‘Dear Harvard’ ignites discussion of what defines rape

A statue of John Harvard sits in Harvard Yard on the school's campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009. Harvard, the oldest and richest college in the U.S., paid almost $1 billion to terminate a wrong-way bet on interest rate swaps that it had entered in 2004 to finance expansion in Allston. Photographer: Michael Fein/Bloomberg
Michael Fein/Bloomberg

An anonymous Harvard student identified herself as a victim of sexual assault and detailed her subsequent struggle to receive support from her school’s administration in a letter published Monday in The Crimson, titled: “Dear Harvard: You Win.” The editor’s note that opens the piece states: “This is a first-person, present-tense account of the aftermath of a sexual assault that took place in 2013. For reasons of both style and substance, we have left it in present tense.”

In the letter, the student—for simplicity’s sake, let’s call her Letterwriter—describes an alleged incident that took place in a friend’s dorm room, where “after too many drinks,” her aggressor sexually assaulted her after she said “no.” She wrote:

“I was intoxicated, I was in pain, I was trapped between him and the wall, and I was scared to death that he would continue to ignore what I said. I stopped everything and turned my back to him, praying he would leave me alone. He started getting impatient. ‘Are you only going to make me hard, or are you going to make me come?’ he said in a demanding tone.

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It did not sound like a question. I obeyed.”

Due to Harvard’s policy on sexual conduct, Letterwriter feared she would be unable to rightfully plea her case and was met with discouragement from the school’s administration, who would abide by the wording, and advised her to not move forward. She decided against opening a case through the school’s Ad Board as she was told “they would probably be dropped because [her] situation did not match the language of a 20-year-old policy.”

The Letterwriter continues to say Harvard took an “innocent until proven guilty” approach following her request to have her assailant moved to another residence House on campus. The formal investigation would follow the aforementioned definitions of rape and assault. The school suggested, “[in] an attempt to comply with Title IX regulation—which requires universities to provide a safe environment to survivors of sexual assault,” that Letterwriter should move to a different house herself. Letterwriter decided that moving would have given a sense of vindication to her assailant and decided to stay in her residence, with friends and tutors she believed would support her and prevent her from “descending into mental illness.”

She hoped a new option for justice would present itself. It did not. If anything, it appeared that the rules and guidelines set could, in turn, protect her assailant. She wrote:

Confidentiality rules prevent me from revealing most of what was—or was not—done to respond to my report. Ironically, if I were to reveal this information, I could risk getting disciplined. What I can say, however, is that in my opinion, the school’s limited response amounted to the equivalent of a slap on the hand for my assailant. After unsuccessfully suggesting a number of interventions that could have helped me better live with my situation, I eventually got the persistent impression that my House staff believed I was fussing over nothing.”

The most alarming portion of the letter may be the school’s administration’s alleged responses to the situation. Letterwriter says her resident dean said her “assailant couldn’t be punished because he didn’t know what he was doing,” and “compared living in the same House as [her] assailant to a divorced couple working in the same factory.” The school’s University Health Services suggested her drinking was to blame for the incident.

Letterwriter said she did not blame the school’s administration, blaming lack of contextual training and writing, “these administrators operate within a system that offers little alternative for people in my situation and bounds administrators to inaction because their jobs depend on it.” But she pleas that the policies on sexual misconduct, penned in 1993, be reexamined and rewritten. She asks that the administration receive guidelines for handling situations like hers so future students will not be met with this same sense of contempt.

The author said she continued to live in the same residence as her assailant and detailed the scarring psychological damage from the bouts of fear and depression she suffered — not only because she was scared to run into her attacker in the laundry room or the library, but because she was “exhausted” from asking for extensions, guidance, and support from her school’s administration. She noted that due to her decision to stay in the residence that also housed her personal and academic support system she depended on during a time of distress, she still found herself running into her attacker “up to five times a day.”

She wrote:

“Seven months after I reported what happened, my assailant still lives in my House. I am weeks behind in the three classes I’m taking. I have to take sleeping pills every night to fall and stay asleep, and I routinely get nightmares in which I am sexually assaulted in public. I cannot drink alcohol without starting to cry hysterically. I dropped my favorite extracurriculars because I cannot find the energy to drag myself out of bed. I do not care about my future anymore, because I don’t know who I am or what I care about or whether I will still be alive in a few years. I spend most of my time outside of class curled up in bed, crying, sleeping, or staring at the ceiling, occasionally wondering if I just heard my assailant’s voice in the staircase. Often, the cough syrup sitting in my drawer or the pavement several floors down from my window seem like reasonable options.”

The student concludes, that in a sense, Harvard has “won.” She wrote that she accepts the school’s decision to allow her attacker to “remain unpunished” and she will leave the House she fought to remain a resident of to “quite literally — to save [her] life.” She encourages her fellow classmates and the administration that has been elected to support them to create better, updated policies and Ad Board alternatives for incidents like hers.

Since the Crimson’s release of the letter, Harvard’s Undergraduate Council announced the formation of a Sexual Assault Policy Task Force, who will work with students to reevaluate the school’s policies. According to the announcement, Undergraduate Council Vice President Sietse K. Goffard “was ‘taken aback’ and ‘disturbed’ by the scenario depicted in the piece. Goffard and [UC President Gus A.] Mayopoulos sent emails to various administrators urging them to read it on Monday.” They state that they intend to discuss changes for the policy in a meeting with Interim Dean of the College Donald H. Pfister on Friday.

Marie Claire, who previously investigated the lack of response for victims of sexual assault on college campuses, wrote that “schools have an obligation under the law to protect victims of sexual assault. If a policy doesn’t allow students to get the help they need, then it’s time to change the policy.” Time added that Harvard was not the only school in need of reassessment, citing, “The White House recently announced a task force to end sexual assault on campuses, as other top universities such as Dartmouth, Wesleyan and Amherst are also struggling to address a growing demand for administrative action to protect sexual assault victims.”

Slate cites Policy Mic, which brings up Harvard’s lack of a “policy of ‘affirmative consent’ that would redefine sexual assault ‘as occurring in the absence of enthusiastic verbally or physically expressed consent.’”

The student that wrote the letter for the Crimson may have conceded in words that the University has “won,” but the conversation is just getting started and we suspect the battle is far from over.

UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, I received an e-mail from the College’s Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde’s office that included excerpts from a letter sent to students Tuesday evening. It states:

“As you may know, a working group composed of individuals representing a number of Schools and departments across the University was convened to review and recommend changes to Harvard’s policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault. The University is expected to share the results of this process with the entire Harvard community in the coming months. We look forward to seeing the results of that work.

This op-ed has sparked discussions across the community. As we enhance and refine our policies and procedures, we also need constructive engagement with our community, especially the student community. This includes using the existing support structure, speaking with your Tutors, Proctors and Resident Deans, and engaging and supporting your peers.”

h/t reddit

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