A Growing Movement: Students Aim to Change Culture and Policies Surrounding Sexual Assault on Campus

3,066. That’s the number of students—85 percent of those who voted in the latest UC election—who agreed with the UC referendum asserting that Harvard should reexamine its sexual assault practices and policies.

It’s a number that has caught the administration’s attention: In response to student concern, the Office of Student Life, under Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds, has recently convened a Sexual Assault Resources working group. The working group will “assess accessibility, transparency, and gaps in services,” writes Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response director Sarah A. Rankin. It is a response to at least a semester’s worth of actively voiced student concern.

Policies and Practices

The referendum that sparked this working group stems from a movement known as Our Harvard Can Do Better. The movement’s organizers seeks to galvanize students across the Harvard population behind a shared concern regarding sexual assault practices and policies. Our Harvard Can Do Better’s platform points to specific ways that Harvard can improve its framework for addressing sexual assault. “

A main point of us doing this is to make clear to everyone—both participants in the sexual act—what exactly is defined as consent,” says Pearl Bhatnagar ’14, who, along with Kate Sim ’14, is a lead organizer in the movement.

Currently, the Handbook for Students expresses a negative consent policy, defining rape as occurring when one party expresses unwillingness for sex. Our Harvard Can Do Better organizers, in contrast, are campaigning for the adoption of an affirmative consent policy, meaning that both parties need to actively indicate willingness for sexual activity.

According to those involved in the movement, the official policy of negative consent is inconsistent with educational practices.  “Practices focus on affirmative consent, while policy remains one of negative consent, which creates a problem,” says Sahil A. Khatod ’14, a UC representative involved in Our Harvard Can Do Better.

In addition, campaign organizers want the College to reexamine the wording of its policy regarding “mental incapacitation,” important in alcohol- and drug-related incidents. “There isn’t very specific language on mental incapacitation,” says Khatod.

Additionally, Administrative Board policy for peer disputes, including sexual assault, currently requires that the Ad Board be “sufficiently persuaded” that an assault took place for disciplinary action to be taken against the accused student, in contrast with the “preponderance of evidence” required by some of Harvard’s peer institutions. “Talking to administrators, we’re unclear as to where this difference lies between ‘preponderance of evidence’ and ‘sufficiently persuaded,’” says Bhatnagar. Our Harvard Can Do Better seeks to better understand the policy’s language to ensure that the burden of proof does not disproportionately fall on the victim.

Other points include increased administrative transparency in how sexual assault cases are handled and increased funding and staffing for OSAPR.

Underpinning it all, campaign leaders stress a renewed commitment to prevention education. These educational efforts are vital, say Our Harvard Can Do Better organizers, as sexual assault is a more pervasive issue than many might think.

“I truly think that people don’t understand the extent to which rape culture and sexual assault pervade our campus,” says Leah Reis-Denis ’13, who is involved with the campaign.

Indeed, a commonly cited U.S. Department of Justice report estimates that a fifth to a quarter of college-aged women are likely to be victims of sexual assault in the course of their college careers, and that a vast majority of these assaults go unreported to the police.

In light of the frequency of sexual assault, Sim emphasizes the importance of awareness. “This isn’t just a WGS issue; it’s an everybody issue,” she says.

Building on the Past