Sexual Assault at Harvard

“I want to know what happened in that room when they were making a decision that changed my entire life.”

Julie, an undergraduate, says she will never understand why the Administrative Board decided in its closed deliberations in the Forum Room on the third floor of Lamont Library to allow the student who sexually assaulted her to remain on campus.

Julie, who has been granted anonymity by The Crimson because she fears retaliation from her perpetrator, initially felt optimistic about the College’s response to her sexual assault. After reporting the rape, Julie felt encouraged by the responses of Harvard University Police Department and the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. Assured that there was significant evidence to build a case against the perpetrator, Julie took her case to the Ad Board.

In light of this, she said, the Ad Board’s ultimate decision not to require the perpetrator to withdraw was particularly disheartening.

Paola, another College student who was sexually assaulted on campus, also found OSAPR to be a helpful resource. Yet she expresses deep disappointment with the way that administrators respond to students coming forward with experiences of sexual assault. “They question the event so much and ask if you were in the wrong so many times that, after a while, one begins questioning if it even happened,” she writes in an email to The Crimson. Paola, who has been granted anonymity by The Crimson to protect her pivacy, decided not to pursue her case with the Ad Board in part because she knew the perpetrator.

For a growing number of students on campus, stories like Julie’s and Paola’s highlight what they describe as a disparity between Harvard’s many resources for the victims of sexual assault and the policies that govern the ways in which incidents of sexual assault are investigated and adjudicated. These critics, who include sexual assault survivors and campus activists, say that the Ad Board’s written policy language is not favorable to victims of sexual assault, and that the Ad Board’s lack of transparency about its processes intimidates students who bring their cases before the Board.

Harvard is currently conducting an ongoing review of its sexual assault policies across its various schools and has recently hired its first ever University-wide Title IX coordinator, who begins work this month. Still, some students feel that these efforts are not enough. They say that changes in the way administrators handle cases of sexual assault at the College level are progressing too slowly, and are not sufficiently responsive to student concerns.

Read more: Sexual Assault at Harvard



Dismantling Rape Culture

check out our op-ed about rape culture written by our organizers! from the Harvard Crimson:

Angie Epifano’s recent account of sexual assault at Amherst College brought national attention to the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. In an article, she described reporting her sexual assault to the Amherst administration and the administration’s egregious response to her case—which included institutionalizing her against her will and refusing to allow her to study abroad, all while making no effort at all to punish her rapist.

At about the same time, we joined with other Harvard students to start a campaign on campus called Our Harvard Can Do Better. To encourage Harvard to re-examine its sexual assault policies and practices, the campaign put a referendum on the recent Undergraduate Council ballot calling for reform in sexual assault policy. The overwhelming student support that this referendum generated (it passed with 85 percent of the vote) suggests that undergraduates are alarmed at aspects of Harvard’s policy, including the use of the phrase “mental incapacitation” without an explanation of exactly what this means and Harvard’s lack of a policy of affirmative consent.

However, while the referendum was mainly policy-driven, what lies at the heart of sexual assault issues on campuses everywhere is the ubiquity and persistence of rape culture, a societal attitude that delegitimizes sexual violence and predisposes people to excuse rapists. Furthermore, this culture creates a general understanding of sexual violence that is limited to heterosexual relationships, thereby delegitimizing non-heterosexual violence. Unfortunately, rape culture is an inescapable aspect of American life today.

A central feature of rape culture is that the main burden of rape prevention is put on potential victims rather than on potential perpetrators, and alleged instances of this can be found on our campus. For example, Johany Pilar, who works in the Freshman Mailroom, told students and coworkers last month that she was sexually harassed at work. Pilar says that when she reported this, she was told that it was probably because she gave too many hugs. This is a prime example of victim-blaming, which happens when people suggest that victims are assaulted because they have not “done enough” to prevent assault. This focuses attention away from the fact that the aggressor acted by their own volition. And unfortunately, stories like Johany Pilar’s—stories that demonstrate the ways in which sexual assault is normalized and explained away in our society—are all too common.

Rape culture is real at Harvard, and is perhaps even more pervasive on campus due to Harvard’s history as an all-male institution. We reinforce rape culture through the ways that we conduct ourselves every day, especially through our language. Trivializing rape with phrases such as “that exam raped me” subtly changes our understanding of sexual assault so that we think of it in a lighthearted way, and strips the word “rape” of much of its meaning until it does not reflect the enormity of the violence that so many experience. This trivialization, in turn, contributes to a culture that does not acknowledge the presence of rape in our communities—leading us to question the veracity of victims’ experiences.

Furthermore, saying things that express public or male control of people’s bodies, especially women’s, shifts the way that we understand bodily agency. People subtly reinforce the idea that women’s bodies exist to be commented upon and dominated through everyday speech. For example, they might tell a woman that she should be grateful when a stranger on the street comments on her body, criticize women for wearing either not enough clothing or too much clothing, or suggest to men that the only important outcome of an interaction with a woman is whether they sleep with her. Statements and suggestions like these cause women to feel less autonomy over their bodies, and pressure men to speak about women in a way that implies domination and conquest on their parts. This distortion of our public understanding of who has control over bodies, and to what level they hold that control, is another important way in which rape culture is reinforced.

We all perpetuate rape culture when we fail to speak up against victim-blaming and slut-shaming comments. However, the fact that we all reinforce this culture means that we also can all take part in dismantling it.

Next Tuesday, there will be a rape culture speak-out, a gathering of people dedicated to creating a safe space in which they can share their experience with rape culture and listen to the voices of others. Our hope is that the speak-out will provide an opportunity not only to validate our experiences but also to demonstrate the solidarity and support that we feel for each other. The speak-out will allow us to recognize that our experiences with rape culture are not isolated incidents, but rather a collective struggle. We hope that through hearing these personal narratives of pain, struggle, and resistance that are so often silenced, students at Harvard will begin to rethink some of their behaviors, and that we can all move toward a common discourse and set of behaviors that are conscious, thoughtful, and productive in dismantling rape culture.

Reed E. McConnell ’15 is a social anthropology concentrator in Quincy House. Kate Sim ’14 is a joint social studies and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Quincy House.


[Crimson] UC Votes to Support Affirmative Consent

“The Undergraduate Council voted Sunday night to support the adoption of a College-wide affirmative consent policy, just one week before students are set to cast ballots on the very same issue.

The UC’s Sexual Assault Policies and Procedures Act calls on Harvard to adopt affirmative consent in order to “lessen ambiguity” and bring the University’s policies in line with those of its seven Ivy League peers.Affirmative consent—in which partners must affirmatively communicate their willingness to participate in sexual activity—is also at the center of this fall’s student-led sexual assault referendum.”

read more: UC Votes to Support Affirmative Consent

[Crimson] Democracy At Work: UC Ballot measures are a welcome development

from the Harvard Crimson 

For the first time in six years, Harvard College students will vote on more than their favorite Undergraduate Council leaders in the upcoming UC election. This year’s UC ballot will feature three referenda on some of the College’s most hotly debated questions: University sexual assault policy, divestment from fossil fuels, and University absorption of the Fair Harvard Fund, a social choice fund developed by students last year. Unlike previous years’ ballots, which merely required students to make the largely inconsequential choice between presidential and vice presidential contenders, this year’s ballot invites undergraduates to make their voices heard on issues that matter.

Importantly, all three of this year’s referenda have made it onto the ballot thanks to the hard, determined work of student activists. Harvard has a storied history of inspiring student activism: Student-organized campaigns have compelled Harvard to make important changesin its labor practices and expand resources for women. There is little doubt that activism has done much to steer the University forward, and the work of contemporary student activists ought to be commended in the same regard. The U.C. should encourage more of this sort of grassroots involvement in the governance of student life on campus.

The proposed sexual assault policy changes warrant the most urgent attention of these questions. The long-overdue proposals of Kate Sim ’14 and Pearl Bhatnagar ’14 includesuggested changes that would drastically increase the power of students in combating assault. Specifically, they reframe sexual assault policy to reflect affirmative consent and call for increased administration transparency with federal law enforcement.

Moreover, the referendum proposes crucial increases in specificity and clarity in the wording of sexual assault policies. These include revising the “mental incapacitation” phrase to more clearly refer to the point at which someone is unable to consent under the influence, as well as using language inclusive of LGBTQ-identifying students.

Many of these policy changes have already been instituted at fellow universities, and the recent occurrence of two stranger rapes at Harvard makes their arrival to our campus tardy. Due to the urgent need for such changes to be implemented, all students should vote for the sexual assault policy referendum during the fall elections. In addition, the Undergraduate Council should continue to publicize the process by which students can propose petitions for referenda of their own. With an amplified voice for the student body, we are confident the most crucial issues on our campus can be solved.

Harvard self-affirms its own sexual assault policies

from the Harvard Crimson

A Harvard administrator said the University does not intend to alter its sexual assault policies in response to Yale’s recent settlement over a complaint that alleged that Yale’s sexual misconduct grievance procedures violated Title IX.

In an agreement with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Yale agreed to uphold its recent policy changes—including its adoption of the lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which requires the university to be at least 51 percent certain of an alleged perpetrator’s guilt before issuing a guilty verdict. The previous policy required a “clear preponderance of the evidence,” a more stringent burden of proof.

“We don’t have any plans to make changes but we are still looking at our policy and our practices,” Secretary of the Administrative Board John “Jay” L. Ellison wrote in an email. “Yale’s situation was different than ours but we can learn from them.”

Currently, Harvard employs different standards of evidence among its various schools. The Law School uses the more stringent “burden of proof” standard–which requires about 80 percent proof for a guilty verdict–while the Faculty of Arts and Sciences requires that the Administrative Board be “sufficiently persuaded” of an accused student’s responsibility for an alleged incident.

For the past two years, Harvard has been in the process of conducting an internal review of its sexual assault grievance procedures to ensure that it is compliant with the guidelines set forth in a “Dear Colleague” letter, which was released in April 2011 by the OCR.

Harvard Law School is also currently under investigation by the OCR for alleged violations of Title IX in its sexual misconduct grievance procedures. A spokesperson for the OCR said that federal officials do not have a timetable in place for resolving the complaint.

Yale’s settlement with the OCR was announced on June 15 after a fifteen-month investigation. The OCR’s probe of Yale was launched after 16 Yale students and alumni filed a complaint in March 2011 alleging that Yale had not responded “in a prompt and equitable” manner to correct a sexually hostile campus environment. The complaint came just months after a video of a group of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity members chanting “No means yes! Yes means anal!” during a pledge event on Yale’s Old Campus made national headlines.

During the OCR’s investigation, Yale moved to update its procedures, establishing the University Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct last July—which was already in motion before the complaint—and naming a campus Title IX coordinator last November.

Although the OCR did not find Yale guilty of noncompliance with Title IX, Yale’s settlement stipulated that the University report to the OCR until the end of May 2014.

Wendy Murphy, the lawyer who filed the complaint against Harvard Law School in 2010, said she thinks that the OCR would be inconsistent if it did not require Harvard to make the same changes that Yale agreed to as part of its settlement agreement.

Murphy pointed to three changes made by Yale in advance of the settlement—its adoption of the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, its new standard for prompt resolution of complaints, and its new requirement to lay out clear timeframes about the duration of an investigation—as issues that are being explored in the investigation of Harvard Law School that is currently underway.

“It may not be mandatory binding legal precedent on all schools to have something happen to Yale, but it matters and schools should pay attention because it’s the writing on the wall,” said Murphy, who is a professor at the New England School of Law.

Still, Murphy said, the OCR’s hesitance to universally enforce mandates delivered in individual cases may allow Harvard to maintain its existing policies, at least for some time.

“OCR has never been clear that there’s real force in the rulings against other schools,” Murphy said. “Most schools—I’ll put Harvard in that list—think that they’re not necessarily required to abide by a ruling if it comes down against another school.”

This past spring, several of Harvard’s peer institutions—including the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell—made changes to their sexual assault policies that also sparked speculation that Harvard may be persuaded to follow suit.