Harvard Ignored Sexual Assault Thirty Years Ago


Déjà vu all over again.

A long-forgotten sexual harassment survey conducted in 1983 by Harvard found that half of undergraduate women reported being subjected to unwanted sexual behavior by fellow students. However these results are not available online, have not been extensively covered by journalists, and, most shockingly, were largely ignored by the Harvard administration at the time.

Close analysis of the 1983 results could shed light on the much anticipated 2015 “Sexual Conduct Survey” data, which is expected to be released in several days, by revealing that sexual assault among Harvard’s undergraduate population has been a recorded and documented issue which Harvard has ignored for some thirty years now.

In 1983, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences conducted a survey titled “Unwanted Attention: Report on Sexual Harassment Survey.” The survey was in response to brewing scandals involving the sexual misconduct of faculty members and was sent to all faculty and a random sample of Harvard students. The aim of the survey was to examine the use of University “authority or position to gain sexual favors” from subordinates; the majority of questions focused on sexual harassment issues in the classroom between faculty and students.

However, the researchers also decided to add in 12 short questions about ‘peer to peer’ conduct, and it is these results that are truly staggering: 52 percent of female undergraduates experienced unwanted “sexual gestures” from peers; 27 percent had experienced “pressure for sexual favors,” and 47 percent reported “unwanted touching.” Lastly, 2 percent of female undergraduates, or about 15 of the 720 women undergraduates who responded, had experienced “actual or attempted rape or sexual assault” by a peer at the University.

By contrast, misconduct by ‘people of authority’ was much less common: 19 percent of female undergraduates had experienced unwanted ‘sexual gestures’ from faculty; 3 percent had experienced “pressure for sexual favors,” and 12 percent experienced “unwanted deliberate touching.” There was one report of actual or attempted rape by a person of authority.

Though the results of the ‘peer to peer’ questions were far more striking, they were not made public at the time and led to no reforms by the university or even public discourse by students themselves. Instead, it was the far less dramatic news about faculty misconduct that got attention – including a story in the New York Times. In response, the University overhauled its policy regarding student-faculty interaction, and a number of faculty members were fired or resigned. Yet, still, nothing was done to address the issue of peer-to-peer assault.


Fast-forward to present day, when mounting pressure finally has Harvard scrambling to respond to an issue they’ve known about for thirty years.

The year 2014 brought an onslaught of attention on the issue of sexual assault from all directions. In March of 2014, the student group Our Harvard Can Do Better filed a complaint with the DOE asserting that the College’s sexual assault policies failed to comply with federal law. In April, the Office for Civil Rights began formally investigating the College’s sexual assault policies. In May, The Department of Education’s OCR released a public list of 55 institutions of higher education under investigation for possible violations of federal law. Both Harvard College and Harvard Law School were on that list.

The university responded to this pressure with hurried reforms. In the fall of 2014, Harvard released an updated sexual assault policy in accordance with Title IX, which used the “preponderance of evidence” standard to decide cases of sexual assault. On April 16th 2014, President Drew Faust announced the formation of the Sexual Assault Task Force to assess Harvard’s policies. And, last spring, Harvard conducted its Sexual Conduct Survey in order to quantify the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault on campus; in short, looking for results that were already completely obvious in 1983.


Although the recent hurried response to student and government pressure has yielded positive progress on campus, such measures should have been implemented long ago. It took pressure by the federal government, student action and now the long anticipated results of the survey, to get Harvard’s attention, and to finally protect, defend, and listen to Harvard undergraduate women.

That Harvard made a great error in ignoring the complaints of undergraduate women in 1983 is most evident in reading the words of one such forgotten voice in the 1983 survey.  Her words, sadly, are not so different than those spoken by women on campus today.

“I would like to see more open discussions and forums on sexual harassment. It is a problem. Rape happens. Acquaintance rapes happen…The University has an obligation to confront the dangerous warped conceptions of violence, of male-female relationships, of sexuality and of dominance and ego. I want to feel confident and proud without having to worry about being threatening and I want to trust and to love without fearing for my soul or my life.”

The results of the 2015 Sexual Conduct Survey will be released in the next few days, and it doesn’t take much journalistic guesswork to predict that the outcome won’t be pretty. The real story, however, isn’t what these results say, but how long it has taken the administration to listen.

Eloise Lynton ’17 (eloiselynton@college.harvard.edu) isn’t so sure she wants to know about what other news Harvard has buried.