He slid his hand onto her thigh and her heart, startled, jumped into its heartstrings, noosed itself in her throat, closing it up tight. She could not speak, she could not breathe, but she knew if she moved another inch, something would go wrong. Someone would notice and she would be told she’s overreacting, or she’ll cause a scene that will make her chances at making something out this relationship or networking in this space moot. Or—even worse—no one will notice. No one will see her fury, her anger, her fear muzzled under that grasp, that handle of ownership as if she were nothing more than a piece of furniture, an object. Either way, the moment he put his hands on her, she lost her breath and her words hung trepidatiously, in the balance between the muzzle and her heart.
Did this make you cringe—did it evoke an uncomfortable squirm, a loosening of the tie—how about a swallowing of a gulp of air, in appreciation of the privilege of its clarity? Even worse: Does it sound commonplace, ordinary—like it could have happened here at Harvard?
This example was the awful beginning of a real-life encounter for model Trish Goff, who was assaulted and groped by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. She and 30 other women (and counting) have recently come forward after a New York Times article broke the news that Weinstein had been paying off his victims to avoid going public with their sexual harassment allegations for decades. Recounts of these incidents are graphic: Survivors report levels of harassment and assault from sexual demands to forced oral sex. This outpouring of sexual assault claims against a man in the media is not uncommon as of late; Bill Cosby and President Donald Trump are among others whose crimes against women have been unveiled in recent years.
Having to suffer through any type of sexual harassment or sexual assault is absolutely unacceptable and unbearable. And yet, most of these women held onto this secret for years—decades even. Sexual assault survivor McKayla Maroney, an Olympic gold medalist, suggests this hesitation comes from a fear of putting one’s “careers and dreams in jeopardy”. Self-blame, inability to provide proof, the feeling of humiliation, and myriad other reasons prevent survivors from sharing their stories.
All of the aforementioned barriers to coming forward with sexual assault can easily be applied to the female community at Harvard. The ambitious environment here that women are taught to “act aggressively in” boils with the danger for these kind of encounters to occur. Given the high propensity for students to want to network with others they see in a position of power for future career moves, there is an all-too-real opportunity for these individuals to take advantage of a situation. This is a product of the overall exclusionary nature of the campus, breeding this need to prove one’s self in these social spaces in an effort to feel as though one belongs. As this need proliferates within these elite and exclusive spheres (a relative facsimile to the elitism and exclusivity of Hollywood), the cycle of sexual assault is perpetuated.
Stemming from the same fears that Maroney spoke to, many survivors of these situations may then hide the truth of this encounter—in part because of the fear of losing a occupational opportunity, and in part because of the cutthroat campus culture that couples an inability to handle being at Harvard with a lack of worthiness to be here. Just 16 percent of women at Harvard, compared to the national 37 percent, feel it is extremely likely the school would take action if the offense was reported. Thus, sexual assault can quickly become hidden, tucked away from the public eye.
Final clubs are an unfortunate case study for this type of interaction to manifest itself, as they are the second most common place for these assaults to occur after dorm rooms. Women at Harvard College who participate in final clubs are 16 percentage points more likely to experience sexual assault relative to the regular Harvard College female senior, according to a sexual climate survey conducted in the spring of 2015. Moreover, there has been a history of unreported sexual assault on this campus, which is inexcusable.
The bravery of the women who came out against Harvey Weinstein must not only be commended, but held as an example to all women that they too can speak out against sexual harassment and assault (if it is in the best interest of their mental health, of course). The recent social media campaign #MeToo has been empowering in this sense, creating a space where women at all ends of the spectrum of sexual harassment can empathize with one another and bring attention to this issue.
Here at Harvard, we can use this as an example for us too, encouraging our survivors to come forward with their stories to show that sexual assault or harassment on our campus has no place here, and that situations like the one described above should never occur again.
Jessenia N. Class ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.