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A National Epidemic Hits Home

Sexual conduct survey is cause for action from the administration and students

By The Crimson Staff

On Monday, the results of a sexual conduct climate survey conducted at Harvard and 26 other universities last spring confirmed what many already suspected: Sexual assault is an epidemic on college campuses across the nation, and ours is no exception.

The survey, a significant step in understanding campus assault, finally adds numbers to the anecdotes we hear all too often. Twenty-three percent of undergraduate women at the universities surveyed reported sexual assault or forced sexual touching. Harvard’s own results were, in many cases, even more concerning.

Close to one in three female seniors at the College reported some form of unwanted sexual contact during her time at Harvard. More than half of that number, 16 percent, reported completed or attempted penetration. Put simply—and shockingly—one of every six women who received a diploma last May was raped. Queer students experienced these violations at even higher rates.

The survey also found low levels of confidence among students in the administration’s willingness to take action against a perpetrator of sexual assault. 46 percent of female undergraduates said they were “a little bit” or “not at all” confident that campus officials would take action against an offender. Reporting rates, perhaps consequently, were very low: Sixty-nine percent of female students at the College who experienced penetration by force and 80 percent of those who experienced penetration by incapacitation, did not report the incident.

These realities point to flaws in the way the administration informs students of its sexual assault policies and the endemic distrust students have in effective University action. Stories such as an op-ed two years ago that detailed one student’s struggle with reporting her assault at the College underscore the extent to which Harvard must improve its institutional response to sexual assault.

Also worrying, final clubs were home to at least 15 percent of incidents of attempted or completed penetration by force and incapacitation. David Laibson, the chair of the Department of Economics and of the survey design committee, called this number an “alarm bell.” He is right. This adds urgency to the call for College-sponsored social spaces on campus, where all undergraduates can unwind in an open and safe environment.

Thankfully, President Drew G. Faust’s decision to talk directly with the Harvard community Monday night, along with her frank admissions that the results were “anguishing” and that “we have a huge amount of work to do,” is an encouraging sign that the administration will take steps to counter the blight of sexual assault at Harvard.

But demanding institutional action is far from a comprehensive response to the survey’s distressing data. The onus also lies with us, as individual students, to work toward stamping out sexual assault on campus. For one thing, it’s impossible to ignore that 64 percent of victims of unwanted sexual contact by force and 89 percent of victims of unwanted sexual contact involving intoxication reported alcohol use. This lends credence to what we all know: Consuming large amounts of alcohol in spaces full of strangers can increase the likelihood of sexual assault. Assault, of course, is never justified. Still, the correlation does show that by drinking more responsibly and encouraging our friends to do the same, we can mitigate its risk.

Just as important, 54 percent of students who reported seeing “someone acting in a sexually violent or harassing way” did nothing, while nearly 80 percent who saw “a drunken person heading for a sexual encounter” also did not take any action. Increased bystander intervention training would alleviate some of this issue. Yet it is also each of our jobs to look out for one another in social situations, on and off campus—to make sure none of our friends gets assaulted, or enables assault.

In his presentation Monday night, Laibson mentioned that he has spent half his life at Harvard. Most of the time, he has seen a place where students and faculty work and learn together, united by the University’s commitment to meaning and to truth. But this survey, Laibson said, has shown him “another Harvard, a sad and painful place.” The Harvard we experience is, in large part, up to us.

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