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Harvard Sexual Assault Survivor Writes Heartbreaking Open Letter to the School

On Monday the Harvard Crimson published a harrowing anonymous op-ed revealing the failure of the university to adequately support a survivor of sexual violence.

The piece, titled "Dear Harvard: You Win," details a survivor's unsuccessful fight to get her assailant moved to a different dormitory on campus. It's a powerful firsthand account of how easily rape culture infiltrates college campuses and the very real consequences that outdated sexual assault policies can have on students' lives.

The author writes that after reporting her assault at the hands of a fellow student in 2013 to school officials, she was informed that although her attacker "had verbally pressured [her] into sexual activity and physically hurt [her], the incident did not fall within the scope of the school's narrow definition of sexual assault." She tried to get Harvard to transfer her assailant to a different House (an upperclassmen dormitory that students typically stay in for three years), but her efforts proved fruitless. No longer able to cope with frequently running into the man who had assaulted her, she decided to move: 

"I'm exhausted from avoiding the laundry room, the House library and the mailroom because I'm scared of who I will run into. ... Often, the cough syrup sitting in my drawer or the pavement several floors down from my window seem like reasonable options. ... I will be moving out of my House next semester, if only — quite literally — to save my life."

She also states that officials' repeated refusal to take meaningful action left her feeling "hopeless, powerless, betrayed, and worthless."

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Harvard has taken steps in the past towards better supporting students, such as with the creation of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, but many believe that without legislative changes this isn't enough. The school's sexual assault policy was adopted more than 20 years ago in 1993, and its language clearly is in need of an update. Students agree: Last fall, more than 3,000 undergraduates voted for Harvard to re-evaluate the policy, which defines rape as "any act of sexual intercourse that takes place against a person's will or that is accompanied by physical coercion or the threat of bodily injury," and that "unwillingness may be expressed verbally or physically." 

The campus organization Our Harvard Can Do Better, officially endorsed by the Undergraduate Council in December 2013, has demanded that the university implement a more expansive policy of "affirmative consent" that would redefine sexual assault "as occurring in the absence of enthusiastic verbally or physically expressed consent."

Harvard is the only Ivy League school not to have adopted this policy.

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Importantly, Our Harvard Can Do Better's platform also advocates for "comprehensive and inclusive sexual assault prevention/response training to all students every year." Proper training is essential to the handling of sexual assault cases. The author of the op-ed doesn't consider the administrators she's dealt with to be bad people; rather, she believes they "have no idea how to do deal with cases of sexual violence, because they have not been trained sufficiently. ... They simply do not know, and, as a result, they do more harm than good when trying to handle cases of sexual violence."

Harvard's sexual assault policies are currently under review, but for this young woman, change didn't come soon enough. The author believes that her "assailant will remain unpunished, and life on this campus will continue its course as if nothing had happened." She continues, "Today, Harvard, I am writing to let you know that you have won."

We hope she's proven wrong.

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