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Op Eds

Sexual Assault IS Our Fault

By Pearl Bhatnagar and Kate J. Sim

Earlier this month, 200 women, under the banner of #HearHerHarvard, rallied in the Yard to protest Dean Khurana’s sanction of unrecognized single-gender organizations. Chanting “sexual assault is not our fault,” they seemed to argue that this sanction unfairly penalizes women for a problem predominantly perpetrated by men.

This sentiment baffled us: it demonstrated #HearHerHarvard’s misguided understanding of rape culture. As founders of the Our Harvard Can Do Better campaign, we write to clarify how rape culture operates and how it complicates the responsibility of community members. We are not calling all women in sororities and female final clubs perpetrators. We also acknowledge that certain survivors have found support within these organizations, while others have not. Rather, we call into question the wider Harvard community’s role in perpetuating a toxic campus culture in which one in three women is sexually assaulted.

When we first started organizing in 2012, it had seemed that sexual assault was no one’s responsibility. In private, students were aware of unsafe spaces and knew of a friend or a friend of a friend who had been assaulted. Publicly, obligatory consent awareness workshops gave a cursory nod to a campus-wide problem that prevailed, but was systematically silenced.

This silence was telling. It reflected students and administrators' willful erasure of the prevalence of sexual violence. To better understand this culture of erasure, we spent six months meeting with representatives from over 30 sociocultural student organizations. Survivors from various communities expressed their fatigue at how no one knew what to do: Administrators were clueless about Title IX procedures, such as no-contact orders, academic extensions, and residential accommodations. Survivors who filed formal complaints described the process as obscure and found the burden of proof stacked against them. Students from marginalized communities shared how administrators and mental health providers lacked cultural awareness of their identities. Most instructively, students objected to the lack of inclusive, welcoming environments on campus and pointed to the exclusive social spaces run by men, like final clubs and fraternities, as especially unsafe.

These conversations informed us of the complexity of rape culture. At the individual level, intimate partners enact violence. #HearHerHarvard neglected to see beyond this level. At the institutional level, Harvard fails to comply with Title IX standards by making survivors’ rights inaccessible and allowing rapists to graduate every year without accountability. At the community level, students create cultural norms that enforce gender binaries, maintain the dominance of male spaces, and erase survivors’ experiences. Gender-based violence can cease only when the individual, institutional, and community levels are addressed in tandem. We had a daunting task before us but we persisted because we imagined a better Harvard--one that is safer and more just.

After countless unsuccessful meetings where task forces, deans, and administrators refused to take responsibility, we filed a Title IX complaint in the spring of 2014. Since then, Harvard has begun to undertake steps at the institutional level by amending its policies and procedures: the administration has appointed Title IX coordinators, required mandatory sexual assault training for House staff, and diversified the staff members at the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. However, the administration’s efforts could not get to the root of rape culture until it tackled our campus’ normalization of predatory behavior. We thus welcomed Dean Khurana’s sanction as an institutional action which aimed to disrupt these cultural norms.

#HearHerHarvard, however, resisted the sanction as an unjust scapegoating of women’s spaces, citing that they are not at fault for sexual assault. Women in unrecognized single-gender organizations may not all perpetrate the assaults, but they facilitate the predatory social dynamics that enable violence to occur. The dominance of male clubs and fraternities relies on continued buy-in from female clubs, sororities, and the greater campus community. Standing in active allyship means thinking beyond one’s own experience with these organizations to understand their role in creating and maintaining unequal and unsafe norms. With the sanction, the administration is finally willing to take action after long denying the intertwined history of single-gender organizations and gender-based violence. But are students?

Sexual assault is our fault. Rape culture functions on individual, institutional, and cultural levels; thus, responsibility as an ally requires practice that addresses all three. On an individual level, we need to believe survivors’ stories and call out the abusers in our lives. On an institutional level, we must continue to advocate for an affirmative-consent policy and transparent complaint procedures. On a cultural level, we must eliminate sexist, racist, and classist power structures to create inclusive and safe environments. The sanction is a powerful use of Title IX that provides the wider Harvard community with an opportunity to reflect on our own complicity in perpetuating rape culture.

For the past four years, students have tirelessly organized for a safer and more just campus. Our Harvard can be better, and this sanction moves us closer.

Kate Sim ’14 and Pearl Bhatnagar ’14 founded Our Harvard Can Do Better, an undergraduate campaign working to end the institutional and cultural enablers of sexual violence at Harvard.

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