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Forty-One Words

By Ross W.J. Rheingans-Yoo

I am disappointed in the Crimson.

In the wake of the recent release of survey data from last spring's sexual assault climate survey, the student newspaper has played a large role in shaping the sexual assault dialogue on campus, second perhaps only to the Office of the President. One might hope that the newspaper, as a major source of College-related news, would seek to raise the level of discussion surrounding these issues, rather than paint the same tired tropes.

In five news articles and one staff opinion on the survey and the immediate response by the community, the newspaper has published almost six thousand words on the subject, including numerous concerning statistics on the prevalence of sexual assault against female undergraduates. Very few students at this college, I expect, have not heard by now that thirty-one percent of senior undergraduate females at Harvard College have experienced some form of sexual assault. Indeed, this statistic has appeared prominently in all six articles published thus far by Crimson staff.

What's the corresponding statistic for male undergraduates?

The full 254-page task-force report might help you here, as the Crimson never reported it.

In their defense, it did not appear in former Provost Steven E. Hyman's letter to the President, either. It's also difficult to compare apples to apples, since the 31.2 percent Hyman references in his letter is computed using a slightly different methodology than the numbers reported in the task-force report (by excluding less-at-risk students enrolled in the Division of Continuing Education). Nevertheless, the full report claims that 8.4 percent of male undergraduate seniors—compared to 29.2 percent of female undergraduate seniors—reported experiencing some form of sexual assault. In aggregate, 22 percent of survivors are males.

The Crimson, in almost six thousand words of reporting, devotes exactly two sentences—totaling forty-one words—to these male survivors. To quote: "For LGBAQN undergraduate males, that rate of experiencing nonconsensual penetration and sexual touching was 10.9 percent in [the past year], compared to 2.7 percent among their straight male peers." And: "Among male undergraduates, 51 percent of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment." The whole thing feels rather like running a six-part article on undergraduate housing at Harvard and spending two sentences on the Quad.

There is nothing surrounding these issues that we should be talking about less than we currently are, but we need to be talking about this more. We need to keep talking about female survivors, and we need to start talking about male ones. We need to keep talking about alcohol, and we need to start talking about why queer students are at higher risk of assault. We need to keep talking about final clubs, and we need to start talking about trans experiences. I am focusing on male survivors here, in an effort to begin a conversation, but I firmly believe that our discussions around these issues need to become broader as well as going deeper.

This is not merely a matter of rhetorical correctness; silence has very real consequences. When male survivors are invisible, they face stigma against seeking help. Though male and female survivors of sexual assault seek out institutional resources at roughly the same (low) rates, male survivors are 60 percent more likely than female survivors to speak to no one—not even a friend—after an assault. (31.2 versus 19.3 percent for assault by force; 38.1 versus 23.3 percent for assault by incapacitation). And so male students make up more than 27 percent of silent survivors, in large part because we so rarely acknowledge that they exist at all.

Furthermore, ignoring male survivors presents sexual assault as solely a women's issue, implying (at least in the contemporary paradigm of social justice) that the proper place for men is one of allyship, rather than advocacy. When toxic gender norms saddle persons of all gender identities with distinct—yet invariably oppressive—pressures to remain silent, step back, and say nothing, we need to be opening spaces at the table for all those affected, while moving past inaccurate stereotypes of who the “usual” victims are. In this regard, the climate of discussion surrounding issues of sexual assault has a long way to go.

Perhaps the Crimson was merely following the example of Provost Hyman in emphasizing only the statistics on female survivors of assault. But the newspaper's institutional purpose is predicated upon the idea that student reporting is necessary to cover what the administration won't address. On an issue as important as this, the newswriters at 14 Plympton Street have little excuse for merely copying soundbites from the University administration. We need to start talking about more than just that.

Ross W.J. Rheingans-Yoo ’16, a computer science and mathematics concentrator, lives in Eliot House.

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