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Retired Police Chief Argues for Discussing Sexual Assault


Retired Burlington, Vt., police chief Thomas R. Tremblay advocated for having “courageous” community conversations about preventing sexual assault and effective bystander intervention in a lecture on Tuesday organized by Harvard’s Title IX Office.

“It’s hard to talk about sex. It’s hard to talk about sexual assault,” Tremblay said. “It takes courage to have a conversation.”

Tremblay argued for the importance of changing the societal mentality surrounding sexual assault, and specifically said men and women must work together to raise sexual assault awareness.

“We need more young men. We need young men and young women to stand together,” he said. “When men and women stand together and share a message around prevention and awareness, that has a lot of power.”

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Tremblay also described how alcohol is used as both a weapon and a shield by rapists. Through talking to perpetrators of sexual assault, Tremblay said, he found that they often did not use a knife or a gun to commit assault because those provided clear examples of evidence. But alcohol, he said, provided them an excuse or cover-up method.

Still, Tremblay said alcohol itself is not the root of the problem, even if it is deeply entangled with the prevalence of sexual assault.

“Alcohol doesn’t cause sexual assault,” he said. “Choices cause sexual assault.”

Speaking to Harvard specifically, Tremblay praised administrators’ responses to the results of the University’s sexual conduct climate survey, which were released in September, as leading the way in highlighting sexual assault as a prevalent issue. He referenced the response of University President Drew G. Faust, who described sexual assault as “our problem” in an email following the survey’s release, as a step in the right direction.

Tremblay closed with a call to action, asking audience members to be leaders in sexual assault awareness and prevention by standing up when something seems wrong. That is the only way to make a true difference, he argued.

“Leaders have courageous conversations. Leaders take action. And each one of you in this room have an opportunity to be a leader,” Tremblay said.

Tremblay’s viewpoints on sexual assault resonated with members of the audience. Several administrators attended, including Mather House dean Luke Leafgren and Carol K. Bates, the associate dean of faculty affairs at Harvard Medical School and a Title IX coordinator for faculty there.

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