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sexual assault victim’s letter to Harvard goes viral in time for sexual assault awareness month

Image: Alexander Hardin

Image: Alexander Hardin

**Trigger warning: discussion of  rape and rape culture**

This just makes me incredibly angry. In an open, anonymous letter to Harvard, a student has shared her story of sexual abuse by a fellow schoolmate that has, at this stage, been ignored by the school itself.

The student, who has been diagnosed with depression and has been fighting an ongoing battle to be heard by her school with regard to punishing the offender and having him removed from her House, writes:

‘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… I’m exhausted from fighting for myself. I’m exhausted from sending emails to my resident dean, to my House Master, to my Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment tutors, to counselors from the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, to my attorney. I’m exhausted from asking for extensions because of “personal issues.” I’m exhausted from avoiding the laundry room, the House library and the mailroom because I’m scared of who I will run into.’

The letter went viral, and Harvard has announced it’s creating a task force to evaluate the school’s sexual assault policy, but it seems too little, too late and what is a task force going to do but stall the immediate action that should be taken to help this student out?

This is one story that I feel needs a disclaimer because, if you’re like me and are a victim of sexual abuse, reading it may be painful.

But, of course, we all need to share in this pain and use it to put those responsible to account. After all, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the U.S., and even though we’re down here in Oz, I think we can take the opportunity to take action to fight this epidemic, especially since a recent study found that sexual violence against women is ‘more than double the global average in Australia and New Zealand.’ That’s an astounding figure, and it has undoubtedly been furthered by the concept of rape culture – ‘a culture in which sexual violence is considered the norm – in which people aren’t taught not to rape, but are taught not to be raped.’ Think about all those times you’ve seen sexual awareness groups put up posters and links saying that you should stop wearing short skirts and should not walk alone at night or drink too much. Any example of this sort of propaganda is rape culture, and it’s sending the message that it is the fault of the victim, whether male or female, but not of the assailant, when it comes to sexual abuse.

One of the biggest organisations working with sexual assault victims in America is RAINN, and they have launched a list of things to do to help raise awareness of these issues during the month of April. This list is, yes, coming from a good place, but I feel like it doesn’t really get to the core issues. Tweeting to a member of Congress or reaching out to a loved one only goes so far – what about addressing huge stories like this one at Harvard? How about protesting in front of the school – really pressuring this huge, rich, institution to help out this victim of sexual abuse?

RAINN was recently interviewed by Washington Post writer Jessica Valenti, who expressed her concerns with RAINN’s insistence that ‘a focus on rape culture is misguided because most young adults know rape is wrong’ and points out that activists working to end sexual abuse say that ‘talking about rape culture has been instrumental’ to their work. One activist, Tracey Vitchers, stated to Valenti that ‘the concept of rape culture provides students with the language to contextualize what is happening … Rape culture speaks to the larger systemic problem of why bystanders don’t intervene, why victims don’t feel safe going to campus police.’

The author of the anonymous Harvard letter writes: ‘This system is a product of a broader rape culture that permeates out society – a culture in which it is acceptable to blame a victim of assault for drinking too much.’ She encountered administrators at her school that put their foot down and refused to help her because they were adhering too closely to the school’s policy on sexual abuse, which was released way back in 1993. The student then tried to reach out to professionals who should have listened to her anyway, yet she was met with regretful “advice.” Her resident dean said that she should compare ‘living in the same House as my assailant to a divorced couple working in the same factory.’ Someone at the university’s health service also asked her ‘if it was possible that my drinking habits were the problem, because it seemed like they had led to my sexual assault.’

‘Ignoring the culture in which rapists commit and get away with crimes won’t stop rape … it will hurt victims,’ writes Valenti. I wholeheartedly agree. So I’d encourage anyone interested in making a stand to not only click on RAINN’s list, but also take other action. One place to start is The Representation Project – a movement that uses film and media content to expose injustices created by gender stereotypes and to shift people’s consciousness towards change. You can view their videos, read their stats and take a pledge as well as host a screening of their documentary ‘Miss Representation’ and join their team as a rep.

We cannot get bogged down by all the different ways of speaking about rape and victimisation– it just makes us go round and round in circles. But we should all be helping each other. We have to speak up with our own voices – the anonymous student has done just that and I sincerely commend her for it.

She finishes her letter with: ‘Dear Harvard: You might have won, but I still have a voice. And I plan on using it as much as I can to make things change.’

And so should you.

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