A personal account of sexual assault on campus.
Readers: Please be aware that the content of this article contains potentially distressing material.
The Undergraduate Council has proposed new incentives to get student groups to engage with the issue of sexual harassment and assault. Unfortunately, it’s too late for me. The skit at the beginning of Opening Days tried to teach my class about what sexual assault looked like but they left out the part where you break into hard, ugly sobs at random moments, withdraw from the people and activities you love, and cease to be your old self. It is crucial to focus on preventing sexual assault, but it is torture to see few initiatives to help students like me who were not able to prevent it.
Harvard’s Undergraduate Council now requires executive board members from clubs receiving significant funding from the UC to participate in sexual assault prevention training, which is provided by the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR) and Consent Advocates and Relationship Educators (CARE). However, as someone who was sexually assaulted by someone I had met through a large student group on campus, I’m confident that stipulating mandatory training only for the executive board won’t be effective enough. I do agree that sexual assault prevention training must span beyond the first week Harvard students arrive on campus and perhaps the most crucial social setting to target would be student groups and organizations. Especially for clubs with intensive requirements for prospective members, adding a workshop to educate students about sexual assault would be a simple addition to the comp process.
At Harvard, much of a student’s social life comes from the student groups that they get involved in and the people they meet through these clubs are the friends with which they will likely spend much of their time. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) has released many statistics but the most relevant would be that four out of five assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. My first interactions with the boy who would later attempt to rape me were all through our shared club, into which we both have invested our time. I never would have believed that the boy who kept me company at one of the organizations big events would ever force me to drink alcohol until I would be physically unable to force him off of me. I know that I never would have met many of my best friends if we weren’t all committed to this club, which is also why it was so hard for me to share with them what had happened. Many of my assailant’s friends have seniority in this club that I’ve devoted my time and energy to. Being forced to answer to his best friends and knowing they heard a twisted version of what happened has dampened the enjoyment I get out of the organization and work I do with them, but I refuse to give up. He never got my consent but at least I can guarantee he’ll never get my club. He may have taken advantage of me but I won’t let him take away the things I’m passionate about.
To those who have not experienced sexual assault at the hands of someone assumed to be a friend, it may seem ludicrous not to file a report. Logically, I understand I would feel safer if I reported him. I wouldn’t have to always look behind me when I’m in certain spaces that he likely would be, or always need a friend with me to buffer any potentially triggering situation. Yet, somehow, the fear of having to report him and tell those around me what he did to me is greater than what I felt when the assault happened. When your attempted rapist frequently appears in your house, crowding you out of your own safe spaces within the common room and dining hall just with their presence, it becomes a natural reflex to withdraw into yourself. Harvard’s student body isn’t big enough to hide in when house life and campus events are an integral part of the experience here. Since we met through our shared network of friends and club, I know I would never be able to get my life back and the matter would involve many others besides the two of us. Instead, I have learned to compose myself when forced into a social situation with the boy who assaulted me because I understand that if I spoke up I would lose a large part of my social life.
If I had learned more about what to do when sexual assault happens, rather than only preventative measures I could take, I would have recovered faster and been left with more options. Rather than documenting the bruises on my body – of which there were many – I tried to scrape away any trace of what had happened. I couldn’t forget the way his hands felt wrapped around my neck or holding me down, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. My mental health suffered drastically from the assault, in part due to efforts to cover up everything that had happened. I didn’t seek treatment, although I know I should have with the degree of physical damage there was to me. I still haven’t admitted what happened to anyone outside of my close-knit group of friends, including one whose room I ran to after the assault happened because I couldn’t be alone. While it is entirely true that what happened was not my fault and my attempted rapist is a monster, I still struggled with the guilt and regret that I could have somehow prevented what happened. I refused to tell others because I believed they would blame me, and to some extent I’m still doing so by not coming forward.
I realized at the end of the incident that what had happened was sexual assault and that the boy who wouldn’t stop telling me what we would do “next time” had tried to rape me. Perhaps it was the fact that I felt entirely defeated and left without anything left to lose, but that ball of fear he instilled in me made room for me to make him to admit what he had just forced me to do. He acknowledged I had asked to leave and for him to stop, that he forced me to drink alcohol, and that he had been entirely in control of the situation. But when I clarified the definition of rape, he refused to accept what he had done fell into the realm of sexual assault. The boy who attempted to rape me honestly believes he did nothing wrong. That’s what terrifies me – someone may genuinely never realize what they’re doing is ruining another person’s life and wrong. That’s why I need there to be more widespread discussion about sexual assault, because without it people like myself and my attacker will struggle with what is assault. For me, that meant blaming myself and suffering from the confusion and guilt I felt after the assault. For him, that meant assaulting me.
Harvard’s campus cannot only seek to prevent rape, but also to provide more support for those victims whose attackers slipped through the cracks. This is not an issue that can be addressed solely by restricting funding for clubs who fail to train members of their executive board.
The Harvard Independent (firstname.lastname@example.org) hopes this article might continue progress and dialogue on our campus. Readers, please do not hesitate to reach out to us or OSAPR (office: 617-496-5636 hotline: 617-495-9100) regarding any questions or reactions to this article.