Dear Harvard: You Win
Editors’ Note: This is a first-person, present-tense account of the aftermath of a sexual assault that took place in 2013. For reasons of both style and substance, we have left it in present tense.
I’m writing this piece as I’m sitting in my own dining hall, only a few tables away from the guy who pressured me into sexual activity in his bedroom, one night last spring. My hands are trembling as they hover across the keyboard. I’m exhausted from fighting for myself. I’m exhausted from sending emails to my resident dean, to my House Master, to my Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment tutors, to counselors from the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, to my attorney. I’m exhausted from asking for extensions because of “personal issues.” I’m exhausted from avoiding the laundry room, the House library and the mailroom because I’m scared of who I will run into.
More than anything, I’m exhausted from living in the same House as the student who sexually assaulted me nine months ago.
I’ve spent most of 2013 fighting the Harvard administration so that they would move my assailant to a different House, and I have failed miserably. Several weeks ago, in a grey room on the fourth floor of the Holyoke Center, my psychiatrist officially diagnosed me with depression. I did not budge, and I was not surprised. I developed an anxiety disorder shortly after moving back to my House this fall, and running into my assailant up to five times a day certainly did not help my recovery.
“How about we increase your dose from 100 to 150 milligrams a day,” my psychiatrist said in a mechanical, indifferent voice. Sure thing.
This morning, as I swallowed my three blue pills of Sertraline and tried to forget about the nightmares that haunted my night, I finally admitted it to myself: I have lost my battle against this institution. Seven months after I reported what happened, my assailant still lives in my House. I am weeks behind in the three classes I’m taking. I have to take sleeping pills every night to fall and stay asleep, and I routinely get nightmares in which I am sexually assaulted in public. I cannot drink alcohol without starting to cry hysterically. I dropped my favorite extracurriculars because I cannot find the energy to drag myself out of bed. I do not care about my future anymore, because I don’t know who I am or what I care about or whether I will still be alive in a few years. I spend most of my time outside of class curled up in bed, crying, sleeping, or staring at the ceiling, occasionally wondering if I just heard my assailant’s voice in the staircase. Often, the cough syrup sitting in my drawer or the pavement several floors down from my window seem like reasonable options.
Dear Harvard: I am writing to let you know that I give up. I will be moving out of my House next semester, if only—quite literally—to save my life. You will no longer receive emails from me, asking for something to be done, pleading for someone to hear me, explaining how my grades are melting and how I have developed a mental illness as a result of your inaction. My assailant will remain unpunished, and life on this campus will continue its course as if nothing had happened. Today, Harvard, I am writing to let you know that you have won.
He was a friend of mine and I trusted him. It was a freezing Friday night when I stumbled into his dorm room after too many drinks. He took my shirt off and started biting the skin on my neck and breast. I pushed back on his chest and asked him to stop kissing me aggressively. He laughed. He said that I should “just wear a scarf” to cover the marks. He continued to abuse my body, hurting my breast and vagina. He asked me to use my mouth. I said no. I was intoxicated, I was in pain, I was trapped between him and the wall, and I was scared to death that he would continue to ignore what I said. I stopped everything and turned my back to him, praying he would leave me alone. He started getting impatient. “Are you only going to make me hard, or are you going to make me come?” he said in a demanding tone.
It did not sound like a question. I obeyed.
Shortly after I reported my sexual assault to my House staff, I was told by a senior member of the College administration that the Administrative Board was very unlikely to “issue a charge” against my assailant and to launch a thorough investigative process because my assailant may not have technically violated the school’s policy in the student handbook. Even though he had verbally pressured me into sexual activity and physically hurt me, the incident did not fall within the scope of the school’s narrow definition of sexual assault.
The policy, published in the spring of 1993, defines “indecent assault and battery” to be anything involving “unwanted touching or fondling of a sexual nature that is accompanied by physical force or threat of bodily injury.” It does not provide any definition of consent beyond the brief mention, in its definition of rape, that a victim cannot consent if he or she is unable to express unwillingness due to alcohol or drugs, among other factors.
I could still press charges in front of the Ad Board, I was told, but they would probably be dropped because my situation did not match the language of a 20-year-old policy. The last thing I wanted was for my assailant to feel vindicated if the Ad Board dropped the case. After two horrible weeks spent curled up in bed drinking, crying, and trying to come to a decision in the middle of reading period, I decided not to open a case.
The school was extremely reluctant to take any action against my assailant without a fair investigative process. In theory, this approach makes perfect sense. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and you cannot take severe action against a student—such as forcing him to move to a different House—without a formal investigation process. But in practice, this works against sexual assault survivors at Harvard. Our policy is so outdated and narrow in scope that it discourages survivors from entering an investigative process in the first place. And without such a process, Harvard will take very little action against the alleged perpetrator.
And so I found myself in the middle of the worst scenario possible: I couldn’t get Harvard to move my assailant to a different House without going to the Ad Board, but I could not go to the Ad Board because of the school’s narrow policy.
In an attempt to comply with Title IX regulation—which requires universities to provide a safe environment to survivors of sexual assault—school officials told me about 20 times that I should feel free to transfer to a different House if I wanted to. At first, this option felt unfair. Why should I be the one moving when I had done nothing wrong? Did this imply that what had happened to me was my fault? Then, the idea of transferring felt utterly disempowering. Moving to a different House would have felt like giving up and granting even more power to my assailant. At last, moving out felt flat-out impossible. I could see myself slowly descending into mental illness, and I knew I would spiral out of control quickly without my blockmates and favorite tutors around to support me. If I was going to go down, I thought at least I deserved to be surrounded by my closest friends. And so I decided to stay.
There had to be other options for me out there, I thought. I got the school to issue a no-contact order against my assailant. I convinced myself that if I pushed hard enough, if I made enough noise, someone somewhere would hear me, stand up, do something.
But no one really did. Confidentiality rules prevent me from revealing most of what was—or was not—done to respond to my report. Ironically, if I were to reveal this information, I could risk getting disciplined. What I can say, however, is that in my opinion, the school’s limited response amounted to the equivalent of a slap on the hand for my assailant. After unsuccessfully suggesting a number of interventions that could have helped me better live with my situation, I eventually got the persistent impression that my House staff believed I was fussing over nothing.
There are few things more disempowering than being sexually assaulted. You suddenly and unexpectedly find yourself in a situation where someone else—perhaps someone you trusted or loved—claims absolute authority over your body. You are desperately trying to have your voice heard and to assert control over what is being done to you, but are systematically shut down until you are forced to simply wait for it to be over. In that context, being practically denied the right to decide what you want to do with your story, being told that something with the potential to be as empowering as prosecuting your assailant is unlikely to result in any action, being denied several requests that you think will help you heal—those things truly make you feel hopeless, powerless, betrayed, and worthless.
Seeing how your school officials refuse to validate how upset you are over and over again is equally damaging. When I told my House Master that I was considering an Ad Board process, I was told it was a bad time of the semester, that there would be consequences for my assailant anyway, and that we shouldn’t go through the process if it was going to be fruitless. Shortly after, my resident dean told me that my assailant couldn’t be punished because he didn’t know what he was doing. The resident dean compared living in the same House as my assailant to a divorced couple working in the same factory. My House Master and my dean encouraged me to forgive my assailant and move on. Someone at University Health Services asked me if it was possible that my drinking habits were the problem, because it seemed like they had led to my sexual assault. And always, at the end of those discussions, I would hear the same thing over and over again: “We want you to get all the support that you need.”
I know deep down that all those administrators are not bad people. They want to be supportive, and they really try to be. But they have no idea how to do deal with cases of sexual violence because they have not been trained sufficiently. They use insensitive language, unfortunate comparisons, and empty phrases to avoid any liability issues that could come up. They simply do not know, and, as a result, they do more harm than good when trying to handle cases of sexual violence.
Moreover, these administrators operate within a system that offers little alternative for people in my situation and bounds administrators to inaction because their jobs depend on it. This system is a product of a broader rape culture that permeates our society—a culture in which it is acceptable to blame a victim of assault for drinking too much, in which the burden is always on the survivor to advocate for her- or himself, in which inaction is always preferred, if only to make sure the assailant does not sue anyone for unfair punishment. But that does not mean that we cannot do anything to change the way we handle sexual assault at Harvard.
I might have lost my battle, but I also hope that this story can initiate a serious discussion about the way we want to handle cases like mine as a community. Do we really want survivors who speak up to be systematically shut down if their experience does not fit some criteria for sexual assault written in 1993? Do we really want to let survivors advocate for themselves until they are so exhausted that they collapse into depression?
We need more options for survivors who do not want to—or are unable to—open an Ad Board case. We need school officials to receive extensive training about how to handle sexual assault and talk to survivors. More importantly, we need the school to start listening to its students when they vote on sexual assault policy, and to survivors when they knock on administrators’ doors with a mental illness. The current review of the College’s sexual assault policy is a step in the right direction. But there is much left to be done to make sure student voices are heard.
The last time I met with my resident dean, I told my dean about my depression, and how I thought it had been caused by the lack of validation and empathy I had received from the Harvard faculty. I said that it would be immensely helpful for me to know that my dean, not as a school official but as a human being, understood my pain and empathized with it. I asked my dean to take a step back from the situation and to admit that I had not been served well by the Harvard system. My pleas were met with a refusal to comment and an argument that it was not an administrator’s role to criticize Harvard’s sexual assault policy.
If my resident dean refuses to question the current policy we have in place, then I will. Dear Harvard: You might have won, but I still have a voice. And I plan on using it as much as I can to make things change.
Editors’ Note: We made the decision to run this op-ed anonymously due to the private and intensely personal nature of its content. It is our hope that this piece will bring to light issues that affect members of our community and inform campus-wide conversations on sexual violence and health services at Harvard.
Readers should also note that online commenting has been disabled for this piece in an effort to help protect the author's identity.
—Brian L. Cronin and Anja C. Nilsson, Editorial Chairs
—Samuel Y. Weinstock, President