When it first happened, Lynn J. Ochberg ’64 was most worried about the bloodstain. She had borrowed the dress from a wealthy girl who lived across the hall—the daughter of a Greek shipping magnate, she recalled.
“It took me many, many minutes to wash it all out, and I had to dry it and iron it,” Ochberg said. “That’s what I was worried about, not myself.”
The year was 1960, it was orientation week for Ochberg’s freshman year at Radcliffe, and, she said, she had just been sexually assaulted by a senior on Harvard’s football team. The bloodstain measured 20 inches across.
The story dates back 57 years, but I met its protagonist under distinctly 21st-century circumstances: My editor and I found Ochberg in the comments section of a New York Times op-ed authored by former Fifteen Minutes Magazine chair Maia R. Silber ’17.
The Times piece, published soon after The Crimson shed light on a sexually explicit “scouting report” produced by the 2012 men’s soccer team, dissected aspects of Harvard’s culture that “give misogyny a vocabulary” on campus. Ochberg’s take, flagged as a “Times Pick” and “recommended” by 275 readers on Facebook, swiftly climbed to the top of the comments section.
There’s nothing new in this report. I was a Harvard student in 1960 when the females were called Radcliffe students and a publication full of our high school photos was distributed to the male students with our contact info printed with each picture. Some of us, especially midwestern quota fillers like me, were so naive as to relish the sudden unprecedented popularity that ensued. [...] even a plain girl was tasty bait. Many of us were raped before the first week of orientation ended. We were advised by assigned ‘big sisters’ to keep quiet about it and consider it a ‘milestone’ achieved rather than as a sexual assault.
When today’s freshmen move into Harvard Yard for orientation, they become acquainted with roommates, campus culture, and the numerous resources available to them, including a veritable alphabet soup of outlets for discussing sex, relationships, and sexual assault. There’s the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, or OSAPR; the Office of Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution, called the ODR; Sexual Health and Relationship Counselors, commonly known as SHARC; and many others.
“If anything happens,” every proctor, Peer Advising Fellow, and administrator seems to say, “You can talk about it.”
But things haven’t always been this way. What University President Drew G. Faust once called a “troubling” climate of sexual assault has a long and complex history at Harvard, which has only been officially coeducational since 1999.
The first women to study at Harvard were part of the “Harvard Annex,” a private program founded in 1879. Radcliffe, a women’s college, received its charter in 1894. Greatly outnumbered by their male Harvard peers until the late 70’s when they were accepted in a coed admissions process, Radcliffe women grew to expect lewd remarks and unwelcome advances from professors, teaching fellows, and classmates.
Before the term “date rape” was coined in Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 book "Against Our Will," sexual assault was widely imagined as a crime committed by strangers—something that happened to “naive” women walking through Cambridge Common after a certain time of night.
During the 70’s in particular, new conceptions of sexual violence developed, and with these conceptions came new responsibilities for the University. Harvard’s own students and faculty members were victims and perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, and the University was charged with creating procedures to respond.
Although many remain skeptical of the University’s ability to handle sexual assault, Harvard now loudly asserts its commitment to the issue through reports, trainings, talks, committees, task forces, and even historic sanctions on single-gender social organizations.
After reading Ochberg’s comment, my editor and I were determined to find more stories like hers: those of women who had fielded unwanted advances at Harvard long before the institution developed a vocabulary to talk about them.
After a search through Harvard’s alumni directory, I sent Ochberg a message asking for an interview. Within a few hours, she had responded with a detailed account of the assault.
There was a mixer at a men’s dorm in the Yard. Ochberg left the party with a football player, a senior, she said, and went to a bar across the street. He had a beer. She declined and said she wanted to return to her dorm in the Radcliffe Quad, where all female students lived at the time. The football player drove up Garden Street, stopped the car a couple hundred feet away from the entrance of Briggs Hall (now part of Cabot House), lowered the back of the passenger seat, and sexually assaulted her.
Ochberg’s assigned “big sister,” a Radcliffe sophomore who also lived in Briggs Hall, cautioned her against taking action. Reporting the assault, the sophomore said, would “ruin the career” of the law-school-bound football player and bring about more trauma than resolution.
Ochberg recalled that there were no formal, on-campus venues for reporting her sexual assault—she would have had to go to the police.
In her e-mail, Ochberg described the incident as “astonishing and unwelcome” but chalked it up to “simple naivete.” She was 17, a Midwesterner away from home for the first time. She resolved to “think of it as little as possible.”
A week after the assault, Ochberg met a Harvard man and confided in him about the experience. He was a senior, a History and Literature concentrator, and rather romantically-minded. He wrote a poem about Ochberg comparing her to a “tattered flag.”
“A tattered flag! Can you imagine?” Ochberg asked, laughing. We were talking on the phone on her 74th birthday. “I didn’t think of myself as tattered—I thought of myself as educated.”
The young poet later became a trauma psychiatrist and her husband.
I expected Ochberg to be as outraged by the assault as I was. Instead, she repeatedly described herself as “educated” and “initiated” by the experience—high school sex ed had been limited in the 50’s. A classmate from Iowa, she recalled, was only knowledgeable about sex because she had grown up watching animals copulate on a farm. Ochberg talked at length about the bloodstain, about scrubbing the borrowed dress in the bathroom sink. Still, she insisted, the assault “never bothered her much.”
She estimated that about a third of her close friends were likely “initiated in the same fashion.” Ochberg, then, was one of many who could speak to the climate at Radcliffe.
I wrote to dozens of alumni class secretaries who graduated from Radcliffe or Harvard in the 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s. They posted notices on class email lists on my behalf, explaining the story and requesting that women who wanted to talk about sexual harassment and assault contact me. Slowly but steadily, the responses came in.
I began my research with alumni who graduated in the 60’s, and patterns emerged in my interviews. A few phrases, memories, and sentiments appeared repeatedly.
On sex: Before the advent of coed housing in 1971, “parietal hours” designated times at which students could have a guest of the opposite sex in their rooms, although three of four feet had to remain on the ground for the duration of the visit. Women were limited to 25 visiting hours per week.
On sexual assault: One had to be careful when walking back to the Radcliffe dorms late at night.
On sexual assault committed by undergraduate peers: It must have happened, but no one was talking about it.
On campus resources for handling sexual assault: If they existed, few people knew about them.
And finally, there was the general and resigned, “That’s just the way it was back then.” This mantra echoed among alumni who had graduated long after the 60’s.
Margery M. Sabin ’60 never liked to close the window of her room. She lived on the fourth floor of Eliot Hall (now part of Cabot House). Her room had a fire escape, and a window grate that made the space “like a prison cell” when locked.
Sabin says she was working in her room alone—many of her friends had already left for the Thanksgiving holiday—when an intruder entered through the window and attacked her. With his hand covering her mouth, Sabin struggled. She ultimately fought him off. The intruder escaped the same way he had entered.
The attempted assault was followed by a brief visit from the police and an angry letter from Sabin’s father to Radcliffe administrators, but little came of the case.
“I don’t know that my father got any response from any college authority,” she said.
When I asked Sabin if I might be able to locate the attack in police records, she said she’d be surprised if I could. She didn’t remember seeing the officers taking notes.
Ellen H. Hume ’68, who graduated nearly a decade after Sabin did, said law enforcement officers “did not take these problems seriously.” Hume says she witnessed a man masturbating in a car parked just meters away from Radcliffe dorms. She notified the police of what she had seen and was treated with “great skepticism.”
“I was questioned as if I had some weird interest in sex,” she said.
Before sexual harassment and assault were understood to be on-campus problems in the 70’s, they were long regarded as issues of public safety—justice would be served by police, not Harvard or Radcliffe administrators. However, law enforcement procedures for handling rape cases did not come under serious scrutiny until after Hume and Sabin graduated.
Former Radcliffe President Matina S. Horner, whose tenure lasted from 1972 to 1989, put herself on “rape call” for several months during the early years of her presidency.
“I decided it was important to see what students were subjected to if they reported a rape,” Horner said. “They were subjected to questions from the police that were way out of line.”
Despite shortcomings in the existing system, Horner remembered meeting with officers who had resolved to do better. She described her partnership with a “fabulous” Cambridge police chief who “agreed they needed to do training and sensitize [officers]” to better handle sexual assault cases.
Shane Snowdon ’78, whose undergraduate days were largely dedicated to feminist activism, did not recall the same enthusiasm from law enforcement. Snowdon said she and her peers, many of whom were active members of the Radcliffe Union of Students and staffed the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, had to “dog” leaders in police forces about implementing sexual assault training for officers.
“They said, ‘We can’t spare anyone to go over,’” Snowdon said. “It was definitely like pulling teeth.”
Current Deputy Superintendent of the Cambridge Police Department Jack Albert said the force’s most senior personnel, who started their careers in the early 80’s, “would have responded to such calls for service in a much different way.”
At Jubilee Weekend in 1965, Hume danced onstage with famed blues singer Bo Diddley. Because a number of Harvard men had taken note of her portrait in the class register—a directory with pictures and contact information for every Radcliffe student—Hume had been voted “Ms. Hope T. Seeia,” a title comparable to “homecoming queen” for freshman women.
Harvard football was playing against Dartmouth, which was still an all-male college, for Jubilee Weekend. A handful of Dartmouth men sent Hume a letter, which she ignored, petitioning her to come to the game dressed only in a slip.
“It was all very silly,” Hume said on the phone. “It wasn’t something I welcomed, just something funny that happened, and I went along with the joke.”
The distribution of the freshman register fed into a robust dating culture at Harvard-Radcliffe. In the 60’s, when undergraduate men still outnumbered women 4 to 1, Radcliffe students were “besieged with attention,” Hume said.
Ochberg said she went on 90 dates during her freshman year and often overheard male students scheming “efforts to make [Radcliffe women] their prey.” She left Radcliffe after her freshman year because she found the culture “stultifying” and overly concerned with making its students into “gracious ladies.”
“Everything was done to facilitate the acquisition of husbands and wives,” Ochberg recalled.
Radcliffe students, too, received copies of the Harvard register, although they were rarely the ones calling for dates. Sometime in the 70’s, Harvard began printing freshman photographs in a single co-ed directory.
This change reflected the shifting relationship between the two colleges that characterized the decade—1971 saw the beginning of coed housing, 1975 the inception of a single, coed admissions process. While many women eagerly embraced the “Harvard” label, some feared the Radcliffe identity would disappear altogether.
Although the identity of the women’s college was in flux, unequal gender dynamics among students persisted. But the 70’s brought the crescendo of the Sexual Revolution, a strong current of feminist organizing across the United States, and Title IX—a federal statute prohibiting gender discrimination in federally-funded educational institutions.
Recent studies suggest that up to 70% of sexual assaults are committed by people known to the victim. Although no such statistics were known in the 70’s, there grew a budding understanding that unwanted sexual conduct was an in-house problem—one that fell in the purview of University administrators as well as police.
Slowly, there came a realization that sexual violence permeated dorms and classrooms as much it did Cambridge Common after dark. The 70’s brought methods of naming unwelcome sexual behaviors that had existed long before Harvard did.
As women increasingly moved into River Houses, the Women’s Center—founded by Radcliffe students in 1974—remained a stronghold of Radcliffe pride and feminist organizing. Student-run rape support groups were among the Center’s landmark programs. Snowdon said officials at University Hall and police forces were resistant to activists’ demands for resources relating to sexual assault, and that the issue was treated as a “woman’s individual problem.”
“You could obviously go see someone at UHS counseling services, but there also wasn’t any sense that that was going to be more than your personal tragedy,” Snowdon said. “What we had to do was organize among ourselves—we began saying that we were interested in talking, sharing our experiences.”
In Women’s Center support groups, several Radcliffe students grappled with new understandings of sexual assault. At the time, feminist thinking was indelibly shaped by Brownmiller’s text and its exploration of the concept of date rape, which complicated the experiences of women at Radcliffe and beyond.
“I think these were the harder things to talk about, because it was a culture that blamed women tremendously for rape,” Snowdon said. “It was harder to talk outside our own circles about rape by someone with whom we were at a party or someone we knew.”
There was substantial overlap between the membership of the Women’s Center and that of the Radcliffe Union of Students and Seventh Sister, a student-produced feminist magazine.
Snowdon was one of four authors of an article titled “Rape: A Tradition of Men in Positions of Power,” which was followed by a piece called “Will More Locks Help? How Students Can Stop Rape.” Betty A. Krier ’78, a co-author of both articles, said many women, including herself and others in visible feminist spaces on campus, still felt pressured to remain silent about their own experiences of sexual harassment.
“It was worse than we understood while we were there,” Krier said. In her social circle, many testimonies of “sexual harassment or worse” emerged long after graduation. “I was with a cohort of women who were trying to organize and give ourselves voices, but we didn’t tell each other what we had gone through.”
Krier spoke from experience. Her sophomore tutor, a graduate student, said she was “doing so much better” than other students in the course. He asked her to start meeting one-on-one.
“It wasn’t before long that he started closing in on me, getting physically way too close to me, and I knew it wouldn’t end well,” Krier said. She stopped attending the meetings, and her grade suffered. “The level of sexual harassment sometimes made us change fields, drop courses.”
Claims of sexual harassment by teaching fellows, professors, and tutors appeared in nearly every interview I conducted with alumni. As I continued to interview women like Ochberg, Hume, and Krier, a rich history of unwelcome sexual behavior at Harvard emerged.
In 1972, Title IX was codified as an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965. Harvard hired Mia Karvonides, its first Title IX officer, nearly 40 years later.
The Title IX most college students know now—what I had always assumed to be a piece of sexual assault legislation—was understood quite differently at its inception in the early 70’s. For nearly the first three decades of its existence, Title IX was known as the law that guaranteed equal access to sports teams and facilities for men and women at schools funded by the federal government. Until the Office of Civil Rights issued a guidance in 2001, Title IX had little effect on sexual harassment and assault policy at schools.
As Title IX staked its claim on locker rooms, playing fields, and courts, Harvard’s internal structures for reporting and responding to sexual harassment and assault remained nebulous and decentralized during the early to mid-70’s.
Even the Radcliffe Institute, a precursor to the modern Women’s Center, lacked resources for rape counseling. The Institute was one of several examined in a national study of women’s centers on college campuses conducted by the Association of American Colleges in 1971.
In the “Activities” section of the AAC questionnaire, women’s center employees were to check boxes on a table to indicate their offerings, priorities, and planned programming. For the Radcliffe Institute’s form, the box for rape counseling, among others, was checked in the far right column—they had not offered and did not intend to offer the service.
Harvard’s first sexual harassment policy, established by the Faculty, was implemented in 1978. Marlyn E. McGrath, now Director of Undergraduate Admissions, was then the Assistant Dean of Harvard College—and a “hearing officer” for sexual harassment cases. As a hearing officer, McGrath fielded, investigated, and mediated students’ complaints about sexual harassment, along with a network of other administrators.
But some of the loudest voices in the burgeoning conversation about sexual harassment came from beyond the walls of University Hall.
McGrath still remembers the names of some vocal activists from the Radcliffe Union of Students. Elisabeth M. Einaudi ’83, then president of RUS, was a prominent campus figure, quoted in countless Crimson articles about sexual violence and seemingly every feminist cause under the sun.
Incited by a series of high-profile allegations against Harvard professors, Einaudi and another RUS organizer, Victoria Eastus ’83, spearheaded a student push for reform in sexual harassment reporting procedures.
In October 1982, Einaudi and Eastus penned a letter to then-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Henry Rosovsky, sharply criticizing the Faculty’s lack of a “formal statement of policy against sexual harassment.” Although there existed a “formal grievance procedure to redress specific incidents,” the two students urged the Faculty to “release a clear policy stating the University’s position.”
Outside experts on sexual harassment in the Cambridge area handled about 28 cases from Harvard in 1981, according to Einaudi and Eastus at the time. In each of the cases, the complainant “was either reluctant to approach Harvard administrators or was ignorant of the procedures.”
During their junior and senior years at the College, the duo appeared at meetings, wrote up pamphlets and drafted potential policies for Faculty members after the Dean’s office “challenged” them to do so, Eastus said. They received funding and invited Catherine MacKinnon, a radical feminist scholar who positioned sexual harassment as a civil rights issue, to speak on campus.
Eastus recalled a rather awkward dinner she attended with Einaudi, MacKinnon, and then-Dean of Harvard College John B. Fox Jr. ’59. The four of them were seated around a low table at a traditional Japanese restaurant, cross-legged on the ground. MacKinnon turned to Fox and explained the definitions of sexual harassment that were “burbling through the courts.” Fox, who was “well over six feet tall,” struggled to tuck his “hugely long legs” under the table and looked “horribly uncomfortable.”
In an e-mail to The Crimson, Fox said he did not recall the dinner nor did he remember meeting Einaudi or Eastus.
The discourse about sexual harassment that began to rattle faculty meetings in 1978 came to a head in February 1983 with the release of a “Dear Colleague” letter, written by Rosovsky and a handful of administrators and professors. The letter was sent to the entire faculty.
“A group of administrators and faculty worked to develop a text in the hope it would be helpful to articulate the faculty’s expectations about their behavior toward those for whom they were responsible,” McGrath said. The authors of the letter were particularly concerned about those in “asymmetrical relationships, relationships in which one partner had academic or professional responsibility toward the other partner.”
The letter presented the Faculty’s definition of sexual harassment: “inappropriate personal attention by an instructor or other officer who is in a position to determine a student’s grade or otherwise affect the student’s academic performance or professional future.” The policy primarily concerned itself with sexual behaviors in unequal power dynamics and included no stipulations for sexual harassment among student peers.
The letter also established three pathways by which students could choose to pursue sexual harassment complaints. The first was informal resolution: an administrator would facilitate apologies or “changes in instructional arrangements” for the student. The second was a confidential, formal process by which a student could seek disciplinary action by the Dean of the Faculty against the instructor. Lastly, complaints of “grave misconduct” would be evaluated by “Screening and Hearing” panels. The letter said “grave misconduct” charges would be considered grounds for termination of employment or denial of tenure.
McGrath said the document’s authors struggled with language, as the letter needed to address a wide spectrum of behavior, including relationships that were inappropriate but not explicitly sexual. They settled on the word “amorous” to characterize both the “actions and feelings” that were to be kept out of faculty-student dynamics.
Although the 1983 letter asserted that relationships between faculty and students were “always fundamentally asymmetric in nature,” Harvard did not explicitly ban romantic and sexual relationships between professors and students until 2015. Before then, such relationships were merely labeled inappropriate.
Former President of Radcliffe College Matina Horner had a cough, and a rather terrible one at that—our interview was barely audible, thanks to her fits of violent coughing.
Fortunately, current Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University Lizabeth Cohen granted me access to Horner’s records. Typically, administrative records are locked in the University Archives until 50 years after their creation. Records of individual employees and students remain locked for 80 years.
Inside Horner’s box: some mundane correspondences, a few internal policy studies, and an inch-thick folder labeled “Sexual Harassment.”
One document was more than 100 pages in length, a file titled “Unwanted Attention: A Report on a Sexual Harassment Survey,” authored by then-Dean of Undergraduate Education Sidney Verba in September 1983.
The survey was University-wide, distributed by mail to all faculty members, 1000 graduate students (500 male, 500 female), and 2000 undergraduates (1000 male, 1000 female). The response rate was 70 per cent. The report summarized experiences of sexual harassment across many demographics at Harvard, revealing that unwanted sexual behavior disproportionately claimed women as its victims.
While incidents of “actual or attempted assault” were scarce, female respondents testified to widespread experiences of sexual “teasing and jokes,” as well as sexual “looks and gestures” from academic superiors. Few undergraduate and graduate women reported pressure for sexual favors from authority figures, but 12 percent of senior faculty women and 10 percent of junior faculty women said their superiors had pushed them toward such arrangements.
Following the report is a 35-page appendix documenting complaints of sexual harassment written by anonymous female survey respondents, from undergraduate women to senior faculty women. The incidents included salacious comments, threatening phone calls, and unwanted but persistent physical advances.
From an undergraduate woman’s account of office hours with a graduate teaching fellow:
While eyeballing my bosom he put his hand on his knee and proceeded to rub. [...] I said “I have to go now.” He spoke of being lonely and looked suggestively at his lap and then at me.
From an undergraduate woman’s comment on her relationship with her advisor:
When I was saying good-bye to leave Cambridge for the summer, he cornered me, kissed me, and said, “I think I deserved that.”
For most cases, the reported “resolution” to the harassment was avoidance: missing class, switching departments, abandoning projects, and remaining silent during meetings for fear of drawing attention. Fearing the wandering gazes, suggestive words, and unwelcome touches of their superiors, women moved themselves to places where they felt safer.
The document also exposed a massive, gendered fissure in perceptions of sexual harassment at Harvard. The authors of the report were attentive to the “asymmetrical” nature of relationships between instructors and students articulated in the “Dear Colleague” letter, and reported that men were more likely to consider sexual harassment “a problem of sexuality” while women were likely to see it as “an issue of power.”
There was a general consensus that sexual harassment was bad—but was it Harvard’s problem? Two main questions brought substantial disagreement to the fore. First, which behaviors fall into the category of sexual harassment? Second, to what degree can and should Harvard regulate those behaviors?
Half of male faculty and a third of male graduate students said they thought sexual harassment was not a problem at Harvard. Those numbers were significantly lower among women.
Nine out of 10 respondents in all groups saw unwelcome pressure for dates as sexual harassment. Three out of four male faculty respondents, however, did not consider the behavior “a matter for University concern.”
Although some outliers left comments praising the survey and others responded with dull apathy, men—particularly faculty men—widely dismissed the problem altogether, calling the study a waste of time.
One tenured male professor sarcastically claimed he felt victimized by the survey:
This is a monumental waste of money! I’d call it staff harassment!
Many characterized sexual behaviors in the classroom as somehow inevitable. The University, they argued, had no business trying to regulate expressions of natural human impulse.
Relations between faculty and student must be attrative [sic] and (possibly) sexual. One can’t learn OR teach unless there exists some vital, perhaps physical, concern with mind and/or person of the instructor and student. OTHERWISE, is the teacher a computer?
Others protested administrative action on principle.
Generally the university should treat people like adults by allowing them to solve their own problems whenever possible. Only in cases of outright sexual blackmail by persons in authority should the university step in. Otherwise the whole thing could be magnified way out of proportion.
Several commenters expressed concerns about broadening definitions of sexual harassment.
It is important to investigate very thoroughly those who make charges of sexual harassment as well, since such accusations could be used as a tool of reprisal against, say, a professor who has ignored some overtures on the part of a student or who has given the student a poor grade.
Beneath the indignant dismissals and vitriolic denials, there lurked a pervasive suspicion that Harvard women were simply crying wolf.
The university should in any case maintain a low profile on the subject. Much of the harassment bit is due to feminist hysteria. [...] The university should be as alert to abuse of harassment charges as to actual harassment.
In my experience, from my vantage point, the issues here are fabricated.
Shortly after this report was released to the faculty, then-Radcliffe President Horner was quoted in Seventh Sister saying that students in low-cut blouses were “asking for it.”
The boys from downstairs thought Clea Simon ’83 could use some cheering up. She had just fought with her boyfriend—loudly enough that they could hear it. She had been crying. It was September, maybe October of her freshman year. They knocked on her door, she said, bearing a pitcher of Bullfrog mixed drink.
“In retrospect, I don’t know if there was anything else in that,” Simon said. The drink might have been spiked with something more than just vodka. She was dehydrated from crying and her tolerance was low. “I woke up, I was naked, and one of them was having sex with me.”
Weeks after the incident, Simon found out she was pregnant. She went to University Health Services for an abortion. She never reported the assault to the police or Harvard authorities.
Contemporary discourse about sexual violence on college campuses focuses largely on peer-on-peer assault—horror stories set against boozy backdrops of frat-house revelry. But in 1979, during Simon’s freshman year, the concepts of date rape and acquaintance rape were still just beginning to emerge in the national consciousness.
“It took many years before I called it rape,” Simon said. “I called it ‘being stupid,’ and I felt culpable.”
An alum who graduated in 1984 who requested anonymity said College administrators handled her attempted assault “as well as they could have,” although she did not report the incident herself.
She says she found herself unexpectedly drunk after having one beer and was attacked by a friend—he had concealed prescription drugs in her drink with the intention of assaulting her. The perpetrator’s roommate returned unexpectedly early from Lamont, interrupted the act of sexual battery, and reported the incident to her resident tutors. Like Simon, she struggled to come to terms with the attack, which was perpetrated by someone she knew well.
“I could not be persuaded that I was drugged,” she said. “I was convinced he was my friend who had gotten mixed signals.”
The perpetrator was expelled from Harvard. When I asked if she would have pressed charges against the man she thought to be a friend, she said, “You’re positing hypotheticals that wouldn’t have made sense back then.”
As contentious debates about harassment and professional conduct pushed forward in stately administrative buildings, sexual assault between undergraduate peers remained a problem, albeit a less clearly-defined one. Although prominent feminist thinkers and activists pushed the idea that sexual harassment was a civil rights violation, women were still widely expected to be responsible for keeping themselves safe from rape.
“The environment was such that we were just assumed to be the guardians of our own bodies,” Simon said.
Echoing Simon, Einaudi said many women at Harvard didn’t expect the University to interfere in their relationships with other undergraduates.
McGrath, who has served on the Administrative Board since 1978, said she remembers the disciplinary body started hearing cases described as “date rape” in the late 70’s and early 80’s, although there had always been cases of “men and women behaving badly toward one another.”
Simon arrived at Harvard at a moment in which professors were beginning to be held accountable for lewd looks and classroom catcalls. But conversations about sexual assault between peers—about “men and women behaving badly”—were still just starting to take shape.
It would take decades before Harvard’s process for handling such cases would come to resemble what it does today.
In 1990, the College assembled a Date Rape Task Force.
In 1993, a policy statement on sexual misconduct appeared in student handbooks for Harvard undergraduates for the first time.
In 2001, the Office of Civil Rights released a guidance that revolutionized Title IX, designating sexual harassment as a form of gender discrimination.
In 2003, the Leaning Committee, established to consider sexual assault education and support for victims, created the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response at Harvard.
In 2013, Harvard hired its first Title IX officer.
The 90’s and early 2000’s alone brought a wave of policies, at federal and university levels, that refashioned nationwide understandings of sexual assault. Paging through more recent documents and looking back on my reporting, I find myself tempted to echo some variation of what many of my interview subjects had said: “Things were so different back then.”
In September 2015, Faust faced a packed room and soberly announced the “troubling” results of a University-wide sexual assault survey. Nearly a third of undergraduate women who responded had experienced some sort of sexual assault since starting college. The University’s response to sexual assault, Faust declared, was “totally insufficient.”
Administrators had spent months developing the survey, and even compensated each respondent with $5 to spend on Amazon. The study described the painful details of sexual misconduct, specifying actions like “penetration” or “sexual touching.” It even pinpointed the most commonly-cited locations for sexual assaults. More than 75 percent of assaults took place in dorm rooms. The second-most cited venue: final clubs.
When the lewd comments from the 2012 soccer team’s “scouting report” were revealed, students were perturbed but unsurprised. Just as Ochberg became accustomed to overhearing schemes to make “prey” of Radcliffe women as Harvard men pored over the freshman register, Harvard students experienced brief outrage over the “scouting report” that was quickly eclipsed by familiar, bored, disturbance.
The uptick of institutional responsibility for sexual assault is something of a paradox. Since Ochberg, Hume, Krier, and Simon graduated, Harvard—and educational institutions across the country—have developed language and avenues for discussing sexual assault. Yet the structures and cultural norms built in the name of progress often only expose the ways things haven’t changed.
To someone tracking the conversation, it might seem like sexual assault is a new issue. Going through old files, records of campus sexual violence (often logged under terms like “security” and “harassment”) only begin in the ‘70s, amping up through subsequent decades.
Today, we have surveys, and officers, and splashy news features. Almost exactly a year ago, Fifteen Minutes Magazine ran a cover story about sexual assault—a catalogue of the contemporary climate. By the time this story goes to print, The Crimson will have run a news feature on the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention Task Force. Our vocabulary for making sense of the issue grows every year. This feels like an escalating narrative.
But where does that narrative start? The timeframe of this story begins in 1960 because that’s when Ochberg started her freshman year—but women had already been on campus, sitting through lectures by Harvard professors, for 81 years before she arrived.
For decades, the testimonies of hundreds of anonymous women—of lingering looks, prurient remarks, and persistent touches—sat in a restricted folder of Horner’s old files. Ochberg and Simon’s assaults, however, have no such record. The paper trail only goes back as far as an institution is willing to remember.
The history goes a little further.