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Sexual Assault is Gender Inequality: Reframing the Single Sex Sanctions

By Emma K. O'Hara, Kelly J. Popkin, and Dixie C. Tauber

Like many members of the Harvard community, the Gender Violence Legal Policy Workshop at the Law School was deeply disturbed by the 2015 American Association of Universities report disclosing the widespread sexual abuse that takes place at Harvard. While initially grateful that the College appeared to have taken affirmative steps to address this issue through its proposed sanctions on single-gender social organizations, we were dismayed to learn that sexual assault prevention is no longer the driving force behind the sanctions.

Though the administration may have initially had worthwhile motivations, we are discouraged that they appear to be shifting their views in order to make the policy more palatable to faculty. Further, asserting that the staggering sexual assault statistics were not the impetus for the sanctions minimizes the very real harms that 25.5 percent of women polled in the AAU survey have experienced. Finally, we are concerned that if the sanctions were not created to combat sexual assault, then what, if any, affirmative steps has Harvard taken since the AAU report was released?

As was previously reported by The Crimson, the implementation committee’s report mentioned “sexual assault” or “sexual violence” only four times in a 46 page document, and failed to mention “rape” at all. Similarly, the compliance agreements that students will be required to sign also fail to mention sexual assault. Students will be asked to affirm that they are not members of a social organization that discriminates on the basis of gender.

However, they will not be asked anything about whether their social organization promotes sexual respect and sexual safety or conducts sexual assault awareness trainings, nor will they be asked to affirm or abide by Harvard College’s rules on sexual assault. Forcing organizations to become co-ed cannot alone protect women from the realities of campus sexual assault, particularly when the co-ed punch dynamic for final clubs is that of younger women trying to please older men in order to access the social capital enjoyed by these male-dominated institutions.

Harvard must take affirmative steps to ensure students’ safety beyond implementing sanctions and hoping this problem goes away. Effective sanctions must be tailored to the problem of sexual violence. We recommend that Harvard create an exception that allows for single-sex organizations to operate if they can show a sufficient commitment to gender equality, inclusion, respect, and prevention of sexual violence. Further, Harvard must impose similar sanctions on students found responsible for sexual misconduct but who are not part of a single-sex organization.

In addition, sexual assault training must be annual, formalized across the Houses, and made a priority on campus. Specific precautions should be taken to protect newly admitted female students to historically male organizations. The sanctions should be continuously evaluated to ensure that the desired deterrent effect occurs. But this is only the beginning of the fight against sexual assault. Harvard must take steps to encourage an atmosphere of sexual respect on campus. As privileged citizens of the Harvard community, we must consistently strive to build interpersonal relationships that are firmly rooted in principles of gender equality, bodily integrity, and sexual respect. Together we have the power to challenge, shape, and change our community in furtherance of these goals.

The administration has announced that there will be a three to five year bridge period in which all-female social organizations may operate without being sanctioned. The specificity of this time period leads us to suspect that the College is taking advantage of short institutional memory to slowly phase out female clubs without addressing the historic underrepresentation of female power in the Harvard social scene. We hope instead that this is the beginning of a recognition of the value of female-centered spaces and their importance in helping students feel safe and respected on campus.

Harvard must embrace student voices during this period, particularly those of women and sexual minorities who will be most affected by any broad-based gender exclusivity rules. Rather than waiting three years for dissenting voices to graduate, Harvard should have a robust conversation about the past, present, and future of gender inequality on campus, including, of course, sexual assault. Sexual assault is gender inequality in its most extreme form, and Harvard will not make any real progress towards gender equality while continuing to turn a blind eye to the sexual assault crisis on campus. We urge the administration to engage with students and discuss what they think would be most effective in preventing sexual assault on campus.

Under Title IX, Harvard must ensure equal access to education for all of its students. Access to education cannot be equal when instances of gender-based violence occur in staggering numbers all over campus, and especially in male final clubs. Accordingly, Harvard must take further steps to address the pervasive issues of rape and sexual assault, well beyond the proposed sanctions. In deemphasizing Harvard’s sexual assault problem, the administration steers the campus further from its admirable goals of gender equity and equal opportunity. If the College fails to take meaningful steps toward the prevention of rape and sexual assault on campus, the social hierarchies that perpetuate sexual violence will only grow further entrenched.

Emma K. O'Hara, Dixie C. Tauber, and Kelly J. Popkin are second-year law students at Harvard Law School and members of the Gender Violence Legal Policy Workshop at Harvard Law School.

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