Sexual Assault's Forgotten Side

The Academia Nut

This time of year, the issue of sexual assault is in the forefront of the Harvard community’s consciousness. Due to the commendable efforts of the Coalition Against Sexual Violence (CASV) and many other individuals and student groups, we have seen and experienced the riveting testimony of Take Back the Night Week—testimony that indicates that sexual violence is an all too common, and yet all too underreported, plague in our midst.

This year, Take Back the Night Week has coincided with some other happenings that have a bearing on how the campus deals with sexual assault. On April 1, the Office of Civil Rights completed an inquiry it had been conducting into Harvard’s year-old—and quite controversial—plan to investigate only sexual assault complaints levied with “sufficient corroborating evidence” (the phraseology was later changed to “corroborating information” and then again to “supporting evidence”).

And just yesterday, the so-called Leaning Committee—named after its chair, Professor of International Health Jennifer Leaning—announced to the Faculty the results of its comprehensive yearlong inquiry into various issues relating to sexual assault at Harvard.

But in the midst of all this debate and discussion, there has been a pervasive silence about one important aspect of this issue—false accusations of sexual assault. So I am going to play devil’s advocate—no, scratch that, I am going to play the advocate of evenhandedness and due process—and discuss it here.

The Administrative Board’s corroborating evidence rule, and the nature of the debate that has transpired since its release, is a telling example of how the issue of false rape accusations has failed to enter adequately into the discussions concerning sexual assault policies.


At the time of its release there was some speculation that the new rule was indeed primarily intended to prevent false convictions. Harvey Silverglate, a Boston attorney, co-wrote with Crimson editor Joshua E. Gewolb ’01 an editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “It’s Time to End ‘He Said/She Said’ Justice.”

Silverglate and Gewolb argued that the new policy “is one of the best things to happen to a campus-judicial system in years.” They further claimed that the policy was the result of a recent Ad Board case in which a student had nearly been convicted—falsely—of sexual assault.

But if Silverglate’s claims are valid, and prevention of false convictions or deterrence of false allegations being levied was in fact a significant part of the Ad Board’s reasoning—as it well should have been—then the administration has been far too reticent in citing this justification.

As a result, critics of the Ad Board’s rule have been able to frame it as one that pits the rights of potential student victims versus the time and energy of the Ad Board. In this formulation, whether or not the corroboration legislation has validity is a no-brainer: it does not.

But a much more legitimate and balanced dialogue—regarding both the corroboration rule and also all other sexual assault related issues that are currently being discussed—should focus on considering not only the rights of potential sexual assault victims, but also the rights of potential victims of false accusations.

Implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the arguments against the corroboration rule is that focusing on protecting people from false accusations of sexual assault will deter actual victims from coming forward.

I am somewhat skeptical that there need be such a conflict of interests. But I am not at all skeptical that if or when there is, the interests of both sides—of both potential sets of victims—must be taken into account to an appropriate extent.

But the rights of falsely accused students have entered into the dialogue on sexual assault, if at all, largely as an afterthought and sideshow to other issues. One can speculate on the reasons why this side of the issue has received such little attention.

It may be because very little data has been gathered on rates of false accusations of sexual assault. There is no UHS survey that asks, “Have you ever been falsely accused of rape?”

It may be because, quite understandably, advocacy of the interests of the falsely accused are not part of the agenda of the prominent student groups involved in campus wide discussions of sexual assault. There is no CAFASA (Coalition Against False Accusations of Sexual Assault).

But whatever its etiology, the pandemic neglect of the interests of potential victims of false accusations must cease.

It’s time now to be very clear and up front about two facts: First, false accusations of rape do happen—and happen all too often. Second, victims of false accusations of such a heinous crime are just that—victims. As such, their rights and interests must be vigorously protected.

We need to remember that it’s not just the Ad Board’s time and energy that are at stake; it’s students’ lives and reputations.

Zachary S. Podolsky ’04 is a classics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.