By Jon Brien
In March of 2014, a Harvard University student published an anonymous letter to the University in the school’s student run newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.
The letter was entitled “Dear Harvard: You Win,” and detailed in full the student’s experiences with Harvard University’s sexual assault prevention and care systems after having been assaulted by a friend in her dorm room 7 months prior. In the letter, she brought up several criticisms of the way the school handled her assault, and the lack of assistance that she received as a victim due to the specificity of the school’s definition of sexual assault.
“The policy, published in the spring of 1993, defines ‘indecent assault and battery’ to be anything involving ‘unwanted touching or fondling of a sexual nature that is accompanied by physical force or threat of bodily injury,’” she wrote in her letter. “It does not provide any definition of consent beyond the brief mention, in its definition of rape, that a victim cannot consent if he or she is unable to express unwillingness due to alcohol or drugs, among other factors.” This is one of the factors which led to her case being handled with such little effectiveness, according to the letter.
The student in question ended up choosing to leave the school because of the amount of emotional and psychological distress that the whole situation had caused her, including having to see her assailant daily because they lived in the same dorm hall and the school refused to move him elsewhere. He was never charged. “My assailant will remain unpunished, and life on this campus will continue its course as if nothing had happened. Today, Harvard, I am writing to let you know that you have won,” the student wrote, making it clear that she had been fighting a losing battle with an institution so much bigger than herself.
This letter is indicative of a huge problem on college campuses, which, for how much it is discussed, is still receiving highly inadequate treatment. The AAUW (American Association of University Women) reports that in a recent study of undergraduate women, 19% reported having experienced completed or attempted sexual assault while in college. That’s almost 1/5 of college undergraduates, and that statistic only includes female identifying victims of sexual assault. The AAUW also reports that 95% of sexual assaults go unreported on college campuses, and of those that are reported, only 5% are reported to the police. The rest of the reports end up going to campus related services. This is rather alarming given that the U.S. Department of Education recently reported that 55 colleges and universities were being investigated over the way that they handled sexual violence complaints.
It is an unfortunate reality that a majority of college campuses have inadequate resources for victims of sexual assault, and are often unwilling to pursue legal action against those who have been implicated as perpetrators. This could be a contributing factor to why so many sexual assaults go unreported each year. But there is more to take into account here, and it has to do with the way that students are educated about sexual assault. “Being taught that rape is only a stranger in an alley with a knife makes it very hard to accept,” said a Clark University student who wished to remain anonymous.
Her story is one of many that tragically never received proper justice.
“I didn’t tell my friends what happened for another couple weeks, and I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t a big deal, and even hung out with [my assailant] and his friends again. Then one night I snapped and told my friends, and the next night I was at a party where he was and I finally confronted him and I said, ‘You raped me,’ and he said, ‘I know.’ I didn’t report it because I didn’t think it counted, because we had already been hooking up, and no one could confirm it, and also I was scared my parents would somehow find out.”
When students aren’t taught the full extent of what it means to consent and to receive proper consent, it can make navigating the dating scene at a small college campus very frightening, and more importantly, dangerous.
“So by that point I had taken enough women’s studies classes and figured things out enough to realize that I should report him, but [the social climate] scared me off,” she continued. “All of his friends knew, and were still on his side, and I knew that if I reported him and he got expelled, they would all hate me and also they are scary dudes so I was worried they would [mess] with me, or tell a bunch of other people. So he is still [at Clark] and graduates this month.” This is a sad reality for a large number of students who have been assaulted. Having to watch somebody who you know committed a cruelty against you or someone you are friends with receive a diploma without any retributive action whatsoever is something that victims of sexual assault have to go through on a yearly basis, because social climates and campus services make it difficult or impossible to report assault cases safely.
This does not only apply to female victims of assault. One of the most frequently overlooked areas of sexual assault on college campuses is that of relationship violence within LGBT communities or involving members of the LGBT community. Gay, lesbian and trans erasure regarding sexual assault is a serious problem that seems many universities aren’t taking seriously. “I remember [the rape prevention program] at Clark mentioned [LGBT cases] briefly when I attended their information session, but overall, when I experienced sexual assault, I felt pretty ill equipped in handling it or even talking about it with administration,” said Tanner Bryan, a recent graduate of Clark University. “I even felt slightly stigmatized because the sexual violence occurred within a same-sex relationship.”
So how do we fix the problem? It’s a difficult issue, one that can only be fixed entirely if people stop committing sexual assault. The best way to tackle it is by educating people about consent. So much of prevention education revolves around telling people how to avoid being assaulted, and not enough education tells people not to commit rape or other forms of sexual assault.
Consent only means one thing: explicit, vocal affirmation of willingness to go through with sexual activity (of any kind, not just intercourse) between partners. The involvement of alcohol doesn’t excuse rape, the involvement of drugs doesn’t excuse rape, and neither does silence. Silence doesn’t mean “yes”; it most likely means that your partner is too intimidated to speak her mind.
The issue of consent is an issue of respecting someone’s body, which is the most sacred and personal thing that we have. Let’s try to create a safe college dating environment where people can maintain agency over what happens to their own bodies, and make the college experience that much safer and more comfortable for everyone.