Does the Ivy League Have a Sexual Assault Problem?


You've heard this story before: A young woman is sexually assaulted on her college campus. She reports it to campus authorities. They take the accusations as a "he said, she said". They do nothing. She goes to therapy, maybe goes on medication, maybe drops out of school. He goes on with his life. The university stays silent in the face of criticism, or perhaps pledges to take "a new look" at its sexual assault policies.

The latest depressing chapter arrived this week at Harvard, where a student penned an anonymous letter in the school newspaper detailing what she says was an assault on her and inaction by her university. The woman was in a friend's dorm room – intoxicated, she writes – when "a friend" pressured her into sexual activity. There wasn't physical force, she says, but there were demands and there was pain inflicted, and she was scared and drunk and trapped between him and a wall.

The woman reported the assault, but Harvard's 20-year-old sexual assault policy is so outdated – less comprehensive than that of all the other Ivies, less inclusive even than the guidelines of the Justice Department – that the administration told her there was little they could do. Under Harvard policy, "Indecent assault and battery involves any unwanted touching or fondling of a sexual nature that is accompanied by physical force or threat of bodily injury." The policy doesn't address consent or intoxication in the context of indecent assault and battery, although it touches on those issues in cases of penetrative rape. Many other schools require "affirmative consent" – that is, you need to get a "yes" before you have sex with someone ... rather than just the absence of a "no".

Harvard joins too long a line of elite universities accused of inadequately meeting the needs of sexual assault survivors: Yale, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, UNC, Occidental and many more. But what might have been easily swept under the rug 10 years ago is now, largely thanks to the internet, a major story.

Why aren't schools like Harvard, with their vast financial and intellectual resources, with their leadership position at the very top of higher education, doing a better job? Why have the best universities in America turned from in loco parentis to incommunicado?

The usual sad suspects are all out again: Ivy League entitlement, institutional self-protection, impulsive identification with the accused rather than the accuser.

Jaclyn Friedman, a sexual assault educator from Boston who has worked with Harvard students, told me that they say young women are bussed in from Boston University and Wellesley to attend parties and social events at Final Clubs – the Harvard equivalent of fraternities.

"The attitude is, 'these girls are lucky to be at this party,'" Friedman says. "That inherent power dynamic feeds right into rape culture."

Sexual assaults like the one detailed by the brave anonymous Harvard student happen when men feel entitled to women's bodies and when men feel as though they can commit bad acts with impunity. And that's what is extra troubling about these Ivy League assaults: they happen at institutions where student identities are entirely grounded in a narrative of exceptionalism.

Does the "I'm special" ethos turn students into rapists? Of course not – sexual assault happens in nearly every corner of the world, and on college campuses of all types. But the Ivy League identity may help to cultivate the assumption that such extraordinariness somehow means there are fewer consequences for the chosen ones.

Studies show that men are more likely to commit acts of sexual violence in communities where sexual violence goes unpunished – a truth reflected in the way we understand assault in institutions like the military and in far-away countries like the Congo, Bosnia and India, where we use the word "impunity" to describe how weak governance and a culture of higher-ups looking the other way allows abuse to thrive.

It can be more difficult to see our own institutions of higher learning in that same context of power and abdication of responsibility – and surely there are innumerable, substantial differences, particularly between rape as a war crime and acquaintance assault. But as different in nearly every way as Harvard may be from Kosovo, the Ivy League implies a similar freedom from consequences, and inadequate sexual assault policies affirm it.

"These are 'Harvard men,'" Friedman tells me. "We assume these aren't the type of guys who would do this sort of thing."

They do, of course, and administrators have to deal with it, uncomfortably. Colleges are not courts of law, and students are disciplined and expelled for a range of activities, including those that don't actually break any criminal codes. Universities often prefer to deal with sexual assault charges themselves for two reasons, one well-intentioned and one significantly less so: to save students the trauma of bringing a difficult-to-win criminal case, and to save the university the embarrassment and attendant dip in enrollment that comes from a public criminal complaint. Given that so many students prefer not to report the kind of assaults that all too commonly occur on college campuses – those involving "a friend" or someone they know – a university's willingness to handle such matters itself is, at least in theory, quite laudable.

But university administrators have to actually deal with it. Colleges are not required to uphold the standard of "innocent until proven guilty"; being on campus is a privilege, not a right, and the university doesn't have the power to deprive students of their personal liberties. But the overwhelming majority of on-campus rapes are committed by a small number of repeat offenders. Most campus assailants commit multiple assaults. This should put administrators in risk-assessment mode. They should take every singly accusation more seriously: keeping an assailant on campus, even if he seems like a nice guy, often means more sexual assault.

Of course there has to be significant care given to ensure a student accused of any offense gets a fair defense. No serious person suggests that an accusation should immediately lead to expulsion from Harvard. There's no perfect way to balance the competing interests here, and universities will never, sadly, be able to ensure that campuses are 100% safe for female students.

Yet there's a lot of space between perfection and the status quo. A school spokesperson told me via email that Harvard is moving to address its sexual assault policy, and there is a new task force, which are good first steps. But the most famously elite university in America should also be instituting transparent processes for dealing with sexual assault accusations, training administrators and judicial boards on how to handle sexual assault cases, and making sure students have a clear understanding of affirmative consent to sex. "No means no" isn't good enough anymore. Harvard should be leading the way.

"These universities, especially Harvard and the elite universities, are supposed to be creating our next generation of thinkers and ideas," Friedman said. "We don’t need perfect answers in order to do something better. They're Harvard. They could consider themselves on the forefront of how to use their creative energies to address this issue."

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