Recently, an alleged sexual assault victim wrote an op-ed describing her experience. Responses to the piece have startled the University out of its usual calm. President Drew Faust has responded by convening a task force. Two undergrads have been placed on the task force. The last time a task force was convened, no undergraduates were included. It’s a step up, but we don’t know whether the task force will achieve the three most important goals:
(1) improving education so that students will know what sexual assault is and how not to do it;
(2) changing Harvard’s rape policy to make it more inclusive;
(3) making University administrators and dormitory staff more responsive and more sensitive to victims’ needs, so that victims will feel supported by the community as they heal.
The current state of rape and sexual assault prevention training is inadequate. Currently, as freshman, Harvard students are taught not to rape through a one-time theatrical program called “Sex Signals.” Student reporter Molly L. Roberts describes the program here: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2012/10/10/sex-signals-gender/
Sexual assaults have happened at or after parties at Harvard. In an effort to fight the problem, some dormitories, including Mather House, offer optional training in how to prevent sexual assault. Students who undergo the training have priority in registering their parties.
In describing the sexual assault landscape at Harvard, I can’t leave out finals clubs. Finals Clubs are buildings owned by male alumni which function similarly to fraternities, except that there is no public service element, and students do not live in the buildings, they only socialize in them. Some Finals Clubs have pool tables, and some have libraries with books. Many have taxidermied animals, and all have young male students with a great deal of money. Sexual assaults have been perpetrated in Finals Clubs. By educating their members and enforcing community norms, Finals Clubs can do more to prevent rape, sexual assault, and violence against women.
Past student reporter and current Washington Post reporter Dylan Matthews wrote a critical piece on finals clubs here: http://www.perspy.com/?p=899.
Seemingly more academic spaces may also be sites of sexual violence. The Advocate is Harvard’s literary and arts journal, famous for having published e.e. cummings among others. In a signed article, one student described the experience of being admitted as an Advocate editor, and then being raped at the initiation ceremony: http://www.perspy.com/?p=93.
Changing the policy
Harvard’s current sexual assault policy can be summarized in this way:
Rape is an act of sexual intercourse against the will of the victim. The victim does not have to say “no” for it to be rape; unwillingness can be expressed verbally or physically. If the victim is too drunk or high to consent, it is still rape.
Indecent assault and battery is “touching or fondling” that is accompanied by physical force or the threat of bodily injury.
The full policy is here: http://static.fas.harvard.edu/registrar/ugrad_handbook/current/chapter5/sexual_assault_misconduct.html
Harvard’s indecent assault definition is too narrow. By eliminating the force requirement and including consent, Harvard’s administrators can better target sexual assaults.
As the policy currently stands, if a perpetrator penetrated a victim with his/her hands and the victim said “no,” there would be no finding of indecent assault unless the victim was able to prove that the perpetrator used physical force.
Changing Administrators’ Minds
In the op-ed, the victim describes how her efforts at putting distance between herself and her alleged perpetrator were met with resistance by the administration. Allegedly, house administrators told her that she was unlikely to win in an administrative hearing. When she described the trauma of seeing the alleged perpetrator, house administrators suggested that she should simply move out of the dormitory to avoid him.
House administrators and University staff as a whole can and should do more to protect their students. By broadening the University’s sexual assault definitions, improving access to justice for students, and increasing preventative education, we can beat this.
The Op-Ed, entitled “Dear Harvard, You Win” is here: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2014/3/31/Harvard-sexual-assault/
The task force’s goals are listed here: http://www.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/content/task-force-charge-04-2014.pdf?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Task_Force_Announcement%20(1)
The task force members are listed here: