Opening Pandora's Box

Women Battling Issues Old,...and New

In the 15 years since Harvard and Radcliffe introduced coeducational living to the 12 residential houses, the two colleges have had to respond to a host of women's problems, some new, some as old as time.

In the last six years, Harvard has had to cope with an increase in undergraduate complaints of sexual harassment, which only recently has been recognized, by Harvard and the world, as misconduct subject to official censure. In the last five years, Harvard has created at least three committees, one within the College administration, one for the College's disciplinary board and one for an academic department, whose purpose is to raise awareness of and work to combat sexual harassment on campus.

At the same time, Radcliffe has poured out more and more funding for female-oriented peer counseling services, which have sprouted up in the last three years to advise undergraduates in areas including rape, eating problems, and contraception and pregnancy.


Several recent studies have estimated that one out of every 10 college women is raped each year. The majority--some estimate as many as 80 percent--of those women know the rapist, but, confused or upset, they do not report the attack to the police or tell other people about the incident, counselors say.


In recent years, as women have fought vehemently against the myth that they secretly desire to be sexually dominated, psychologists and law enforcement authorities have begun to recognize so-called "date rape" as a reprehensible form of abuse.

A woman goes out on a date with a man she knows well or only casually, and against her will, they have sex. She did not say 'no' loudly enough, or she yelled 'no,' or she wasn't really asked, or she was too scared to say 'no.' She was, as experts are beginning to say, date raped.

Yet at Harvard, as elsewhere, women are frequently unsure when the boundary has been crossed. The transition from flirtation to harassment to date rape is not clearly defined, counselors say, so a victim may be left with only a vague sense of unease, humiliation or abuse.

Because many cases are never reported to authorities, Harvard experts agree that it is difficult to find out how many women have been victims of date rape.

In a 1983 survey of 2000 undergraduates, .3 percent of the 1000 women polled said they had received unwanted pressure for sexual favors, and 10 percent said they had been subjected to unwanted pressure for dates. The study, conducted by two undergraduates through the office of the dean for undergraduate education, provided the first clues to the extent of peer harassment at Harvard, particularly among undergraduates.

In the spring of 1983, a peer counseling group named Response was formed to provide support for victims of sexual abuse. Counselors, who field between one and two calls per night, agree that the majority of the attackers described by callers are not Harvard students.

But, they say, in cases where a Harvard student is accused of date rape, the College's Administrative Board will do little if there is any hint of drug or alcohol use by either individual. The College has, however, formed an ad hoc committee within its Administrative Board to hear cases relating to peer harassment. The problem, says Ellen Porter Honnet, assistant dean of the College for coeducation, is that "two students with different interpretations of the same series of events make it very difficult to determine blame, even though one's sympathies lie with the victim."

Counselors at Response suggest that at coeducational schools such as Harvard, more relationship problems lead to a higher incidence of date rape. Honnet, however, says that a coed school might "have an advantage in that men and women living together as friends have greater potential for understanding and communication."

Next year, at the urging of the College's four-member Coordinating Committee on Sexual Harassment, peer counselors will hold voluntary workshops during freshman week to increase awareness of date rape. In an independent effort, two Harvard juniors this year collected 1000 signatures urging that such workshops not only be held, but be mandatory for all incoming undergraduates.

The committee "is trying to present the issue [of sexual harassment] without men feeling victimized and women embattled. We are teaching men to be more sensitive and women more assertive," says Honnet.