Earlier this month, two Democrats—Pennsylvania’s Robert P. Casey, Jr. and Washington’s Patricia L. “Patty” Murray—introduced a provocative piece of legislation in the Senate. The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, an expansion of the 1990 Jeanne Clery Act, would require colleges to include all incidents of sexual violence that occur on their campuses in their annual crime reports, to offer sexual-violence protection programs, to define consent in sexual relationships, and to assist victims of sexual assault in changing living arrangements. Ultimately, the new legislation would provide a much-needed expansion of the Clery Act’s nearly twenty-year-old definition of sexual assault and increased support for victims on campuses.
As of now, almost 20 advocacy groups have voiced their support for the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, and we can only hope that it passes as quickly as possible. The frequency at which unrecorded incidents of sexual violence occur on campuses—even on our own—is deeply troubling, and universities like Harvard must be made to take stronger leads in fighting head-on such an epidemic. In our view, this new legislation would do exactly that: It would hold universities even more accountable for the safety of their own students and would work toward facilitating an appropriate environment on each campus.
This bill seems especially relevant given that the past year has shown us that even in the most seemingly progressive of intellectual environments, an atmosphere of sexual violence can still encroach on the culture of a university campus.
One of the things this past year has shown us is that even in the most seemingly progressive of intellectual environments, an atmosphere of sexual violence can still encroach on the culture of a university campus. This past October, for instance, members of Yale’s Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity made national headlines when they marched around campus chanting offensive slogans such as “no means yes, yes means anal” and “I’m a necrophiliac, I fuck dead women.” As a result, 16 current and former Yale students have rightly reacted not only against the fraternity but also against the university itself. Earlier this year, they filed a formal complaint against their own institution, saying that Yale’s “inadequate response” to the incident only facilitated a “hostile sexual environment on campus” and clearly violated Title IX, the federal gender-equity law.
As these students understand, only university administrations can ultimately effect change within their campuses in the long term. In the meantime, before this legislation is passed, we can only urge our own administration to consider the dangers of its own campus environment and to behave as though the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act were already in place. Although there are already numerous initiatives such as Take Back the Night active on our campus, none would be as strong as an increased University-wide commitment to public accountability.
Whether or not Harvard men have chanted offensive things in the Yard, it would be still be nearly impossible to find a Harvard student who did not have at least one anecdote of seeing an act that could have been classified sexual violence. Even though an adoption of the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act carries with it a significant potential for embarrassment in terms of public disclosure, Harvard—and other universities—should embrace the new responsibility it brings and join the nationwide battle against sexual violence on college campuses that this new legislation represents.