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The Scarlet & Black

Living Feminist Theory at Grinnell: Rethinking Grinnell’s Discourse Around Sexual Violence

In July, The Washington Post named Grinnell as a liberal arts college with one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the United States. The number? More than 10 reports of sexual violence for every 1,000 students. The Des Moines Register also expressed alarm at these rates: “Reports of sexual assaults [at Grinnell] have soared, by far surpassing many similarly sized private colleges and rivaling those at Iowa’s much larger public universities”—such as the University of Iowa, for example (April 2014). 

At least this means that people feel safe reporting, right? … Indeed, this is the argument put forth by Grinnell administrators. (I suggest asking survivors of sexual violence on campus how safe they felt reporting the attack—you may get a very different response.) While the “safe environment” argument has some merit—and is frequently regurgitated by colleges and universities with high rates of sexual violence—it strikes me as a primarily defensive response that does little to address campus efforts to prevent or respond to these attacks. 

Administrators have also highlighted Grinnell’s ‘expansive’ definition of sexual assault as the reason for increased reports. Following this logic, many students report incidents of groping or unwanted fondling, rather than rape. This may be true. It also may not be true. Either way, I read both of the College’s responses as defensive and even trivializing of the violence on campus. In fact, these responses verge on celebratory—lauding the College for being a ‘safe environment’ with an expansive definition of violence, and therefore, increased reporting. I hope we can all appreciate the brutal irony of such statements in this context. 

My purpose is not to put the College administration on blast, as it were. It is to suggest that these numbers should move us to action—not defensive reactions, or worse, celebration. At least 12 students reported being sexually assaulted last year (not counting those who did not report): that is 12 too many. Rather than rushing to defend itself, the College needs to acknowledge that any number of sexual assaults—but especially one of the highest numbers in the nation—is unacceptable. 

Accepting the reality and gravity of these statistics does not mean that Grinnell is a terrible place. Many different forms of violence happen here, as they do all over the world. We can acknowledge that and still love Grinnell for all it has to offer. In fact, I want to suggest that we can love our campus community even more by seeing its dark side along with the wonderful opportunities it offers students, faculty and staff. In other words, this conversation does not need to operate on an either/or binary. I can love Grinnell, and also see areas for improvement. 

So, we need to begin by understanding that sexual violence is a problem here. After all, the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging its existence. And what is the next step? Truthfully, that’s up to us—the campus community. I have some initial suggestions that I hope we can discuss in more depth. We might consider encouraging the College to 

• create a Women’s Center (most of our peer institutions have one; we are behind in this regard),

• require all students to complete and pass an online training program about Grinnell’s sexual misconduct policies before they can register for classes (many of our peer institutions do this), 

• have students sign the Sexual Misconduct/Respect Policy along with the Academic Dishonesty Policy during NSO or Tutorial; it is not given nearly enough emphasis, which can lead to great confusion,

• solicit feedback from students who have gone through the College Hearing Board process—on both ends—to improve the experience for all parties involved,

• offer self-defense courses so that all students (of any gender identification) can feel empowered to protect themselves and others from harm. 

I encourage the campus community to look at our mentions in The Washington Post and the Des Moines Register as a call to action. Whether we like it or not, Grinnell has a problem with sexual violence. Now we get to decide what we’re going to do about it. 

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