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.

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

This isn’t the first time a concerned group of students has gained momentum in urging Harvard to consider the way it addresses sexual assault.

In the spring of 2002, over 200 students participated in a rally, advocating a major reevaluation of Harvard’s stance toward education, prevention, and response to sexual assault. The demonstration was part of an outpouring of faculty and student concern about sexual assault that ultimately led to the establishment of some of Harvard’s most significant resources.

“There was a pretty strong group of women, and some men, that was concerned about the relative space that seemed to be allowed for very disrespectful speech on gender issues,” says Jennifer Leaning, the Harvard School of Public Health professor who chaired the “Leaning Committee,” a group formed in response to this outcry.

Students and faculty were also concerned, Leaning says, about “the lack of very strong policy commitments and statements on the part of the University to uphold issues like dignity and respect and affirmative consent.”

The committee issued a report with extensive recommendations for how the College could improve its practices regarding sexual assault—including outlining the establishment of OSAPR.

Some of the Committee’s other recommendations, such as formal sexual assault education for sophomores as part of their transition to House life, were never made permanent. Others, such as an educational emphasis on affirmative consent, were never implemented into policy. That’s something Our Harvard Can Do Better leaders want to change.

Changing the Culture

Change, however, doesn’t come from policy alone: Our Harvard Can Do Better leaders stress the need for a cultural shift as well. “I don’t think you can do policy without doing culture shift, and I don’t think you can do culture shift without doing policy. They have to be intertwined, in tandem,” Sim says.

Khatod agrees. “Policy sets the tone for the cultural conversation.”

The conversation starts freshman year with Sex Signals, a mandatory presentation about sexual assault that some find lacking. Building off of the work of the Leaning Committee, movement organizers argue for increased sexual assault education that extends beyond the first year. They also stress the need for programs that are more inclusive of students of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

“There should be comprehensive and inclusive sex education appropriate for our campus every year for every student” says Sim.

For Reis-Denis, this is a conversation that needs to continue beyond Freshman Orientation. “I want this to become a topic of conversation in the dining halls and among students,” she says.

The Undergraduate Council has put its full support behind the Our Harvard Can Do Better campaign, adopting the campaign’s advocacy of an affirmative consent policy as its own. “This past year there’s definitely been a push for more student engagement,” says Danny P. Bicknell ’13, the current UC president. Besides running the sexual assault policies and practices referendum, Bicknell says, the UC has adopted the referendum as the official Council stance.

Although any cultural change requires a sustained effort, Reis-Denis remains confident in the movement’s mission. “A culture-shift is something that takes years to happen. But to spark that, and to get some sort of institutional framework going to support it—that would be a really big accomplishment,” she says.