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Victims Stay Silent on Sexual Assault

Part I in a IV Part Series

By Melody Y. Hu, Eric P. Newcomer, and Alice E. M. Underwood, Crimson Staff Writers

(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.


Students and administrators say that some of victims’ reluctance to formally report sexual assault cases stems from what they see as a lengthy and emotionally painful Ad Board process with an uncertain outcome.

Ryan, who took a leave of absence soon after the incident, says he felt uncomfortable with the prospect of being “cross-examined” by others about his ordeal.

“Do I want to relive this in front of strangers over and over again?” Ryan says he asked himself at the time.

While all victims of sexual assault are likely to suffer from crippling emotional aftershocks, Harvard students—with their countless academic and extracurricular activities—may face an added burden when deciding whether to bring a case to the Ad Board or law enforcement.

“I’ve had students tell me that they stop and ask themselves whether they have time to go through the process of reporting—with courses, activities, a job, and the rest of their lives,” says Susan B. Marine, director of the Harvard Women’s Center and former director of OSAPR.

And of those who do initially decide to go forward, many are dissuaded by other difficulties in the Ad Board process.

After speaking with his resident dean about his experience, Ryan met with Secretary of the Ad Board John “Jay” L. Ellison to discuss the process.

But Ryan says he did not feel comforted by Ellison and other officials’ continued emphasis on the uncertainty of the outcome of the Ad Board’s decision.

Ad Board rulings in sexual assault cases have long been hindered by inadequate evidence, according to Jennifer Leaning, a human rights professor and chair of the Leaning Committee, which led a 2003 review of how the Ad Board has handled sexual assault cases.

Cases in which the Ad Board is unable to hand down a conclusion due to insufficient evidence result in a “take no action” ruling.

The Leaning Committee recommended the use of an independent fact-finder to more comprehensively investigate cases.

The fact-finder was, in part, meant to help reduce the number of cases that ended with the inconclusive “take no action” ruling.

But even the expertise of the fact-finders cannot completely overcome the inherent difficulty of proving the occurrence of a sexual assault, which often has no outside witnesses.

“At the end of the day, there were two people in the room,” Rankin says. “If it’s just [their] word against the other person’s word...[for the student], it can feel like a roll of the dice.”

Ryan says the knowledge that his case would likely end in an inconclusive ruling was a deal breaker for him, so he did not bring his case to the Ad Board.

“It wasn’t something I could go through emotionally,” he says. “That kind of non-ruling might as well have been a victory for him.”


In addition to having apprehensions about the Ad Board process, many victims’ privacy concerns deter them from bringing cases forward, administrators and specialists say.

Many students worry about the number of people with whom they will have to share their painful and often traumatizing stories, Ellison says. Moreover, victims many not want Faculty members with whom they have an academic relationship to know the details of their highly personal ordeal.

In part because of the stigma surrounding sexual assault, victims often worry that the intimate details of their case may be revealed to their friends, classmates, or even worse—the entire campus.

“At Harvard, there’s constant pressure to be strong, independent, and autonomous, and to have that taken away from you and to have that stigma on you is why some don’t report [their cases],’ said OSAPR Student Alliance member T. Truc Doan ’10.

Rankin said that Harvard undergraduates in particular are very concerned about their private information becoming public.

“Harvard students are pretty protective of their information and confidentiality,” Rankin says. “Even if it’s a private hearing, people feel like all their peers will know through the rumor mill.”

While victims are concerned that information about their cases may spread by word of mouth, administrators and students say victims have also decided not to go forward with cases in the past because of worries that The Crimson will cover their stories.

In February 2009, The Crimson published a story on a sexual assault that took place in a River House, based partially on information published in the Harvard University Police Department police blotter.

According to Ellison, there was enough evidence concerning that particular incident that an Ad Board case would likely have resulted in a disciplinary sanction. But he says the student ultimately decided not to pursue a formal complaint for fear that the case would be covered by The Crimson.

Crimson President Peter F. Zhu ’11 says that it is not the newspaper’s general policy to print victims’ names or identifying information in cases of sexual assault.

Zhu said he could not address The Crimson’s coverage of the alleged incident in February 2009 because he was not the publication’s president at the time.

“If we have reported irresponsibly in the past, that’s regrettable,” says Zhu. “Any reporter should always be a human being first and foremost.”


Victims are often motivated to keep their stories private out of a sense of personal “responsibility” that can accompany a sexual assault, Rankin says.

For example, Doan says the victim may feel partially at fault for drinking too much, wearing provocative clothing, or going out alone at night.

“It can feel very hard something that will jeopardize [the assailant’s] future and their career at Harvard for an event that [the victim] feels is partially their fault,” Rankin says.

She adds that one of OSAPR’s goals is to counteract this self-blame.

The reluctance to affect the assailant’s future is exacerbated by the fact that the offender is someone the victim knows in approximately 90 percent of college sexual assault cases, according to statistics provided by OSAPR.

Doan says the assailant is often a close friend or romantic interest of the victim, which further complicates the victim-assailant paradigm.

The hesitancy to permanently affect the assailant’s future is more “acute” at Harvard, Ellison says, because Harvard students “see the degree as such a significant thing.”


As students cite many reasons for not sharing their stories, Rankin says that it is important not to push them to formally report their experiences if they are uncomfortable doing so, even if their cases would likely result in an Ad Board sanction of the offender.

“After something like this, the last thing you need is people kind of pushing you around and telling you how to handle it,” she says.

Though Ellison agrees that administrators and specialists should remain non-directive, he says it is “regrettable” that students miss the opportunity to obtain administrative support by not coming forward, noting that the dearth of reported cases relates to misconceptions about the Ad Board.

“The process will be difficult, but not as difficult and horrible as they expect it to be,” Ellison says, adding that Ad Board members do their best to make the process as painless as possible for the victim while still accomplishing their task.

“In my opinion, the process is as well-constructed, humane, and supportive as it can possibly be” given the circumstances, Marine says.

Despite the numerous obstacles victims face after being sexually assaulted, administrators say they strive to improve the process and to encourage more victims to come forward.

“I wish that every student that had an encounter that was non-consensual would at least come talk to me so they could make the decision informed [about the Ad Board],” Ellison says. “My hope would be the result of that would be we’d get more cases.”

—Staff writer Melody Y. Hu can be reached at

—Staff writer Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at

—Staff writer Alice E.M. Underwood can be reached at

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