At 3:31 p.m. on Thursday, Alert Carolina, UNC-Chapel Hill's text and email alert system that informs students of crimes and weather conditions, sent out a text concerning a male described as over 40 "fondling" a female in a library on campus.
Instead of using the technical and legal terms "alleged sexual assault" for the incident that occurred, the university alert system went out of its way to use a word not typically used in press or law enforcement: "fondling." This outraged many female students.
Sophomore Jamie Ramos is majoring in Information Science, which is the same field choice of those who send out the Alert Carolinas. She said that librarians send out the alerts.
"I am consistently disappointed by UNC's clearly active choice to downplay sexual assault," Ramos said in a Facebook message. "Their word choice yesterday definitively shows that they're protecting their own image rather than the person affected by this, and that does not give me any form of confidence they'll follow through with the full investigation or with protecting any of us."
Stella Reneke, a sophomore double majoring in Philosophy and Photojournalism, also thought the wording was off.
"I definitely thought it was strange wording," Reneke said via Facebook message. "'Fondling' doesn't hold nearly the same weight or dangerous connotation as 'sexual assault,' and it's problematic in the long term to continually minimize unwanted sexual attention, especially when it involves being physically touched, violently or otherwise."
She explained the importance of validating victims' experiences.
"While I understand that the intention most likely was to avoid 'overstating' the incident out of respect for victims of rape, so as not to delegitimize the severity of that suffering, I think that phrasing like this leads to the impression that various degrees of sexual assault also vary in the length to which the perpetrator should be pursued as a criminal," Reneke said. "This is utterly false. Sexual assault of any kind is completely unacceptable and genuinely traumatizing, and there should be no fear of tasteless mislabelling because we have produced 'sexual assault' as the broader term under which 'rape' falls."
She continued, emphasizing the importance of word choice.
"We should not hesitate to call all of these incidents exactly what they are, and they are sexual assaults," she said. "We can distinguish rape from sexual assault when we feel it necessary to convey the extremity of the crime, but to not call 'fondling' the act of sexual assault that it is, is really to suggest that it somehow doesn't qualify as that serious. And that's not okay."
Marie Fayssoux, a freshman majoring in Human Development and Family Studies pointed out how the word choice could imply consent.
"The use of the word 'fondling' confused me and muddled the truth of the incident, I think," she said. "'Fondling' makes it sound as if the incident could've involved two consenting people that got caught. If this was the university's attempt at easing the worries of students, it fell short. We deserve to know what really happens on campus."
Ruthie Allen, a sophomore majoring in Public Policy also had the same line of thought, saying it "trivializes" the event. "I think fondling implies that it could've been consensual, which I'm guessing it wasn't because then they wouldn't have needed to send out an alert," she said.
The investigation is still ongoing.
Lead Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons via 慧怡 顏