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When a Harvard professor placed his hand on my lower back, I decided I was being dramatic. This was totally okay! The fact that it made me uncomfortable was my fault! The professor had invited students to a holiday party, and we had all been excited to go. Not only was this professor a big deal, but he seemed to truly care about us. After a group of us arrived, he came over to greet us warmly and lead us to the next room, where the party was getting started. As he shepherded us in, he walked close behind me, putting a hand on the small of my back, pressing into me. I jumped forward a bit, involuntarily. His hand went away. We all walked into the room and enjoyed the party.
This man doesn’t teach here anymore. He has a better gig somewhere else.
This fall, on our first night back on campus since March 2020, my roommate and I were both groped at a party by a guy who was leaving. He was holding hands with a girl leading him towards the exit. She presumably did not notice as he groped me and then my roommate in quick succession. We were stunned, not fully processing what had happened until the guy and girl were swallowed up by the crowd.
Naming this guy, or the professor, wouldn’t solve much, nor would it bring me any sense of peace. Calling guys out, so I’ve been told, could jeopardize their future, or, horror of horrors, embarrass them. And frankly, if I started down that road, it would never end. Sexual misconduct is everywhere at Harvard, if you bother to look. For many of us, it’s easier not to.
The behavior I’m talking about, while sometimes tricky to define, represents an entitled way of relating to women. To say that it’s been normalized here is to state the obvious. To say that every guy guilty of it could go on to achieve immense success is too. To complain feels, at times, like a sign of immaturity, a failure to grasp the realities of the real world and adapt accordingly. Having been successfully gaslit too many times to count, I question my own discomfort with behavior that maybe isn’t even so bad. Maybe it’s normal. Maybe I should get over it.
Maybe, this is just reality.
There’s the male acquaintance who sharply squeezes my neck whenever we hug hello; the men I’ve never met who grip my waist as they move past in a crowd, which I’m sure they do to other men, too, why wouldn’t they; the guys whose drunk behavior requires dangling their arms around girls’ shoulders and defiantly refusing to let go; the older guy I met recently who kept rubbing my arms even as I backed away (when I told a friend later that this man had made me uncomfortable, he told me not to take it personally); the two different guys, on different occasions, who hurled their entire bodies at me while dancing; the classmate who caressed my stomach over my shirt at a party (I did a great job convincing myself to let it go because, well, it was his birthday party); the guy who announces his presence in a room by coming up behind girls and massaging their shoulders.
I could keep going.
Most men here don’t do this, but most women have experienced it. Something especially frustrating about this issue is how easy it is to solve. To begin with, guys here need to hold each other to higher standards. Right now, the bar is pretty low.
Again and again, the “nice guys” are complicit. Are they terrified of offending a friend with clout? With money? Or just problem set answers? Too often, these nice guys see themselves as underdogs. Instead of getting bolder with age, they seem to have grown more comfortable ignoring or excusing bad behavior. This isn’t Opening Days anymore; the stakes are higher. A quick cost-benefit analysis of one’s future is all it takes to determine that a man once deemed creepy is now salvageable. Maybe he could put in a good word someplace it counts, invite the nice guy to the party that will change everything, help him switch from underdog to inner circle. Values realign and ranks close.
It’s almost moving, the lengths that men here will go to protect each other.
With so many men — and women — acting as enablers, it feels pointless to push back. Why bother? I’ve asked myself this many times this semester. Years of gaslighting have worked on me. Anxious not to seem bitter or sensitive or like I’m playing the victim, I can instead convince myself that I’m being dramatic. I can continue to go to parties and have a waist ready to be grabbed and a lower back eager to be touched. I can continue to show up and accept what I now know is reality.
When my roommate and I came home from the party our first night back on campus, we commiserated about the guy who groped us, angry at his behavior and angrier at ourselves for not doing anything about it. “I haven’t been groped since March 2020,” my roommate said. At the same time, we both joked: “It’s good to be back.”
Lily J. Davis ’23 is a History & Literature concentrator in Lowell House. Lily Davis is a member of Our Harvard Can Do Better.
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