Students Will Host Identity-Based Discussions on Sexual Assault

Following widespread concern over the prevalence of sexual assault at Harvard, the College will host a series of student-run town halls for identity-based groups later this month to solicit feedback on how the issue affects different students on campus.

Undergraduates will lead the series of discussions, which will include sessions specifically tailored toward women, men, transgender and genderqueer students, students with disabilities, and students who identify as bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender, or queer.

According to Emelyn A. dela Peña, the College’s assistant dean of student life for equity, diversity, and inclusion, the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations will coordinate a discussion for students of color as well.

The College decided to host the meetings after analyzing the results of the spring’s campus sexual assault climate survey, which were released late last month. The data show that respondents from specific identity groups, including women and people who identified as LGBAQN—lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, questioning, or not listed—reported experiencing higher rates of sexual misconduct.{shortcode-244083a4ffedb7b87114a6ec5dcafbcc9ae26058}

Among LGBAQN undergraduate females, 17.9 percent reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact involving physical force or incapacitation since fall 2014; 12 percent of straight undergraduate female respondents, meanwhile, reported experiencing it during that time. For LGBAQN undergraduate males, that rate of experiencing nonconsensual penetration and sexual touching was 10.9 percent in that time, compared to 2.7 percent among their straight male peers.


Students with disabilities also reported experiencing sexual assault at a higher rate, with 14.2 percent indicating that they had experienced nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching involving physical force or incapacitation, compared to an 8.3 percent of students University-wide who did not indicate having a disability.

Following the data’s late September release, the College hosted a series of general town hall events. At these discussions, dela Peña said undergraduates said they wanted the College to host further conversations geared toward specific identity groups.

The upcoming town halls, dela Peña added, fit into recent conversations about the intersectionality of sexual violence, or how discrimination affects different students in unique ways. Those discussions have become more common recently, she said.

“We recognize that violence and harassment and discrimination intersect with different forms of identity, and so we wanted to acknowledge that this happens,” dela Peña said.

Along with dela Peña, Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response has been leading efforts to coordinate and plan the upcoming meetings. Alicia Oeser, the director of OSAPR, said her office has been collaborating with the College to address sexual violence in a way that recognizes its intersectionality as well.

Undergraduate activists, including organizers for anti-sexual assault advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better, have reiterated a call for Harvard to take an identity-specific approach to understanding and addressing issues surrounding campus sexual assault.

Joshua D. Blecher-Cohen ’16, an intern at the College’s Office of BGLTQ Student Life, praised administrators both for initiating the identity-based meetings and allowing students to lead the discussions.

“Building in undergraduate voices in structural ways is so important, and that’s why this is exciting,” Blecher-Cohen said. “Creating undergraduate-specific spaces acknowledges there is a need for people to continue thinking about the report and reacting to the report on their own terms.”

While administrators will not participate in the discussions—two trained undergraduates will lead the sessions—dela Peña said they will receive confidential notes summarizing points raised and try to address common threads and individual suggestions.

Already, dela Peña said administrators are responding to consistent suggestions from students that the College bolster sexual assault training into a yearly mandate. In addition, she said Houses are working on improving ways to make undergraduates feel safer, referencing new social spaces that some Houses opened this semester.

—Staff writer Noah J. Delwiche can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ndelwiche.

—Staff writer Ivan B. K. Levingston can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @IvanLevingston.


Recommended Articles