The Violence of Words

When Security Alerts involve sexual misconduct, the administration must avoid doing discursive violence through its framing of the situation.

By Lucas Du

Content warning: sexual violence

On May 4, I received an e-mail from Eric M. Heath, associate vice president for safety and security at the University. “Security Alert,” the subject line read, just like countless others Eric M. Heath had sent my way in days and months past that now piled up at the bottom of my UChicago inbox. I read the brief section of text:

On the afternoon of May 4, 2018 a student reported to a Campus Security Authority that at approximately 12:00 a.m., Thursday, May 3, 2018 she went to sleep in her unlocked room at International House, 1414 East 59th Street. She was awoken sometime later by an individual known to her who was on top of her having sexual intercourse.

To be honest with you, the steady stream of security alerts had steadily numbed my reaction to them. I was used to them by now and they largely felt like background noise to me—just another mugging, another “individual approached by two unknown subjects,” at an address usually off-campus, comfortably removed from the regular sphere of my existence. But this one was a little different. I live in International House. I live in the same building as this girl and I’ve probably seen the rapist—a guy, presumably—around before. And I mean, I leave my door unlocked at night. I have a good female friend who also often leaves her door unlocked at night. She might’ve even had her door unlocked on that night, at approximately 12:00 a.m., Thursday, May 3, 2018. 

I, and many others in I-House, had lived in an illusory bubble of safety and comfort, and the convenience of not having to worry about remembering to take our keys with us whenever we left my rooms seemed to outweigh whatever perceived danger we might be in, especially not danger from the people we knew and thought of as friends. It was jarring for me to realize that, no, the place I had been beginning to call home wasn’t so far removed from the world of Eric M. Heath’s security alerts. And especially for the women—who are statistically more likely to be victims of sexual violence—it wasn’t as safe as they had perhaps once imagined. 

But to back track a little, what is the alert even saying? It reads like a parody of someone trying to sound both as formal and as vague as possible. My initial confusion was regarding the way the e-mail described the situation: “an individual known to her…was on top of her having sexual intercourse.” The wording is incredibly strange, in particular the use of the phrase “having sexual intercourse.” The action appears disembodied from its consequences, even from the person it is affecting.

Later, I was talking to a friend and he mentioned a Facebook post he had seen written by someone named Pri Parsad, which sharply criticized the usage of the term “sexual intercourse” in the e-mail and strongly suggested that people e-mail certain people in power about the problematic verbiage. In response to the backlash generated, perhaps in large part, by the post, Eric M. Heath sent a second e-mail regarding the May 4 security alert that, in vague and noncommittal terms, apologized for the wording of the original e-mail and promised to reexamine the way they describe incidents in their alerts. 

Despite the lukewarm official response, Pri Parsad is right. I’m not sure I can write more incisively than she does, so I quote: 

"University of Chicago, there was not someone on top of her having sexual intercourse. There was someone on top of her raping her.

Semantics, right? Wrong. Using the term “sexual intercourse” to describe both consensual sex and rape/sexual assault, we allow acts of sexual violence to exist in grey areas of moral ambiguity. This allowed the conversation about Brock Turner to include statements about him being just a boy, a gifted athlete, etc. This allows the narrative of blame to indict the victim." 

Using “sexual intercourse” in this case is deeply problematic in that it equates what is very clearly rape with consensual sex. I get that the University may have wanted to avoid the use of the word “rape” in a campus-wide security e-mail, but sometimes we need to call a spade a spade, especially when the alternative so grossly misrepresented what actually happened. As Parsad notes in her post: “Word choice is politics. Word choice has implications that exist beyond the end of the of sentence the word is in.”

It is also worth noting, however, that there has been additional discussion on Facebook about how the usage of the word “rape” itself can be problematic. It can often decide a narrative for the victim before the victim can process the event for herself or himself. It doesn’t allow victims time and space to come to their own terms with what happened. So “rape” is perhaps not the best replacement for “sexual intercourse” in this case. But “sexual intercourse” is certainly not what happened, and certainly cannot be responsibly used in this case. Maybe a term like “sexual assault” is more appropriate, or possibly better: “sex without consent.” Additionally, what of other survivors of sexual violence on campus, who may have been retraumatized by the security alert? At the very least, the alert should have started with some sort of warning for its potentially harmful content.

Ultimately, the University needs to do better in dealing with the issues of sexual assault and rape. The administration cannot simply stop at mass O-Week assemblies and copy-pasting hotlines and resources at the bottom of e-mails. At the very least, stop simply saying you are “re-examining the way we describe the incidents in our security alerts,” as Eric M. Heath put it in his follow-up e-mail, and actually change the way these incidents are described. There’s really nothing to reexamine about it. It’s been examined, a problem has been identified, and now it’s on you to do something about it.

Lucas Du is a first-year in the College.