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Columns

Clothesline Insufficient

The ’Intyre Story

By Joyce K. Mcintyre

The Clothesline Project was the most visible aspect of Take Back the Night (TBTN) week, seven days dedicated to promoting campus awareness about sexual violence that ended this past Saturday. Smack in the center of Tercentary Theater, T-shirts painted by victims of sexual assault hung in the spring sun; every student who went to class or section walked by that display whether he or she attended other TBTN events or not.

The exhibit was a powerful memorial to the profound pain victims of sexual assault experience. A printed sign at the display said the goal of the project was to provide a forum for “survivors of a crime that is all too often kept silent to LET THEIR VOICES BE HEARD,” and certainly the exhibit met this objective when a victim admitted on a shirt, “I was raped by a group of boys.”

Despite its success in portraying the emotional and physical repercussions of sexual assault—and I write this as a self-described feminist and as someone who has consistently tried to build women up at this University, not tear them down—the Clothesline Project fell short in that it did not adequately empower potential victims of sexual assault to seek justice for themselves, nor did it effectively advocate for the reduction of sexual assault at Harvard.

The part of TBTN that almost every student saw should not only be a forum for victims’ expression, but should also be proactive and direct in seeking an end to sexual assault at Harvard.

The clothesline relied on the shock factor of what was written on the T-shirts to make viewers aware that sexual assault happens—even to people at Harvard—and presumably to discourage potential attackers from raping.

But between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. on a recent weekday morning—prime going to and coming from class time—not a single person interviewed at the clothesline said the project would likely deter potential perpetrators from committing an act of sexual assault. Not one female, not one male.

The Clothesline Project cannot rely solely on the power of emotion to end sexual assault at Harvard. The most visible part of TBTN should empower potential victims with information about how to get justice if they are assaulted and tell potential attackers how they will be punished if they commit assault or rape.

In a recent survey of the Harvard undergraduate population conducted by The Crimson, more than 70 percent of the 408 students polled said they have a poor understanding of how the Ad Board handles sexual assault; just over a quarter said they would not know whom to call if they were sexually assaulted.

That information should be readily available to every student who walks by the clothesline during TBTN week.

Proactive responses against assault should be at least as visible and accessible as the victims’ stories that hung on the clothesline.

When combating sexual violence, information is as important as eliciting a visceral response from viewers. The most public part of TBTN should provide students with the legal definition of sexual assault, how and where to get a rape kit done, who to contact if you are assaulted as well as information about the length of prison terms for convicted rapists in Massachusetts and how many Commonwealth college students have gone to jail in the last 10 years for committing sexual assault.

Alongside expressions of victims’ grief should be stories of those who successfully prosecuted their attacker.

What tangible information there was at the clothesline this past week was hidden in a small cardboard box on the ground.

The U.S. criminal justice system, as well as the Harvard College Administrative Board, do not always handle cases of sexual assault perfectly. But all victims of sexual assault deserve justice—every attacker should go to jail. Only when victims, male and female, continually demand justice from these bodies will they receive it.

The Clothesline Project should emphasize that victims of assault need not be silent—nor is a T-shirt flapping in the breeze their only option. Victims must know that they do have the right to defend themselves. Sex without consent is never right, so TBTN should be telling all of us what to do if we are the victims of assault and what we can do to send the son of a bitch to jail.

Joyce K. McIntyre ’02 is a history and literature concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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