CREDIT: Richard Potts/Flickr
April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and many college students are taking the opportunity to hold events on their campus to draw more attention to the issue of sexual violence. But at one of the country’s most prestigious universities, the conversation about sexual assault is currently focused primarily on administrators’ failures to take rape seriously.
On Monday, Harvard University’s newspaper, The Crimson, published an open letter to the institution written by an anonymous survivor of sexual assault. “Dear Harvard: I am writing to let you know that I give up,” the student writes. “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 alleges that Harvard officials discouraged her from bringing charges against her assailant because her sexual assault didn’t fit into the school’s narrow definition of “indecent assault and battery,” which must involve “unwanted touching or fondling of a sexual nature that is accompanied by physical force or threat of bodily injury.” She says her consent was violated while she was drunk, but Harvard’s outdated policy doesn’t have a detailed definition of consent to allow her case to proceed.
Since the Harvard student couldn’t mount an official investigation against her assailant, she was unable to convince administrators to remove him from her dorm, and was forced to continue to live in close quarters with him. She worried about running into him in the laundry room or the mail room. But her dean allegedly told her to simply forgive her assailant and move on, and she increasingly got the impression that no one was really taking her seriously. Meanwhile, she was officially diagnosed with depression and felt herself spiraling downward — and now, she feels too exhausted to continue fighting against the administration.
“I might have lost my battle, but I also hope that this story can initiate a serious discussion about the way we want to handle cases like mine as a community,” the anonymous student explains. “Do we really want survivors who speak up to be systematically shut down if their experience does not fit some criteria for sexual assault written in 1993? Do we really want to let survivors advocate for themselves until they are so exhausted that they collapse into depression?”
As she hoped, her story is already beginning to spark some change on campus. In response, Harvard’s Undergraduate Council has formed a task force to advocate for changes to the school’s sexual assault policy. These aren’t new issues for Harvard — students have been pushing for change for the past several years, and the university recently hired its first-ever Title IX coordinator to review the policies in this area.
Grace Mahoney, a Harvard student in the class of 2014 who works on sexual assault prevention, told TIME that Harvard’s rigorous academic environment and male-dominant campus culture help contribute to these issues. “There’s definitely a culture of braving it and just toughing it out and everything’s fine,” she explained. “And sexual assault comes part and parcel with that.”
Officials from Harvard did not respond to ThinkProgress’ requests for comment.
These issues are not specific to Harvard. Across the country, colleges’ lenient sexual assault policies — which often dole out light punishments, like social probation and academic penalties, rather than suspending or expelling the students who have committed an assault — are allowing serial rapists to escape punishment. In addition to Harvard, prestigious institutions like Dartmouth, Princeton, Swarthmore, and Yale have been accused of sweeping rape under the rug in order to keep up appearances.
Fortunately, the sexual assault crisis on college campuses across the country is spurring hundreds of student activists to push for reform. This wave of recent activism has rippled throughout the country and made its way up to the White House. At the beginning of this year, President Obama announced the creation of a new federal task force specifically focused on combating rape at colleges and universities.
“I know deep down that all those administrators are not bad people. They want to be supportive, and they really try to be,” the Harvard student acknowledges. “But they have no idea how to do deal with cases of sexual violence because they have not been trained sufficiently. They use insensitive language, unfortunate comparisons, and empty phrases to avoid any liability issues that could come up. They simply do not know, and, as a result, they do more harm than good when trying to handle cases of sexual violence…But that does not mean that we cannot do anything to change the way we handle sexual assault at Harvard.”