Point U of M is Safe, But Education is Needed
by Briana Smith
Counterpoint Our Personal Safety is At Risk
by Dr. Sarai Aharoni
I am afraid of the rapist on campus.
One of the assaults occurred on July 15th, just across the street from my house; I could have seen it from my window. When I pass the spot at night, I think, “That could have been me.” Now I often ask my larger male friends to walk me home. I don’t talk on my cell phone when I’m alone. Yes, I am afraid, and I wholeheartedly understand the fear that has spread through campus. Nothing I say here is intended to minimize the threat posed by the attacker or attackers. The reason I am suddenly afraid is because there is a known aggressor in our community, and this greatly increases my chances of being attacked on the streets. But in fact, Ann Arbor is no more dangerous than it was last year—we just hear more about it now.
The recent sexual assaults do not indicate that Ann Arbor is any less safe; rather, it highlights the need for education on and effective prevention of sexual assault.
There were four sexual assaults during the week of July 4th through the 10th in 2010, but only six sexual assaults from July 15th to the 26th of this year. Does anybody remember hearing any outcry over the 2010 assaults? I sure don’t, probably because they are listed as three acquaintance rapes and one domestic rape. According to a 2000 study by the U.S. Department of Justice, 90% of rapes involve acquaintances. The “risk reduction tips” that I mentioned above and others that the Department of Public Safety adds to the bottom of their crime alerts will not help in the vast majority of cases. While it’s true that being aware of your surroundings and not listening to music while you walk down the street might make you a less vulnerable target, if you know and trust your assailant, no amount of staying in at night is going to protect you. Moreover, the World Health Organization states that the three biggest risk factors for sexual assault are age, gender, and race—three factors we cannot control.
In addition, the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault stated in 2002 that less than 2% of survivors of acquaintance rape reported their attacks, whereas 21% of survivors of assault by a stranger did so. So what about those four sexual assaults in almost the same time period last year? In reality, there was probably a much higher number. Why don’t we hear about such cases? Why are the only crime notices in the Michigan Daily about trivial crimes like theft of lunches from the hospital, or laptops going missing in the libraries? Why do we only hear about sexual assaults when there is a huge spate of them? Placing such a large emphasis on these stranger assaults is irresponsible at best, as it distracts from the real levels of violence against women in our community. Furthermore, given the prominence of cases of stranger rapes to the detriment of acquaintance assaults, those who do experience assault at the hands of those they know and trust might be less likely to come forward. If all they know is the myth of “the stranger in the bushes,” will the reality of their rape fit into the paradigm these reports have constructed? And even if these survivors do recognize their rape, what about all of the others that don’t see it as such? With this in mind, is the fact that only 2% of acquaintance rapes are reported really that astonishing?
The tide needs to turn. I am not suggesting we stop reporting assaults perpetrated by strangers, such as the recent string of six attacks; but rather, our society needs to recognize all assaults and work to change the status quo, which essentially ignores them.
Instead of the Department of Public Safety making their crime bulletins about what women can do to avoid being victimized, they should talk about what they can do to catch those responsible for the crime. True prevention comes not with risk reduction but with preemptive education, such as the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center’s (SAPAC) Peer Education program, which is a requirement at freshman orientation. Peer Educators discuss consent, violence, blaming the survivor for their rape, and what each and every student can do to help eliminate sexual assault on our campus. There are many in our community who are shocked, angered and scared by these recent events, and I encourage all of you to visit SAPAC to learn more about our services, including our 24/7 crisis line at (734) 936-3333, counseling, and support groups, and how you can get involved in the work against sexual violence. If the focus remains on the danger of stranger assault, without any care or attention to those who don’t fit the stereotype, we are in jeopardy of alienating women, or worse, putting others at risk by not making them aware of the realities of sexual assault.
The recent series of sexual assaults near campus this summer has brought into light one of the major security related dilemmas that democratic societies face when experiencing real or imagined threats, namely, what is the role of governmental institutions in maintaining public safety?
When considering the most effective ways to fight interpersonal violence, we may translate this dilemma to practical questions, such as: is it more effective to educate people to respect other people's property and physical autonomy by making them cautious about their own safety; or should we invest in a collective effort that will protect our community by deterring possible perpetrators and punishing those who have been found guilty? Although these two possibilities are not mutually exclusive, they differ on the issue of “responsibility.” While the first model emphasizes patterns of individual behavior, such as “always keep your doors locked even while at home” or “look assertive and be aware of your surroundings;” the latter, which could be referred to as the “Law & Order” model, provides a framework to imagine an orderly and functioning justice system in which empathic and sensitive cops will do everything to track down and capture (sex) offenders, while protecting both victims’ rights and the wider community.
While individual and community self-prevention techniques are important, the recent uptick in crime in Ann Arbor is real and serious. The state must play a larger role in reducing crime.
It seems that both approaches have been implemented on campus. As for now, the Ann Arbor Police Department (AAPD) is still trying to find the assailants. According to the Michigan Daily, the police have received special federal funding for “a new technology to assist in finding perpetrators” by synchronizing crime statistics more efficiently and allowing police to “better identify trends in crimes.” Also, the University of Michigan's Department of Public Safety (DPS) increased patrols around residential facilities, so that returning students will feel safer. Simultaneously, other actions, meant to reinstall a sense of personal safety among students, or “educate students,” focus upon individual responsibility by providing public alerts, ongoing information, support for victims, and community outreach. For example, the Center for the Education of Women (CEW), the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC), and the Abuse Hurts Initiative have collaborated to organize a teach-in on sexual assault which aims to address sexual violence and highlight the “broad picture of sexual or gender-based violence that encompasses relationships as well as attacks by strangers.”
But what is the broad picture? The fact that one of the safest cities in Michigan has seen a surge in sexual assaults opens an opportunity for a relatively strong community to engage with issues that the majority of lower-class Americans are experiencing daily. So, while I do agree that personal behavior and a strong, well-organized community are essential in maintaining a sense of agency, I would suggest we expand the conversation to include some structural realities that might have been disregarded in the developing conversation about campus safety.
More specifically, when talking about structural realities I mean that we might consider including larger policy issues that go far beyond the every-day life on campus here at Ann Arbor, and that have direct effect upon personal safety in general and women's sense of insecurity in particular. For example, a safe environment might include more street lights and fewer “dark allies,” better sidewalks or even accessible, reliable, on-time public transportation at night. A safer community is one in which police officers and firefighters are not replaced by sophisticated technologies, but rather, receive public recognition by fair employment.
Structural realities include also the fact that in the last decade Michigan has lost more than 2,000 law enforcement officers statewide, including police officers in Lansing, Flint, Taylor, and Ann Arbor. Only last semester did the Ann Arbor Police Officers Association submit a written warning that staffing levels have reached a critical point as the numbers of patrol officers in the city was reduced since 2001 in one third, from 86 to 58. These figures reveal how the state has handled public safety funding in recent years—by minimizing the “Law & Order” component and depending more on individual responsibility.
But, in a time of economic uncertainty, personal safety becomes an issue even for communities that have been relatively safe. Caught between a decade of war and an economic recession, it might be necessary to go beyond the limits of the “liberal bargain” that dictates we maintain our own sense of security without engaging with the state. Furthermore, despite the fact that sexual violence happens in many different historical, social and cultural settings, it is necessary that we ask how economic factors shape women's everyday sense of personal safety, why women in less organized communities feel more vulnerable, and who is “responsible” for protecting these communities.
Returning to the opening question—"What is the role of governmental institutions in maintaining public safety?"—I would suggest that we take recent events as an opportunity to broaden existing discourses about sexual violence and personal safety by bringing the state back in. Instead of overemphasizing individual or community responsibility, it is necessary to recognize that when setting proprieties of public spending, women's (and men's) personal safety should be taken into account much more seriously.
About the Issue
Point author: Brianna Smith is a senior studying Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She has done extensive work with Planned Parenthood and SAPAC in the Ann Arbor Community.
Counterpoint author: Dr. Sarai Aharoni is a Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professor at the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. She published articles on gender, peace and conflict in Israel and also co-edited “Where Are All the Women? U.N. Security Council Resolution 1324: Gender perspectives of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”
Edited by: Aaron Bekemeyer and Michael Guisinger
Cover by: Laura Gillmore