Scribbles on the Door

The first and second cubicle doors of the women’s toilets on the fourth floor of Lamont Library used to bear several anonymous scrawlings, including “I was raped in Greenough,” “my boyfriend rapes me,” and “my proctor raped me,” followed by “mine did too.”

When I revisited those bathrooms this year, Harvard’s maintenance services had washed away almost everything, and the doors were adorned with brightly colored posters that advertised an assortment of Peer Counseling groups related to sexual issues: Room 13 (“I’m really lonely”), Response (“My boyfriend hits me”), and Contact (“If my parents find out that I’m a lesbian, they’ll disown me”). The messages on these doors were desperate cries for help and, still, somebody was instructed to scrub at them until they were no longer visible.

The basic problem with Harvard’s student support network is that there are too many groups and that, partially as a result, students do not use them as often as they should. The Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR) should amalgamate all of the various support groups on campus, forming one centralized support network with liaisons in freshman dorms, upperclassman Houses, academic departments, and perhaps also major extracurricular groups such as sports teams. So that students can find somebody that they feel comfortable with, advisors for this program must reflect the diversity of the Harvard community.

Currently, the organization Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment (SASH) comes closest to providing this service. SASH advisors are a diverse group of dedicated workers, but they need more campus presence. Harvard sports a plethora of other resources which are also advertised on OSAPR’s website, but so much choice can be overwhelming and confusing to students who seek help. Most students are unsure of where groups are based or what the differences between them are.

For freshmen, designated SASH advisors are usually entryway proctors, who are often also their proctees’ academic advisors. Although well-intended, these overlaps pose potential problems. If the victim feels uncomfortable talking to that proctor for any reason, he or she loses several safety nets at once.

Most students wouldn’t know who the best person to contact in this situation is and not enough people are aware that 5 Linden Street is the Bureau of Study Council, which provides free counseling to any Harvard affiliate who enters. Given the current decentralized state of resources, it is easy for students to “fall through the cracks” or give up because it is “just too much hassle” if a proctor or tutor does not guide them to the correct group—and that’s assuming the student goes to a proctor or tutor in the first place.

Only centralization and raising student awareness can prevent students from suffering this fate. It is not enough that the OSAPR is open to phone calls 24 hours a day. It needs to reach out more to students instead of assuming that people will come to it. Specifically, OSAPR must campaign to influence peer group leaders, not just victims and their sympathizers, and make them recognize that assault and harassment are serious and unacceptable problems on campus.

Such a change needs to start with advertising that is shocking enough for students to talk about it. Mary Anne Franks, a SASH advisor in Eliot House also suggests an “information table in dining halls with statistics” so that students see information on harassment, assault, the law, Harvard’s policies on them, and all the support resources that are available on a daily basis.

Regardless, sexual assault and harassment are difficult to confront, so most students need more indirect ways to become connected with support programs. Sponsored food gatherings or parties, for example, would be much more widely attended—and less intimidating—than the current “education presentations” and discussions, which are largely only attractive to people who are already interested in the topics for personal or human rights reasons.

Even in spite of our best efforts to provide campus safety, sexual assault will likely continue to be a concern, and therefore it is imperative that we optimize the support system for victims. Harvard’s support systems need to be more widely known, up-to-date, and easy to use for anyone who even suspects that he or she has been harassed or assaulted—or not. If things don’t change, scribbles will continue to be consigned to the backs of cubicle doors, and perhaps the same janitor will be told to clean them off again.

Emily C. Ingram ’08, a Crimson editor, is an English concentrator in Eliot House.