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New Office Combats Assault

Programs aim to change students’ ideas about rape

By Nalina Sombuntham, Crimson Staff Writer

On the eighth floor of the Holyoke Center, a makeshift, blue and white sign quietly announces the arrival of the “Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.”

The temporary location of the office—squeezed in two bare rooms around the corner from each other—and the 8.5 by 11 inch sign are reminders of the newness of the office and its programs.

This fall, the newly-created University office has initiated a diligent campaign targeted at first-years to change the way—and how carefully—they consider rape.

Starting with “Sex Signals,” a skit performed by professional actors during Freshman Week, and now through workshops in first-year entryways, the office’s three-person team has thrown itself into the midst of the Class of 2007, trying to demystify the sometimes fuzzy relationship between sex, alcohol and rape.

Established last spring on the recommendation of the Committee to Address Sexual Assault at Harvard, the office is the outgrowth of over a year and a half of student-led agitation for the College to increase its focus on the issue.

As staff members prepares to settle into their permanent location on the Holyoke Center’s third floor, Director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Susan B. Marine says she hopes the 24-hour support services and campus educational programs that the office is providing will become an important fixture on campus.

“Our main goal is to be visible, help students talk about this issue and help them get their questions answered,” says Marine.

The First-Year Front

The focus of much of the outreach so far has been improving sexual assault prevention education for first-years, who were required to attend “Sex Signals,” along with Freshman Week’s usual Safe Community Meeting, and answer the first of four surveys about sexual assault.

A grant from the Department of Education funds this four-stage evaluation, which was also sent out last week to House open lists for sophomores to complete.

The office will use the surveys to compare the attitudes of first-years who go through the revamped educational program to sophomores who did not.

Marine, education specialist Heather Wilson, prevention specialist Juan Carlos Areán and two graduate students are working on the office’s current big project: meeting with each first-year entryway for a workshop on sexual assault.

Wilson says the office has been conducting up to seven workshops a week, talking to first-years about “sexual assault, communicating, dating violence and the link between alcohol and sexuality—trying to get them to really think about the choices that they make and how that could affect the future both for the positive and negative.”

In the first-year workshops, a series of scenarios are presented for discussion, including what Wilson says are “typical hookup scenarios.”

One scenario builds off the “Sex Signals” presentation, reintroducing that presentation’s main characters, Matt and Joelle. Other scenarios involve two inebriated students who meet at a party and return home together, a long-term same-sex relationship and a study date. In some of the workshops, the entryway is divided by gender. In the single-sex workshops, Areán, who works at the office part-time, deals with the first-year males.

Wilson says the workshops have sparked “fascinating” conversations and that student response has been mostly positive.

“[First-years] are helping each other about this topic and that’s the best way to learn,” Wilson says. “There are amazing people in every group who are helping to shape their classmates.”

“It’s a really tough topic to discuss and we just hope that when people leave the workshop that’s not the last discussion they have about this topic,” she says.

But not all of the outreaches have gone smoothly, according to Wilson and some students.

At a joint workshop for Lionel A and B entryways, Morgan C. Wimberley ’07 says the meeting began on a hostile note when some of her peers brought their homework and Wilson asked them to put it away.

“She just came across a little bit forward and blunt and so once that happened it was sort of the reaction of the students to be that way back,” she says.

Wimberley says that although the mood improved as the workshop proceeded, the initial tension stifled discussion.

“I personally thought it was a waste of time,” Wimberley says. “Some of the things we talked about helped me out a lot, like knowing the actual facts, the actual wording of laws and guidelines so I can see how rape is defined.”

Lauren A. Broughton ’07, another participant in the workshop, says she and some of her entrywaymates discussed the workshop with their proctor and noted there was still confusion afterwards over what is considered rape.

She says while the workshop taught them Harvard’s definition of rape, she still is unclear on what state law is.

“We thought the meeting didn’t really answer all of our questions,” Broughton says. “We left almost more confused than when we got in.”

Broughton and Wimberley both say that filling out the second survey of the four-stage evaluation in a group setting might have skewed responses.

“I don’t know if everyone would be as honest as they would have been if they filled them out in the privacy of their own rooms,” says Broughton.

Wilson says that the experience of Lionel A and B was an anomaly and that all other entryways have enjoyed the outreach.

“There were people [at the Lionel A and B workshop] that didn’t want to be there and what I said to them was, ‘You might not realize this right now, but your attitude toward this workshop might be affecting people around you. Your neighbor might be a survivor and you might be alienating them,’” she says.

The office plans to finish all the first-year workshops by Thanksgiving.

Canvassing the Campus

Although the office has been more visible in the Yard up until now, Marine says she, Wilson and Areán will expand their efforts to upperclass students and student groups next semester.

“Once we are done with the freshmen, we want to focus on the upperclassmen, sports teams and just about everyone else we can,” Wilson says.

Wilson says she also wants to work with rape survivors, have dating workshops and work with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender groups. She says she will also be meeting with tutors to sponsor an event in each House.

Areán, whose role in the office primarily involves engaging men in the issues surrounding sexual assault, will be trying to get men to realize their role in prevention.

“I think the greatest challenge is that many men do not see this as a man’s problem. They see this as a woman’s problem,” says Arean.

Last month, Marine, Wilson and Areán met with members of the Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Violence for the first time.

The meeting highlighted some of the difficulties the office may have in addressing an issue as complex as sexual assault.

During the discussion, Wilson drew a line between drunken sex and sex when one of the students may be incapacitated, which she says is rape.

“There’s a misconception at Harvard if you have sex when alcohol is in the bloodstream than it is always rape and that is not true,” says Wilson. “However, if a person is intoxicated to a point of incapacitation then it is sexual assault.”

It was Coalition’s outcry in spring 2002 that drew national attention to Harvard’s sexual assault policy and led to the formation of the Faculty committee to examine the issue. Members of Coalition closely monitored the committee’s evaluation of the College’s sexual assault prevention resources and are now waiting to see the impact of the office.

“I think it’s a phenomenal step up from previous years to have so much focused education, and I think we need to sit back and wait and see how the education is having an impact on first-years,” says Coalition member Sarah B. Levit-Shore ’04.

—Staff writer Nalina Sombuntham can be reached at sombunth@fas.harvard.edu.

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