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On sexual assault policy, Harvard falls short

‘I obeyed.”

Those words, written by the anonymous Harvard student whose story of alleged sexual assault went viral this week, could explain — if not justify — the university’s decision to do what the student said it did: nearly nothing to help her recover from what she describes as a devastating incident that still haunts her a year later.

In a letter posted online last week by the Harvard Crimson, the student graphically details a disturbing encounter with a male “friend” whose dorm room she stumbled into “after too many drinks.” He took off her shirt, she writes “and started biting the skin on my neck and breast. I pushed back on his chest and asked him to stop kissing me aggressively . . . I was intoxicated, I was in pain, I was trapped between him and the wall, and I was scared to death that he would continue to ignore what I said.’” He got impatient, demanding more — and “I obeyed,” she writes.

The university’s current policy on what constitutes “indecent assault and battery” defines it as “unwanted touching or fondling of a sexual nature that is accompanied by physical force or threat of bodily injury.” What this student described sounds unwanted. If she was trapped against a wall and feared her aggressor would not stop, there’s threat of bodily harm.


But does “obey” imply some twisted variation of consent?

It might, if you were an institution trying to wiggle out of doing anything much about it.

Campus rape and sexual assault are major issues nationwide. In January, citing studies that show that about one in five college women is a survivor of attempted or completed sexual violence, the White House announced the establishment of a special task force to come up with recommendations to deal with it.


At Harvard, the problem is exacerbated by an antiquated policy that school officials have long refused to update, according to Wendy Murphy, a professor of sexual violence law at New England Law Boston. Murphy, a longtime champion of women’s rights, said she has worked on Harvard Law School cases related to its sexual assault policy. She ended up filing a complaint against Harvard Law School with the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education for alleged noncompliance with federal law in the handling of sexual violence on campus. She has also filed complaints against Princeton and the University of Virginia. Elite schools, she contends, are the worst offenders.

The anonymous Harvard letter writer said the university failed her by discouraging her from making a formal complaint. She also alleges that Harvard administrators declined to do anything to encourage the male student who allegedly attacked her to move out of the dorm they shared.

So she is moving out instead. Or, as the headline over her letter put it: “Dear Harvard: You Win.”

The letter goes on to suggest that the school responded to her allegations with little more than “a slap on the hand.” She also clearly felt administrators had no desire to help her move on from this attack. “I eventually got the persistent impression that my House staff believed I was fussing over nothing.”

Murphy said the letter writer’s story — which Harvard has not disputed — would be different if the school took federal civil rights law on sexual assaults more seriously. “They would have immediately said, ‘The offender will be found responsible because the conduct was unwanted or unwelcome and proving that standard by a preponderance of evidence is easy, especially given her diminished capacity.’ ” Instead, Murphy contends, Harvard applies a stricter standard than a “preponderance of evidence” to such incidents.


When the letter from the anonymous student first went viral, Harvard was silent. Then, Harvard’s dean of student life, Stephen Lassonde, sent an e-mail to undergraduates, noting that Harvard “as an institution and as a community deplores sexual violence and is committed to its prevention and to supporting its victims.” However, details were lacking — an absence duly noted.

On Thursday, Harvard President Drew Faust followed up with a note to the full Harvard community, announcing the formation of a task force to assigned to “develop recommendations about how Harvard can improve efforts to prevent sexual misconduct and develop insight into these issues.”

For the moment, Harvard seems eager to douse the firestorm kicked off by a young woman whose definition of sexual assault is different from its own. Where that ultimately leaves a student who “obeys” an assailant — a classmate who verbally pressured her and physically hurt her — is up to Harvard.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.