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Ivy League men should know 'no means no'

This past week a Harvard student wrote an anonymous letter in the school newspaper, the Harvard Crimson detailing what she says was an assault on her and inaction by her university and stating that 'the school's limited response amounted to the equivalent of a slap on the hand for my assailant.'

Harvard joins a line of elite universities accused of inadequately meeting the needs of sexual assault survivors: Yale, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, UNC, Occidental and many more. But what might have been easily swept under the rug 10 years ago is now, largely thanks to the internet, a major story.

You've no doubt heard this story before: A young woman is sexually assaulted on her college campus. She reports it to campus authorities. They take the accusations as a "he said, she said". They do nothing. She goes to therapy, maybe goes on medication, maybe drops out of school. He goes on with his life. The university stays silent in the face of criticism, or perhaps pledges to take "a new look" at its sexual assault policies.

Does it come down to Ivy League entitlement, institutional self-protection, impulsive identification with the accused rather than the accuser. Sexual assaults like the one detailed by the brave anonymous Harvard student happen when men feel entitled to women's bodies and when men feel as though they can commit bad acts with impunity. And that's what is extra troubling about these Ivy League assaults: they happen at institutions where student identities are entirely grounded in a narrative of exceptionalism.

Does the "I'm special" ethos turn students into rapists? Of course not – sexual assault happens in nearly every corner of the world, and on college campuses of all types. But the Ivy League identity may help to cultivate the assumption that such extraordinariness somehow means there are fewer consequences for the chosen ones.

Studies show that men are more likely to commit acts of sexual violence in communities where sexual violence goes unpunished – For sure the halls of the Ivy Leagues are a long way from assaults  that are all too common in institutions like the military and in far-away countries like the Congo, Bosnia and India, but the overwhelming majority of on-campus rapes are committed by a small number of repeat offenders. Most campus assailants commit multiple assaults.

This should put administrators in risk-assessment mode. They should take every singly accusation more seriously: keeping an assailant on campus, even if he seems like a nice guy, often means more sexual assault.

Of course there has to be significant care given to ensure a student accused of any offense gets a fair defense. No serious person suggests that an accusation should immediately lead to expulsion from Harvard. There's no perfect way to balance the competing interests here, and universities will never, sadly, be able to ensure that campuses are 100% safe for female students.

Yet there's a lot of space between perfection and the status quo. While Harvard is moving to address its sexual assault policy with a new task force, the most famously elite university in America should also be instituting transparent processes for dealing with sexual assault accusations, training administrators and judicial boards on how to handle sexual assault cases, and making sure students have a clear understanding of affirmative consent to sex. "No means no" isn't good enough anymore. Harvard should be leading the way along with the other elite universities, to be on the forefront of how to use their creative energies to address this issue after all they are supposed to be creating our next generation of thinkers and ideas.


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