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Recent MU incidents spark 'victim blaming' and some worry

Wednesday, December 5, 2012 | 8:16 p.m. CST; updated 10:02 a.m. CST, Thursday, December 6, 2012

COLUMBIA — First, there was the "bear hug" incident and the jokes that suggested that the woman who'd reported it obviously didn't know what a real crime was.

Then there were the allegations against now-former MU men's basketball player Michael Dixon Jr., and the comments were even harsher and the name-calling more extreme. Tweeted under the hashtags "#FreeMikeDixon" and "#FreeDixon," the comments turned from wanting Dixon's suspension from playing lifted to aggressive posts disparaging his accuser, including the use of vile names and suggestions of how she should be taught a lesson.

"Angry that mike Dixon isn't playing because some jersey chaser wants attention! Screwing with a promising basketball season! #FreeMikeDixon," Twitter user Joe Kenton tweeted. Although the reactions to the accusations included many who are not MU students, many students participated in the hashtags.

Rigel Oliveri, associate dean of Research and Faculty Development and an associate professor in MU's School of Law, said that these are not unusual reactions to reports of sexual assault.

Oliveri's area of research is sexual harassment and gender. She said she believes part of the reaction behind the vitriol-filled tweets comes from "a deep-rooted cultural tendency to blame and shame women whenever there is a scandal involving sex — whether it be harassment, unwanted pregnancy or adulterous affairs."

"Victim blaming" is a term used to describe this sort of backlash. Sonja Heath, assistant director of the Emily Taylor Center for Women & Gender Equity at the University of Kansas, said that victim blaming is "the mistaken notion that survivors of sexual assault are in some way responsible for the behavior of the attacker."

This holds true in the social media responses to the Dixon and "bear hug" situations, even though the guilt of the accused has not been proven in either. The reactions online centered on the decision-making of the two women rather than the actions alleged.  

"Sorry, but this whole 'rape' thing with Mike Dixon got outta hand. It's clear some girls can't handle being rejected. Feel bad for him," Twitter user Sarah Land tweeted the night the second allegationwas made public and Dixon left the team. The second allegation stemmed from a 2010 incident that was reported to police, accusing Dixon of rape.

"Victim blaming is especially harmful in that it hinders other survivors from reporting instances of sexual assault," Heath said.

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimates that 54 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported to police.

"Any time women who report sexual assault or harassment are subject to disparagement and personal attack — and especially in a public way — it is likely to deter others from coming forward in the future," Oliveri said.

These concerns were also expressed by Missouri Students Association President Xavier Billingsley in an email to the student body Wednesday.

"To the survivors of sexual violence, please don't be afraid to report," his email said. "There are people on this campus that care and want to help."

April Colvin, a sergeant with MU Police, also expressed concern that victim-blaming attitudes might discourage people from reporting crimes.

"It takes courage when you've been a victim to come forward and report it," Colvin said. "When you've been attacked, you feel particularly victimized, ... and then to have the community turn its back on you is a horrible, horrible thing."

Colvin and Jennifer Lynch, the crime prevention officer for the department, spoke to the Missourian between the two incidents. After the Michael Dixon accusations were made public, inquiries were referred to the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center on campus. The center declined to comment because of a policy "to not comment on active cases nor 'in light of recent events,'" as explained by Danica Wolf, the center's coordinator.

The Boone County prosecutor declined to pursue criminal charges against Dixon in the incident reported to Columbia Police on Aug. 20. There are no criminal charges pending against him.

Miscommunication adds to confusion

On Oct. 25, two Clery releases were sent out by MU Police that came to be referred to — almost infamously — as the "bear hug" releases.

The first release was in response to a woman who reported that she was near Ellis Library on campus and "passed an unknown individual who then turned, came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her putting her in a 'bear hug,'" according to the release. The rest of the release detailed how the woman tried to free herself but was unable to do so until someone else approached and she was released. The man who had grabbed her ran away after saying "Oh, I thought you were someone else."

A second release about what was suspected to be a related incident was sent out later that day.

As students took to Facebook groups such as "Overheard at Mizzou" and Twitter to share reactions to the Clery releases, most of the reaction made the incidents into a joke, focusing on the word "hug." Many expressed opinions that the woman shouldn't have reported the incident as a crime. Some of the posts even resorted to calling the woman who reported the incident names, such as "prude."

"It really saddens me that the campus community saw this as trivializing," Colvin said. She explained that "bear hug" is the term they use in the Rape Aggression Defense class the pair teach on campus. The other term used to describe this type of aggression is a "body lock," and she said police did not believe that term would be understood by those reading the Clery Release.

"It is a very controlling technique," Lynch said.

After reading the Clery Release about the incident near the library, an MU student reported to MU Police that a person matching the suspect's description had borrowed his phone more than a week earlier to send a text message to a female student at Stephens College. The student at Stephens College then identified the suspect and accused him of stalking her and using other people's phones to call and send text messages to her.

After Timothy Anderson, another MU student, was arrested, several students at Stephens College came forward to report that they had seen him on campus. Three female students on the campus reported being approached by him.

Anderson is being charged with stalking, third-degree assault and harassment. He has a court trial scheduled for Tuesday.

The Dixon debate

Because of his prominence as a member of the Missouri men's basketball team, the response to the accusations of rape against Michael Dixon stretched beyond the MU student body and into the team's nationwide fan base.

According to Janet Fink, an associate professor at the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, fans with a high attachment to a team or a player will have one of two reactions when they learn that a player or team has been accused of an illegal or immoral act.

They might support the player while disparaging the person or organization who has made the accusation. That's because they see themselves as closely connected to that person or group.

"When people are incredibly and highly identified as a fan, it becomes a part of their social identity, and they see these teams, or a particular player, as an extension of themselves," Fink said.

"Sport fans who have an attachment to a player typically will not accept the immediate accusations as being correct or possible because the attachment is typically generated by the need for vicarious achievement," said Galen Trail, associate professor of sport administration and leadership at Seattle University.  "What this means is that a close connection with the player who may have done something wrong reflects poorly on the sport fan who is attached to that player and promotes that association."

A second possible reaction by fans might be to treat the accused as a "black sheep" who does not share the values of the team and its fans, Fink said.

This, too, was a reaction visible on Twitter, though without the help of hashtags to propel the point. In other words, there's no hashtag for people who were disappointed in their peers' reactions.

"We're a green dot school. A school with an RSVP center. A school that respects women. That is so much greater than points on a scoreboard," Kam Phillips said in a series of tweets about how people were reacting to the accusations. Phillips is a former MU Homecoming queen.

Trail said if the athlete is eventually found guilty or more accusations come to light,  support from the fans may decrease. This phenomenon was apparent when the second accusation of rape against Michael Dixon was made public on Thursday. Some Twitter users deleted earlier tweets disparaging the accuser as well as tweets supporting Dixon. Some Twitter users went so far as to post admissions that they may have spoken prematurely on the matter.

The Twitter account for the Antlers, a student fan group for the men's basketball team, was one of the early driving forces of the #FreeMikeDixon tweets. After the second allegation was revealed, the group's tweets were deleted.

"Of course, there are always some fans who won’t believe regardless," Trail said. This was also observable as some Twitter users continued to post in the same attitude as they had before.

One Twitter account set up in response to the accusations, @DixonFree, has continued to post tweets in defense of Dixon even after the second allegation and Dixon's decision to leave the team.

But Fink predicted that with Dixon transferring to another college, fans' connection to him will start to weaken.

"If he is accused of sexual misconduct in the future, research indicates the fans that are defending him now would not hesitate to condemn him when he is a member of another team," Fink said.

However, some fans with a high attachment to the team may still blame those who have made the accusations against Dixon if they feel the team is doing poorly as a result of his absence, Fink said.

Why we blame

Heath said that one of the main reasons people blame victims for what happens to them is that it makes them feel safer.

"I think it’s easy to say (it's the victim's fault) because not only does it allow ourselves to distance ourselves from that behavior but also because it’s very difficult for us to look at a situation and not place blame," Heath said. She said it's easiest to look at a situation and name the decisions you wouldn't make in order to help the situation make more sense.

Heath said one of the most common examples of situations where women are most often blamed is when they have consumed alcohol. Neither the Dixon or the Anderson incidents were reported to involve alcohol, but Heath said it is one of the most common aspects of victim blaming on college campuses.

What the Dixon allegations did involve was an issue of consent.

"Consent is a difficult thing to understand, and that's where we get these victim-blaming ideas," Heath said.

Many of the tweets about the first allegation against Dixon mentioned aspects of the police report, using them to say that what was being described was not rape.

"We try to understand the situation, but only the two of them will ever know what happened," Heath said. She said people have a lot of misconceptions about consent, such as believing consent to one type of behavior means consent to all sexual acts or that consent cannot be revoked.

"Sure, we may read a report, talk to friends, read a newspaper article, but we will never know what actually happened," Heath said.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.


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