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Columns

When the Devil Beats His Wife

By Ben A. Roy, Contributing Opinion Writer
Ben A. Roy ’20 is a Classics concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

My friend survived sexual assault recently, and I have spent time trying to comfort her and make sure she is doing alright. As a child, I, too, was sexually assaulted, and, as a friend and a fellow survivor, I want to give her the sort of strength and support I wish I had gotten when it happened to me. As always, it is as reassuring as it is heartbreaking to know that I am not the only one.

“When it happened to me.” In writing this column, I realize my default is to make sexual assault sound like this thing that just happens to unlucky people, like when your dog dies or you come down with the flu. Here’s the thing: It’s not, it’s an outrage every time, and we should stop describing sexual assault in passive and impersonal terms.

If you want people to be careful, you don’t say, “Oh, did you hear? Mrs. Finch was murdered two days ago,” you say, “Someone murdered Mrs. Finch.” We shouldn’t say the “prevalence of sexual misconduct at Harvard remains unchanged from four years ago” — we should say, “There are just as many men raping, groping, leering, stalking, and harassing on campus today as there were four years ago.” We shouldn’t just say 52 percent of female students do not believe that the school “will take appropriate action in response to incidents of harassment and discrimination” — we should make it clear that, “On Harvard’s campus, men are making 52 percent of women feel unsafe, and Harvard isn’t doing enough to protect them.”

Those of us who survive are not just statistics — we each have our own horrific story to tell. But when it comes to speaking up, victims are stuck in a catch-22. In order to stop the perpetrator from hurting more people, the victim must submit to a formal investigation. But any attempt by the victim to alert others to the danger the perpetrator poses to the community is considered a kind of slander until (or rather if) the perpetrator is ever convicted.

In Harvard’s case, even if the victim and the perpetrator live in the same House, administrators are not required to separate them until the Office of Dispute Resolution has issued a final report and the Administrative Board has decided on an appropriate disciplinary response (which usually takes around six weeks!), meaning essentially that if the victim lives in the same House as their abuser, the victim is screwed.

Another issue: Harvard is interested in protecting its brand and public image. This motivation means that Harvard should not be trusted to adjudicate what should be criminal cases.

Just look at the latest person to sue Harvard for big bucks. Damilare Sonoiki ’13 never received his degree after the Ad Board found him responsible for the accusations of sexual assault he faced from three women in his senior year. But now Sonoiki, an immigrant from Nigeria, is claiming that the color of his skin influenced the Ad Board, which at the time did not contain any black men, in making its decision, among other factors in the process. Sonoiki seems to be borrowing from the winning rhetoric of Clarence Thomas, who infamously pulled the race card when he called the Anita Hill hearing a “high-tech lynching.” Still, the allegations against Sonoiki, though serious enough at the time to suspend his diploma, apparently were not serious enough to keep him from delivering the Class Day oration. Apparently, folks, the show must go on. We can only imagine how his accusers must have felt, watching Sonoiki be so publicly honored.

At the end of the day, Harvard seems more afraid of being sued than it is of allowing sex offenders to remain on campus. A reformed Title IX Office and sanctions against final clubs have so far failed to protect innocent students. What they have done, to their credit, is removed the excuse of ignorance from the guilty parties. Mandatory Title IX training means that everyone on this campus who rapes, gropes, leers, stalks, or harasses anyone else does so knowing that they are breaking the law.

So, I believe, the solution should be obvious. We need a real commitment from the University to protect the student body and support victims in their pursuit of legal retribution. Enough empty words, fanfare, and virtue signaling — we need dollars spent, we need complete transparency and accountability from the administration, we need bodies in offices around the clock ready to help victims at a moment’s notice.

And when people commit crimes, they need to be taken to court. Harvard should be doing everything in its power to help victims of sexual assault pursue legal action, regardless of their ability to pay, because justice should not be reserved for the rich, and if not because it’s the right thing to do, then because Harvard needs to atone for the abuses it has looked the other way for during its long and troubled history. A leave of absence is not a punishment, nor is shuffling abusers around to different Houses like some two-bit Catholic Church.

In the South there is a saying that rain falls on a sunny day “when the devil beats his wife.” Too many tears have been shed by too many victims on this campus, because even one is too many, and because we were sold the lie that in college better days lay ahead. Harvard has spent enough time playing God — it’s about time we freed the devil’s wife and sent him where the sun don't shine.

Ben A. Roy ’20 is a Classics concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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