A Tradition of Sexual Safety

At Harvard, traditions are a dime a dozen. Known for its tradition of academic excellence, Harvard is also the home of Primal Scream and, if you don’t know any better, rubbing the John Harvard statue’s foot. Of course, no list of Harvard traditions would be complete without Harvard-Yale, the weekend before Thanksgiving when half of Yale’s (or Harvard’s) student body descends on its rival’s campus for drunken tailgates, wild parties and, if they can drag themselves as far as Soldier’s Field, the football game between the Crimson and the Elis.

Let’s imagine the ideal scenario for a typical student at Harvard-Yale. The student attends a party with his or her blockmates, meets an attractive Yalie and the two spend the night chatting and dancing. Both people make their expectations for the night very clear and they go back to the student’s room only if both want to. If either of them is too drunk to make a sound decision, their friends intervene. And if something goes wrong, someone calls for help.

Doesn’t look like your image of Harvard-Yale? Unfortunately, you’re not alone. Although some students take steps to keep themselves safe, too many don’t—probably because they don’t realize the prevalence of sexual assault and rape on campus.

A study by the National Institute of Justice and Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that 20 to 25 percent of college women will be the victims of rape during their time at college. According to Heather Wilson, Education Specialist at the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR), the vast majority of rapes and sexual assaults are linked to alcohol. Sometimes used deliberately to facilitate rape, alcohol also has the unintended consequences of making people more aggressive and less able to recognize and respect signs of resistance.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number of rapes and sexual assaults at Harvard because the victims often stay silent; but with 32 cases reported to the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) and 50 student victims seeking assistance from the OSAPR last year—the OSAPR’s first—it’s clear that rape and sexual assault permeate even the Harvard bubble.

Since alcohol is involved in the majority of rapes and sexual assaults, it’s not surprising that OSAPR saw an increase in rape and sexual assault reports last year after the alcohol-fueled parties at Harvard-Yale. This year will bring more of the same, unless we—both women and men—make a concerted effort to reduce the risk of sexual assault and rape. Our hope is that by following a few simple guidelines, students will make risk-reduction a Harvard tradition.

One of the most effective ways to reduce your risk is to communicate with your partner. Even when there’s no malicious intent, it often happens that someone sends mixed signals or doesn’t take the time to ask. For both people’s sakes, it’s important to give clear consent (i.e., saying “yes”) and to say “stop” whenever you feel uncomfortable. While it may seem awkward at first, being forthright becomes easier with practice.

Alcohol enables sexual assault and rape by impairing people’s ability to give consent and making communication difficult. Contrary to what you may have been told, alcohol plus sex does not necessarily equal rape. But when a person is not just intoxicated, but incapacitated—slurring speech, vomiting or falling in and out of consciousness— he or she is incapable of giving consent according to the law. The point, however, isn’t to figure out how much someone can get away with, but rather how to steer clear of these gray areas. Drinking in moderation and being careful with your drink—pouring it yourself and never leaving it unattended—are ways to avoid putting yourself in a precarious position.

Another often overlooked method to help prevent rape and sexual assault is to look after your friends. Even if you’re not sexually active, it’s important to know how to help your friends should they find themselves in danger. If you see an obviously drunk friend about to leave a party with someone he or she just met, as a friend, it’s your responsibility to intervene.

Many students would hesitate to thwart a potential hookup; after all, nobody wants to be accused of “cock-blocking.” But consider: by intervening in a sketchy situation, you are not preventing good sex; you are preventing a possible sexual assault. The absolute worst that can happen if you intervene is that your friend will be angry. Contrast this with what might happen if you don’t: someone might be raped and traumatized for the rest of his or her life.

There are no bad ideas when trying to interrupt a possible sexual assault. You can talk to your friend and persuade him or her that it’s not a good idea, distract your friend with dance or conversation or pretend that you’re sick and you need your friend to take care of you.

If the worst happens and you or anyone you know is sexually assaulted or raped, it’s critical that you call a resource for help. The OSAPR, Harvard University Health Services, Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Tutors and the police are trained to handle sexual assault and rape cases and are available at all times.

That active risk reduction isn’t a tradition yet doesn’t mean that it can’t become one. Looking to enhance its student life, Boston College last year formed a Student Tradition Task Force to evaluate other colleges’ traditions and to devise a panoply of its own college rituals. If BC can create all of its traditions from scratch, surely we can—and must—add this most important one to our mix. By being aware and responsible at Harvard-Yale, we can begin creating a campus where safety is as venerable a tradition as any other.

Alan Z. Rozenshtein ’07 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. Asya Troychansky ’07 is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House. They are Peer Educators for the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.