Victims Stay Silent on Sexual Assault

Part I in a IV Part Series

(Part II, Part III, and Part IV of this story appeared on May 3, May 5, and May 7, 2010.)

Last spring, Ryan found himself outside late at night, alone with his boyfriend, who had just consumed nine shots of tequila.

The boyfriend tried to pressure him into performing sex acts Ryan said he was uncomfortable with, verbally and physically threatening him before finally punching Ryan in the face.

Ryan, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, ran back to his room, devastated. The two broke up a few days later and have never talked about the confrontation.


Over the next semester, Ryan took circuitous routes across campus, avoiding buildings and people that reminded him of the “emotionally terrorizing” incident. He experienced panic attacks and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

As the purple stickers on the stall doors of many public bathrooms on campus read, Ryan is not alone.

Untold numbers of sexual assault cases go unreported every year on college campuses across the nation, and Harvard is no exception. Students, administrators, and specialists cite an array of obstacles that prevent the majority of victims from taking any formal action against their assailants.

Some of these barriers, such as students’ negative perception of the Administrative Board, are relatively unique to Harvard College, but many more are seen as unfortunate features inherent to the nature of sexual assault and the social stigmas surrounding it.

Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Director Sarah A. Rankin says she suspects the actual incidence of sexual assaults at Harvard is likely similar to national rates. Between 20 and 25 percent of college women and 4 percent of college men report being sexually assaulted during their college years, according to national statistics collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Justice.

But not every student who experiences sexual assault reports it. According to statistics submitted in accordance with the Clery Act—a federal statute mandating that colleges disclose information about crime on their campuses—an average of 20 to 30 cases of sexual assault a year are reported to administrators, House officers, and specialists at OSAPR and University Health Services. This statistic does not include sexual assaults confided to friends, family, or anonymously to peer counselors.

Of the minority of students who decide to confide in University staff and administrators, even fewer choose to take their case to any disciplinary body—be it the Ad Board or the criminal justice system.

The Ad Board—the College’s primary disciplinary body—has heard only seven cases of sexual assault over the last five years, according to statistics provided by the College.

“The vast majority of the students that I talk to do not [formally] go to anybody,” says Rankin, adding that 90 percent of sexual assault cases go unreported.



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