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College Sexual Assault: How Students Can Help Prevent Rape On Campus

Warning: This post discusses themes that include sexual assault and violence.

"After hearing about the rapes, I was hyper vigilant in the beginning of the year," my friend said as we made our way through Harvard Square, "but I guess at a certain point, things just got back to normal."

We continued our conversation, distantly recalling the two sexual assaults reported near Harvard Yard earlier this summer. But that was months ago, right?

I was once again reminded of the prevalence of violence against women on Monday. A woman, only steps from her dorm, was attacked by two men at 1:35 a.m. Thankfully, she fought them off, found safety, and was able to report the incident. While these three incidents have created heightened awareness about sexual assault on campus, the reality is that its prevalence is much higher, at Harvard and elsewhere — 1 in 5 college-aged women are assaulted during their college years.

The discrepancy between popular conceptions of sexual violence (usually a stranger lurking in the dark) and the often enacted reality creates a dangerous fallacy about what "really counts." In fact, the type of attacks communicated by Harvard University Police Department are by far the minority of usual sexual assaults. According to the National Institute of Justice, 80-90% of campus assaults are committed by a perpetrator who knows the assault survivor. According to the U.S. Justice Department, instead of happening in a hidden corner of a college quad, 60% of completed rapes that occur on campus take place in the survivor's residence; 31% occur in other living quarters.

We must debunk the idea that rape only occurs when campus police like HUPD sends out an alert. Rape happens. It happens at Harvard, and it happens at college campuses across the country. It is why programs like Campus SaVe found within the 2013 Violence Against Women Act are necessary and why college students ought to recognize our shared responsibility in stopping these attacks. 

I want to explicitly state that I do not believe that acknowledgement of sexual violence is acceptance; rather, I argue the opposite. Bringing sexual violence into mainstream discourse refutes the idea that it is the survivor's, not society's problem. However, as I have personally experienced, sometimes circumstances prevent public objection — either because of safety concerns, cultural norms, or even immigration status. It is this negotiation that often complicates sexual violence reporting. 

For example, according to statistics from the Justice Department, just under 3% of all college women become rape survivors (either completed or attempted) in a nine-month academic year. To take Harvard as an example, with an undergraduate population of around 6,500 undergrads, our number would of rape survivor women would be about 100 each year. It is important to remember that when counting survivors of other genders this number would undoubtedly increase. 

To visualize that number, the number of rape survivors for each academic year should overflow Fong Auditorium on exam day. The number of rape survivors should probably be around the same size of Harvard's varsity football team, overflow two shuttles, and easily fill the stage of Sanders Theater, Harvard's largest classroom. Gathering these numbers for multiple years, between 650 and 825 of current Harvard undergrads have been survivors of a completed or attempted sexual assault. 

Yet because of extraordinarily legitimate concerns that include not being believed by authorities, reprisal of the perpetrator, not thinking it was serious enough to report, or because the survivor knows the perpetrator, sexual assault is widely underreported. The most updated of HUPD’s reported assault is 13. This number is actually higher than the average 5% of national campus reports, but widely below the 40% reporting rate that occurs in the general population. Reporting rape is not the same as stopping rape, but it is a tool in our arsenal and a reminder that survivors are not alone. Sexual assault happens, even at Harvard, and it's time for this to stop. 

Here are some action steps you can take to help prevent sexual assault:

First, do not rape. Do not violate another person. Obtain affirmative consent. End rape culture. Respect other human beings.

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, there are numerous organizations that are here to help. At Harvard, we are fortunate to have our own Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response as well as other local resources like the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and The Network/La Red (specifically for LGBT survivors).

Additionally, most universities already have Title IX coordinators who are there to respond to gender-based discrimination. Nationally, organizations like the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network and Male Survivor are excellent resources.

If you are a friend of a survivor who comes to you for help, please listen to them. It sounds obvious, but your friend has already shown immense trust in you and believing their story is immensely important. This is especially for “less obvious” sexual violence, like stalking.

If someone comes to you with a concern, I pray to God that the words "You're just overreacting," "Can't you take a compliment?" or "I think you were asking for it" will never come out of your mouth. Your friend is legitimately afraid, and human empathy would go a long way. I promise.

Support programs like Campus SaVe (a national program that would require all campus to provide preventative sexual assault programming) and the 2013 version of the Violence Against Women Act that pledges $12,000,000 to fighting gender violence on American campus every fiscal year from 2014 to 2018. It passed the Senate and is awaiting House approval. Call your rep today!

Recognizing that rape happens on college campuses, and happens at places like Harvard, ought not to shame the survivor. It should spur us to continued and strengthened action, while reminding ourselves that we are a community of students, friends, and humans. Enough, stop rape now. 

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