When I woke up this morning, a friend had emailed me this anonymous article by a current undergraduate about Harvard's mis-handling of her sexual assault case. "This made me think of you," my friend wrote.
Five years ago, I, too, had written an anonymous article published in another newspaper about a similar topic.
I, too, went to Harvard, and years later (when I least expected it), I was raped. Ever since that day in April 2008 -- when I was pushed into the mud by a violent 15-year-old boy -- I've been thinking a lot about how our society handles the problem of rape. Most of the time, it doesn't do a very good job. Even at Harvard, they've screwed it up.
Some might say my own experience of sexual assault is very different from that of the anonymous Harvard student. I was raped by a stranger in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who followed me when I was walking in a park in the middle of the day. She was raped by a friend in his dorm room, after a night of drinking. My rape was the stuff of lurid headlines -- newspapers afterward screamed: "Tourist dragged into the bushes and brutally raped." Her rape was the kind no one wants to talk about, even though it happens all the time, behind closed doors.
They're both rape, but as devastating as mine might seem, I would find it more devastating to be deceived first by a friend and then by my university. And yet, this student is hardly alone in her experience of an indifferent campus. In 2012, Angie Epifano wrote a scathing article about her rape at Amherst College by another student, which eventually triggered an obligatory President's Statement. But did her speaking out bring a significant change to how sexual assault is handled on college campuses?
Since my own rape, I've become much more aware of how under-reported a crime this is, with one in four women experiencing at least an attempted assault in their lifetime. In fact, I sometimes marvel that I made it through college unscathed. At Harvard, I was often drunk. I had lots of guy friends. Why wasn't I ever raped? And then I realize how ridiculous it is, that in one of the world's most prestigious institutions of higher learning, I should consider myself lucky that I didn't manage to be assaulted during my four years there.
And yet, years after I graduated, the statistics caught up to me. In Belfast, my attacker was ultimately caught, convicted, and sentenced to eight years in prison. Again, I realize how lucky I am that my rapist was convicted -- something which only happens in 6 percent of reported rapes in the United Kingdom. I also know how lucky we are to be living in the 21st century, where technology can lead to the identification and arrest of rapists, and where a democratic justice system can supposedly uphold the rights of victims. In medieval times and in places like wartime Congo, rape was (and is) an everyday occurrence, hardly considered a crime. Today we live in an affluent, peaceful, flourishing society -- and yet, we still can't guarantee the safety of students at universities. Surely at Harvard, bastion of learning and enlightenment, we should at least expect some modicum of justice for the wronged.
Evidently, appearances are important. I know that in my case, appearances were in my favor. As a victim, I was a well-educated, Chinese-American media professional in my late 20s. My assailant was an illiterate teenage boy from a rough part of Belfast. I wasn't wearing a mini-skirt, I wasn't drunk. I was sober and wearing hiking clothes. When the police found me, I had 39 separate injuries. They were always inclined to take my word over his. But if the socioeconomic differences between us hadn't been so stark, would the case have resulted in a conviction?
I often think not. And this is where our institutions fail us, because when the roles are reversed, too often we see famous and successful men accused of sexual assault who go unpunished. When this happens again and again, the message sent is that it's no use reporting a rape. And when victims stop reporting, that's when assailants continue to get away with more crimes.
When schools like Harvard and Amherst fail to prosecute rapists among their students, who are they trying to protect? Their reputations? Those students who are accused? I get it -- in today's litigious society, no institution wants to face a lawsuit from the parents of an accused student. But simply ignoring the problem and failing to provide a legitimate system of justice and punishment is not the answer.
In contrast, Harvard and other universities maintain a strict policy regarding plagiarism. Why does Harvard take cheating and plagiarism more seriously than sexual assault between students? I had a similar situation in August 2012, when my attacker broke his parole, after serving 4 years. He was re-arrested in Dublin, where despite the objections of the police, District Court Judge John Lindsay released him on bail. Yet that same day, Judge Lindsay refused bail to a man convicted of punching a Monet painting in an art gallery. What this tells me is that the Irish justice system cares more about the safety of inanimate oil paintings than of the girls and women living in its communities. Similarly, when Harvard demands students to respect the integrity of someone else's intellectual ideas, but less so the integrity of another person's body, we must question the values at play.
Perhaps much of it really does have to do with appearances. The past few hours, I've run sporadic searches on "Harvard" on Twitter. The results are fascinating. Harvard the Institution officially tweets about its professors, its research, and recent donations from alumni. Many outraged individuals and outlets have been retweeting the article by the sexual assault survivor. But as it's acceptance letter season, many others have also been Tweeting their joy at being accepted into Harvard.
At what cost is this culture of aspiration and success, both institutional and individual? As an alumna, I've heard a lot recently about the success of the Harvard men's basketball team, the launch of HarvardX (the online learning experience for alumni), Harvard's Global Month of Service. Yet, for all this outward broadcasting, Harvard should be looking inwards, first and foremost, to its own students, to make sure they're offering the right kinds of services to them, no matter what the situation. It's time to replace a culture of success and winning, with a culture of justice and understanding.
Our educational institutions have failed to truly offer an honest, safe, nurturing environment where students can explore their potential and not be afraid to speak up. In that sense, they have failed in their primary purpose. Because if universities like Harvard pride themselves on shaping the world's future leaders and thinkers, then they need to start by teaching the right lessons.
Follow Winnie M Li on Twitter: www.twitter.com/winniemli