Dear Harvard: I am writing to let you know that I give up. I will be moving out of my House next semester, if only—quite literally—to save my life... 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 Harvard Crimson published these unsettling words written by a female undergraduate on Monday, March 31. The two-page online letter describes her sexual assault experience in 2013 and the inaction taken by the school to remove her assailant from her dormitory.
While the writer remains anonymous, her story as a survivor has generated concern regarding the efficiency of the institution’s sexual assault policy.
The school’s current policy was adopted in 1993 – more than two decades ago.
Harvard University’s definition of rape is, “any act of sexual intercourse that takes place against a person’s will or that is accompanied by physical coercion or the threat of bodily injury... unwillingness may be expressed verbally or physically.”
Some argue that embodying the phrase “no means no” does not accurately protect all victims. In many instances, like that of Dear Harvard’s, perpetrators achieve assault by means of intimidation in which their victims are unable or afraid to refuse vocally.
If Harvard implemented an affirmative consent policy, the doctrine would explicitly acknowledge that sexual assault could occur in the absence of consent in verbal or physical forms. Harvard remains the only Ivy to not have adopted this policy of affirmative consent.
To add to this concern, recent figures put Harvard at the top for reported cases of campus sexual assault out of these eight schools. Harvard’s main campus had 31 reports of forcible sexual offenses in 2012, followed by 17 at Princeton.
Additionally, a federal study estimates that 88% of college survivors do not report their assaults to their respective institutions. If this is true, it is possible that Harvard’s actual sexual assault figures range around 250 each year.
The anonymous Harvard student describes the most painful part of her sexual assault aftermath as, “being practically denied the right to decide what you want to do with your story... [Such as] being denied several requests that you think will help you heal.” She continues, “those things truly make you feel hopeless, powerless, betrayed, and worthless.”
While Harvard’s administration has remained inactive about this issue, its student body has been quite vocal. This past fall, 3,066 undergraduates voted in favor of asking their institution to reassess its sexual assault policy. The Undergraduate Council has also formally endorsed the Our Harvard Can Do Better campaign.
Following this letter last week, a complaint was filed against Harvard with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The two students pursuing this objection argue their institution’s policy against sexual violence violates that of Title IX. The report supposedly includes a testimony compiled of 10 survivors.
Dear Harvard’s letter requesting adjustment in institution policy, particularly in the area of empathizing with the victim’s mental and physical conditions, has implications beyond one institution’s faults. For example, 22 of Boston’s largest campuses reported an increase in “forcible sex offenses” by around 40%.
Campus safety experts argue this rise is due to improvements provided by school policy. However, this does not shed accurate light on how survivors of sexual assault are further treated by administrators, counselors and their peers.