Open Letter By Harvard Student on Rape Raises Questions About Sexual Assault on Campus

On Monday, Harvard's student newspaper The Harvard Crimson published a chilling first-person, present-tense account of a female student's alleged 2013 sexual assault. The title of the article is "Dear Harvard: You Win." And never has there been a more hollow or less deserved victory.

The student wrote:

This morning, as I swallowed my three blue pills of Sertraline and tried to forget about the nightmares that haunted my night, I finally admitted it to myself: I have lost my battle against this institution. Seven months after I reported what happened, my assailant still lives in my House. I am weeks behind in the three classes I’m taking. I have to take sleeping pills every night to fall and stay asleep, and I routinely get nightmares in which I am sexually assaulted in public. I dropped my favorite extracurriculars because I cannot find the energy to drag myself out of bed. I do not care about my future anymore, because I don’t know who I am or what I care about or whether I will still be alive in a few years.

The student goes on to details her alleged attacker and attack with painful clarity.

I said no. 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. I stopped everything and turned my back to him, praying he would leave me alone.

What's perhaps most striking and heartbreaking about the student's piece is her pervasive and overwhelming sense of complete defeat. The student writes of feeling "exhausted," "scared," and feeling that she has failed.

But in the face of her alleged attack, she is not the one who has failed. It is her alleged attacker, and the outdated sexual assault policy and a culture of doubt on college campuses, that have failed her. As a result, she decided to play what was perhaps her final card:

Dear Harvard: I am writing to let you know that I give up. I will be moving out of my House next semester, if only—quite literally—to save my life. My assailant will remain unpunished, and life on this campus will continue its course as if nothing had happened. Today, Harvard, I am writing to let you know that you have won.
William B. Plowman/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Harvard student's account of her alleged sexual assault has raised the important but ugly question of what defines rape. It was not until January 1, 2013 that the national definition of rape was changed by the Department of Justice to depart from the incredibly archaic language of "the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will."

For 85 years, American law enforcement agencies operated under this definition: one that was 11 words long, used a biblical phrase, and was specific to women. Today, the definition has been expanded to include individuals of all genders and explicitly mentions the necessity of consent. The FBI's new summary definition of rape is:

“Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.

Time and time again, it is the survivors of sexual assault who are faulted for his or her attack. There is a societal bias towards victim-blaming, and it's a trend that dates back longer than we'd like to admit. The concept of the "fallen woman" or the "temptress" pervades literature: men who "fall prey" to the wiles of the bewitching female are to be pitied, while the woman is cast aside. Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urberville's is perhaps the most famous examples of this perverse tendency.

This language and attitude is not an artifact of the Victorian age. Rather, it remains very much at play today, with women in particular chastised for being too provocative, for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, for leading their attacker on, for dressing "like a slut." Too often, survivors of these sorts of attacks were "just asking for it." Rape seems to be the only crime where the victim is blamed for bringing the assault upon his or herself.

GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images

There is nothing more alienating or disheartening than being told that you are the reason for your own misfortunes.

In September of 2013, blogger Carina Kolodn wrote on The Huffington Post wrote an incredibly important post entitled "The Conversation You Must Have With Your Sons." In it, she compares the advice parents give to their daughters to the advice they give to their sons.

Kolodny wrote that Conversations like these:

"Be careful with the way you act and the way you dress -- it's easy to get a bad reputation."
"That's just the way boys are -- you can't give them any excuse to behave that way towards you."

"You need to be safe! When you dress that way, some people read it as an invitation."

are far more common than conversations like this...

"A woman doesn't have to be fighting you and you don't have to be pinning her down for it to be RAPE. Intoxication means she can't legally consent, NOT that she's an easy score."

"Your sexual experiences don't dictate your worth just like a woman's sexual experiences don't dictate hers."

Or calling your child out on "using the word 'slut' liberally...or talking about some girl from school as if she were more of a conquest than a person."

The long term repercussions of these kind of double standards is clear. There have been a number of high profile cases, including those at Dartmouth College, Amherst College, Yale University, and other institutions undergoing Title IX investigations. Dartmouth has certainly made progress in its sexual assault policies, adding a mandatory expulsion clause for students found responsible for sexual assault as of the end of March. The school will also use a "trained external investigator to investigate and determine responsibility for sexual assault."

While combatting sexual assault is a show of strength, it is not anything we wish to celebrate. It is a burden of necessity, and one that is carried by those who believe that all students have the right to a safe education.