Consent-Free Campus: How Harvard's Weak Sexual Violence Definitions Are Failing Students

Campus von Harvard
Campus von Harvard

Hypothetical #2: The Post Study Session

Jordan and Lee meet at a party, where Lee begins to flirt with Jordan. Both are new students at HKS [Harvard Kennedy School]... Lee starts to kiss and touch Jordan, who is surprised but does not resist. Although confused about the situation, Jordan voluntarily kisses and touches Lee back. Lee then initiates sex with Jordan. Jordan hesitates and says, "I don't think this is a great idea," but does not move. Jordan starts to cry. They have sex.

The aforementioned scenario is not a product of my imagination, but a direct quote from the Title IX orientation materials at Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS). In our first week on campus, my peers and I were asked to discuss this hypothetical to figure out what, if anything, we would have done differently. Perhaps more disturbing than the tragic story presented was the fact that our group of 60 Master's students could not come to consensus on whether or not this case constituted sexual assault. When we asked the supervising faculty if the situation would be considered rape at Harvard, we were told it was up for us to debate; when we asked about the Harvard definition of consent, we were told there is none; when we left, we were appalled.

Like many universities across the country, Harvard has come under fire and federal investigation for mishandling cases of sexual assault and harassment. I was disheartened (but not surprised) when an email from the Dean of HKS hit my inbox, laying bare the staggering rates of violence on campus. Harvard University is one of 27 universities across the country to recently undergo a sexual conduct survey under the auspices of the Association of American Universities (AAU). The survey found that among female undergraduate respondents, 25.5% reported non-consensual sexual contact during their time at Harvard, with troubling results reported by every other sector of the campus (male undergraduate - 6.5%; female graduate students 7.6%; male graduate students - 1.7%). Based on the proven trend that sexual violence is drastically underreported, these devastating numbers could be even larger.

Bizarrely enough, while the AAU survey methodology defined "non-consensual sexual contact" as occurring under coercion or in the absence of affirmative consent (AAC), no such definition appears anywhere in Harvard policies. After scouring the pages of the Harvard University Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy, I was disappointed with the bland "it kinda depends" attitude that echoed my orientation experience. In fact, the policy section defining "unwelcome conduct," gave the nebulous response that, "whether conduct is unwelcome is determined based on the totality of the circumstances, including various objective and subjective factors."

Now, I am not of the mind that college students are inherently violent or particularly evil. And it is a fallacy that the pervasive rates of assaults are perpetrated by a few bad seeds. The truth of the matter is that most sexual offenders on college campuses are friends or acquaintances of their victims. They could be my friends, or my friends' friends. So if we are to assume that rape is being perpetrated by sometimes intelligent, friendly, even nice men, there must be other issues at hand.

It is my (and many researchers') belief that warped views of consent during sexual encounters play a huge part of the problem, adding to students' insecurity on campus. The Journal of American College Health has shown that rape myths, such as the belief that "if a girl doesn't fight back or say no it can't be rape," are all too common among college men, leading many to misidentify what counts as rape and consent. This lack of understanding is compounded by what some researchers call the "miscommunication theory." This theory posited by Deborah Tannen argues "that at least some men either do not understand that they need to obtain consent from their sexual partners or they do not understand what obtaining consent looks like during a sexual encounter... If the miscommunication theory is accurate, an affirmative-consent model such as California's "yes means yes" policy may be effective in reducing rates of sexual assault." According to California State Law, "affirmative consent" is affirmative, conscious, voluntary, ongoing, and actively sought from both partners. Under "yes means yes," neither silence nor absence of a "no" condone sexual conduct. Given this understanding, what Jordan experienced in the eerie Title IX scenario was explicitly rape--and at Harvard, it should be understood as such.

If my institution truly believes that sexual violence on this campus is a travesty, then it needs to provide a framework for understanding the difference between consensual sex, nonconsensual misconduct and serious sexual crimes. To prevent Harvard students from perpetrating violence and to punish those who do, we need to move towards a new policy of affirmative consent and guarantee the well-being of every individual on campus. Harvard University President Drew Faust made a statement in the aftermath of the AAU survey with which I must vociferously agree. She said that "all of us share the obligation to create and sustain a community of which we can all be proud, a community whose bedrock is mutual respect and concern for one another.  Sexual assault is intolerable, and we owe it to one another to confront it openly, purposefully, and effectively. This is our problem." There is no excuse for a consent-free campus. Not at Harvard, not anywhere.