault crisis, which inspired a White House investigation last spring and is currently the subject of several pieces of proposed legislation. And at the University of Iowa, students didn’t have to wait any time before the issue returned to the forefront.
On Monday, students’ first day of classes for the academic year, the University of Iowa sent out its first alert about a student reporting an assault on campus. A female student told school officials that she was subjected to “nonconsensual sexual contact by an acquaintance” in a dorm hallway over the weekend.
Thanks to the recent increased attention to issues of sexual assault — University of Iowa students protested last spring to demand better policies in this area — the university’s alert was a little different than it’s been in the past. Monday’s message specifically stated that “the only person responsible for sexual misconduct is the perpetrator,” a phrase that was added following the protests last semester. Students complained that the old alerts placed some of the responsibility for rape on the victims by including a section on the “risk factors” for sexual assault, like drinking alcohol.
According to the Gazette, this week’s alert also noted that “it is a violation of university policy to engage in sexual activities without affirmative consent from your partner” and “someone incapacitated due to alcohol or drugs cannot consent to sexual activity.”
The University of Iowa certainly isn’t the only school where some students will face sexual violence soon after arriving on campus. The first six weeks of the fall semester have earned the nicknamed “the red zone” because that’s when undergraduate women are the most likely to get raped. Freshman students new to college are more likely to drink excessively as they’re trying to fit in during their first few weeks, and they also don’t have much of a support system yet; the people who perpetrate sexual assaults know how to take advantage of those factors. Some advocates argue that every college newspaper should do their part by running a story on the “red zone” at the beginning of each fall semester.
Although multiple independent surveys have confirmed that colleges aren’t implementing the right policies to address rape, and most Americans have no confidence in colleges’ ability to handle sexual assault cases, there are some reasons to be hopeful. The national attention on the campus rape crisis has ensured that university officials have been forced to seek solutions. There’s a bipartisan bill in Congress right now hoping to take steps to improve this area. More parents are broaching the subject of sexual assault before sending their kids off to school. And college activists promise to keep up the pressure on their administrations as they head back to school this year.
Things have gradually been getting better at the University of Iowa, too. In addition to the new language in the university’s alerts about sexual assault reports, administrators actually expelled a student for sexual misconduct in April — marking the first time the university has exercised that power under a new sexual assault policy implemented last year.