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The Harvard Community is Responsible for Sexual Assault

By Daniel E. Hanrahan

On May 28, 2015, with Commencement speaker and former Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78 and University President Drew G. Faust looking on, 1612 Harvard College seniors received their degrees. Of the graduating class, 14 percent left the ceremony as the first college graduates in their family and 21 percent of students, or their families, left with debt from studying at Harvard. And 31.2 percent of female seniors left as sexual assault survivors.

Victims reported 27 rapes on campus to the Harvard University Police Department in 2016. Many more assaults are anonymously reported via mouse clicks. In a 2015 survey of just over half the students at Harvard, 172 women reported “nonconsensual sexual contact” in the previous year. Harvard is afflicted with a sexual assault disease, and the stories of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore help us diagnose why. Men sexually assault and harass women, in part, because others allow them to do so.

As a male student at the Harvard Kennedy School, I have readily joined the chorus condemning Weinstein and Moore’s disgusting abuse of power. But concentrating criticism on these (rightly) vilified perpetrators reveals a problem with our approach to sexual assault. We are only focusing on some of the people who are responsible for sexual assault. We are ignoring, for example, people like me.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. During Orientation Week in August of 2016, I was out late drinking in Harvard Square with two classmates. The topic switched to the women in our class. Over the drunken hum of the bar’s collective conversation, one guy proposed the “hottest” girls in our class. The other did the same. They both then asked me to rank the girls in our cohort in the order I wanted to get with. My alarmed heart bolted blood to my cheeks. I crossed my arms, unable to speak. “Are we making you uncomfortable?” one asked me. I cannot remember my exact response. But it was not: “Yes. Objectifying women, even though it seems harmless to you, demeans them and creates an environment that makes sexual assault more likely.” Instead, I uncrossed my arms, I shook my head, and yes, I discussed which girls were hot.

At the time, it was easy for me to discard my act of cowardice as inconsequential. The desire to be included made the risk of speaking up too great. During many similar “inconsequential” comments at the pub and locker rooms throughout my life, I know I’ve taken the easy way out.

Have you done the same? Maybe sat back while peers made sexually explicit comments about women on spreadsheets, like the Harvard men’s cross-country team did? Or didn’t say something when a woman was described as “the kind of girl who both likes to dominate, and likes to be dominated” like the Harvard men’s soccer team?

My silence that night—and in other moments—meant I accepted those comments and therefore an environment of disrespecting women. The same environment in which 87 percent of women aged 18 to 25 have experienced sexual harassment and half of all women are sexually harassed in American workplaces. My silence lies on a continuum of complicity—complicity that allows sexual assault to occur.

It strikes me that Weinstein and Moore were not alone in their assaults. Enablers shrunk from confronting these men. Weinstein’s staff put women at the monster’s mercy by organizing, or quickly leaving, meetings with female targets. Weinstein hired gangs of spies and lawyers to suppress crimes. The media and his peers only attacked Weinstein once his power began to fade. Although troubled by Moore’s pursuit of young girls, people in Gasden, Ala., did not forcefully intervene. A teenager was even summoned from trigonometry class to the principal’s office so Moore could ask her out.

I am not trying to remove responsibility from the men who attack women. Their behavior must change—but so should the behavior of people not directly involved in sexual assaults. Avoiding small confrontations over sexist comments and behaviors is what allows a rape culture, an environment where rape is prevalent—like at Harvard—to build. Had their enablers taken the harder, riskier option and spoken up, Weinstein and Moore might have been stopped. Had more people in the Harvard community spoken up to combat sexist comments and behaviors, the strength of rape culture on campus would have weakened and assaults might have been prevented.

Courageous assault survivors risk backlash or disbelief by reporting their experiences. The rest of us should also risk backlash to challenge sexist comments and behaviors. We are all responsible for preventing sexual assaults on campus and in the wider community. To help us do so, the Harvard administration should survey and report on sexual assault annually, like they did in 2015.

There are about 800 first-year women on track to graduate in May 2021. If we permit an environment that sees 31.2 percent of them experience sexual assault, nearly 250 female seniors will graduate as sexual assault survivors. We are all responsible for ensuring that students in our community are conferred only degrees from Harvard—not trauma.

Daniel E. Hanrahan is a master’s student in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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