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We Can Do Better

By Leslie B. Arffa

Like nearly everyone else on Harvard’s campus, I read the recently published op-ed “Dear Harvard: You Win” with a mixture of sadness and dismay. One of our own found herself living in the same House as someone who allegedly sexually assaulted her. The Harvard administration displayed seemingly brazen indifference to her plight, and continues to employ a staggeringly backward policy relating to sexual assault.

The outpouring of support for the article’s anonymous writer has sparked a long-needed discussion about Harvard’s sexual assault policies. It’s a policy I have also criticized for placing too much of the burden of proof on the victim and for its narrow definition of what constitutes sexual assault.

I hope, though, that in addition to asking what Harvard can do better we ask ourselves the far more difficult question of what we can do better.

In some ways, it’s easy for us to criticize the administration—to cast aspersions on resident deans and House masters who can’t defend themselves because many of the critiques against them emanate from anonymous sources. But the backlash of anger against the University has actually done some harm to those organizations that do the most good in aiding victims of sexual assault. Movements like “Our Harvard Can Do Better,” whose criticisms contributed to the departure of former Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response director Sarah A. Rankin, misguidedly place blame on those who have, in fact, prioritized supporting the victims of sexual assault above all else.

A discussion about sexual assault is not an abstract one within the realm of hypotheticals for me. More than one of my close friends has been the victim of sexual assault at Harvard. Whether or not the administration would have helped my friends pursue cases against their assailants can never be known for certain because, for a variety of reasons, they chose not to bring their cases forward.

But I can say that University-provided services such as OSAPR proved to literally be lifesaving sources of support for them.

Many aspects of a University’s official policies on sexual assault react to a crime that has already taken place. It would be far better to think about ways to prevent such events from happening at all. But doing so requires something much larger and more difficult—it would require examining and questioning our own places in a culture in which sexual assault is startlingly prevalent.

As students, how much do we actively do to combat sexual assault? I know that I personally have done very little. Doing so might involve questioning a social system in which girls line up outside male-controlled spaces on Mount Auburn. It could force me to ask my close friend why he belongs to a social club in which another of my friends was sexually assaulted. I would have to admit that I should be doing a much better job of watching out for my friends when I know they’ve had too much to drink.

As a student body, we would have to face the fact that our aggressive pre-gaming practices often place us in dangerous situations. We might also intervene more often when we see something happening right in front of us that just doesn’t look quite right.

Certainly, there’s no easy solution to the problem of sexual assault, but it should not be forgotten that the truly horrible person in any case of sexual assault is not someone’s resident dean or House master, but the person who sexually assaulted him or her in the first place.

On the one hand, changing the University’s policy may contribute to halting sexual assault if it becomes more obvious and clear that those who commit such an act will be punished. In a campus-wide email on Tuesday, Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde reminded the student body that Harvard is in the process of updating its policies, and the recent op-ed can only help spur that change.

But ultimately, changing the official Harvard policy toward sexual assault can only do so much towards addressing the entire scope of the issue. If and when that policy change is finally announced it will only represent one hard-fought battle in a much larger war.

As a senior I have heard about and seen the results of many instances of sexual assault. I have been a part of my fair share of conversations during which other students have questioned whether an alleged instance of sexual assault counted as “legitimate.” I have spent more nights than one considering whether groups to which I belong tacitly accept a culture in which sexual assault happens regularly. I have to wonder if the bigger fight, the larger one, has even begun.

Leslie B. Arffa ’14, a former Crimson Magazine Chair, is a history concentrator in Adams House.

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