LETTERS: The Signals of Sexual Assault

RE: “The Wrong Signals” (Caleb L. Weatherl, op-ed, Sept 11)

“Rape isn’t funny,” Caleb L. Weatherl states in his article, and that “the wrong signals” is one that everyone can agree upon. Instead, rape can be terrifying, painful, and prevalent, which makes it a difficult topic to discuss. Therefore, issues of consent tend to be avoided, distorted, or completely silenced. So if the only introduction to the issue of sexual assault freshmen received was “Sex Signals,” then perhaps some could say that rape was not treated with enough “gravity,” that there were not enough facts, that it was not Harvard-centric enough, and that there was not enough time for discussion. But “Sex Signals” is only a beginning. By turning gender clichés on their heads and mocking sexual misconceptions, “Sex Signals” eases freshmen into thinking about the way we are socialized and how that affects our personal relationships. Furthermore, it is the focus of a mandatory workshop facilitated by trained members of the OSAPR Student Alliance.

Weatherl noted in his article many startling statistics about sexual violence on college campuses and attempted to offer insight by explaining that a majority of Harvard students have sex with zero or one partners. We are happy that Weatherl knows his facts, but he may be surprised to know that freshmen do too, because they learn these statistics and more only minutes into their workshops. Facilitators share these facts to acknowledge that there is a broad spectrum of sexual experience at Harvard, but issues of consent affect everyone. Unfortunately, simply because a student does not want to have sex does not mean that he or she will not be sexually assaulted.

Weatherl also noted that there was not enough discussion about rape prevention and then advocated setting boundaries with your sexual partner “so that lines don’t get blurred in the heat of the moment.” We are uncomfortable with this suggestion, though, because rape happens despite setting boundaries. Rape, by its very definition, happens when one person is not respecting the other person’s boundaries. While we can all agree that communicating with a sexual partner is helpful this idea only reflects risk-reduction. The only person who can actually prevent a rape is the perpetrator.

Rapes portrayed in the media are committed in dark alleys by men in skimasks holding guns. At Harvard, sexual assaults are rarely committed by a stranger and often occur in a dorm room, but nobody wants to think that their friends, blockmates, or acquaintances could be rapists. “Sex Signals” shows us that sometimes rapists take Gov 20 or wear DHAs.

Shannon Cleary and Truc Doan

Cambridge, Mass.

September 11, 2009

Shannon Cleary and Truc Doan are student alliance members of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response at Harvard.