The Student View Of Sexual Assault On Campus

From left to right: MIT's Alex Burgess, Harvard's Langston Ward and UMass Amherst's Alex Conrad (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

From left to right: MIT’s Alex Burgess, Harvard’s Langston Ward and UMass Amherst’s Alex Conrad (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — Amid rising concern about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, a new survey, commissioned by Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, finds that 41 percent of U.S. colleges have not conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the last five years.

Several local colleges are part of a federal investigation into the mishandling of sexual assault cases. At issue with some of these institutions is how to protect the identity of victims on a college campus, where rumors can travel fast, often deterring students from filing reports.

We invited three local college students to WBUR to help us better understand the climate and culture of sexual assault on campus.

In the fall, Langston Ward will be a sophomore at Harvard, where he plays football. Alex Burgess will be a junior at MIT. And Alex Conrad will be a sophomore at UMass Amherst.

Conrad, who’s also a WBUR intern, says students are trying to figure out relationships, at a time when casual sex is the norm.

AC: I would argue that it’s the cultural views of women, coupled with the hook-up culture, coupled with the idea that on a college campus anything goes.

Deborah Becker: So tell me, what’s going on here? Are there more predators? Is it partying run amok? What’s happening?

LW: I think there’s a lot of layers to that answer, but one of them is that 80 percent of what’s going on with sexual assault happens between people who know each other. So a lot of what we’re talking about isn’t people randomly going up to people at parties.

And if that does happen, we are trained at Harvard to, as a community, step in and to stop that. But that issue of consent is another layer where students on campus, I would say at this point, are still confused as to what quantifies consent.

So that’s a huge problem, you think? At least defining what consent is?

LW: Defining what consent is is extremely important for the investigative process.

Now you realize, of course, that there will be people who would be fuming by you saying that. “No means no means no,” they would say, and it’s that black and white. You disagree.

LW: Exactly. So the problem we need to address in order to get this to a point where we can have a legal definition in order for people to have justice in the legal process. It needs to be “yes means yes.” So silence is not a yes.

Alex, what do you think?

AC: I think that there’s more to the issue than just a lack of consent. I think it’s also this idea that if you say yes to kissing you’re saying yes to everything. And you have this issue where, because of the hook-up culture, because you’re not dating, you don’t say to someone, “Oh, where do you want to go tonight?” Or, “What are you comfortable with?” There isn’t that conversation that you might have with a significant other.

Let’s talk about personal experience with sexual assault. Alex Burgess.

AB: Um, so I actually was sexually assaulted, um, my freshman year and it was very violent. And that’s why I’m here because, um, I just don’t want it to happen to anyone else.

Since then, I’ve been at parties and I’ll see guys being pushy with girls and I actually have gone up to the guy and I’ll be like, “You need to get away from her right now.” And then I’ll take the girl away and I’m glad I can help them but at the same time I wish there was someone there for me.

Did you know the person?

AB: I was actually drugged. He put something in my drink and I was with him for like two hours, I think, and I remember like maybe 20 minutes from it, but what I remember wasn’t good. He was like a friend of a friend so I wasn’t scared, you know. She was like, “Oh, I like this guy, here come meet him.” And then all of a sudden I’m locked in his room. You know, he was like 6-foot-4 or something. There was nothing I could have done.

I’m so sorry. Did you report it to the school?

AB: Yeah, but I tried to go through with it. I love MIT and I’m so, you know, grateful that I got in and that I’m going to be getting a degree from there but they were, there are some people there that are really helpful but there are some that, you know, they cared about him and they wanted to warn him.

Did you have to withdraw your complaint then to MIT?

AB: Yeah.

Because you didn’t want to go through with it?

AB: The thing was, my name was going to be out there and his name was going to be out there, and I didn’t want the whole fraternity to start harassing me. I had a class with like four kids from that frat. I didn’t want my whole life here ruined because of that, which that’s something that really sucks. Why girls can’t come out and like, say it, because all the guy’s friends will be all over you and they’ll come up with excuses, you know.

So you feel as if there’s no way to fight back here?

AB: Yeah. Because when you have to go to trial they ask you all the questions about it and I was actually encouraged by someone on campus not to just because they said I’d be revictimized again and it was something so traumatizing that I just didn’t want to have to relive it and go into detail about what happened.

So you didn’t press criminal charges and then the school charges, you did but then decided not to because you felt as if you weren’t getting a satisfactory response. And so you didn’t hear from him again, you didn’t talk about it, you didn’t deal with it?

AB: I had a class with him second semester. … I was really angry about that because I asked them if something could be changed but they said he wasn’t registered to the class even though he was in it the whole semester and I couldn’t switch into a different class and so I just had to see him two days, every week, for like an hour and a half each time. Which was awful.

We contacted MIT for a statement regarding Burgess’ complaint. Chancellor Cindy Barnhart took office in February and said while she cannot comment about individual cases, the prevention of sexual assault is a priority.

“I’ve been learning directly from students what is working and what needs to change, and reviewing our disciplinary process,” Barnhart said over the phone. “We have already made important changes and we will make more.” (See below for more.)

As young women, do you frequently feel afraid on campus?

AB: Yes.

AC: It depends on the time of day, which is unfortunate. Only at night do I feel unsafe. But at this point I always have a buddy with me. I plan out all my evening strolls.

Langston, as a young man and a football player, I mean the stereotype is the college athlete who is one of the bad guys. How do you address that?

LW: Speaking from the perspective of a Harvard football player, before the season started one of the first places I learned about this issue was in our locker room, where we had a whole separate discussion with the team.

But I think the biggest thing that athletes can do on campus to change their image, change the image nationally of athletes being the perpetrators of sexual assault, is to be the ones who step in. People are likely to listen to someone who’s 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds that steps in front of a guy that’s taking advantage of a woman. You’re much more likely to be influential on campus, um, if you’re an athlete.

There, um, is a small number of men that are trying to perpetrate the events that we’ve all heard about and described today and I think one of the big problems is that a lot of men view this as a women’s issue and so the men that otherwise could do good in these situations and could help the situation, aren’t doing anything because they don’t think it affects them. But this isn’t a women’s issue. It’s an issue of our entire community. Where anyone is getting harmed on our campuses, it’s a problem for the whole campus.

But I don’t think all men are like this. I think there are a few men that are like this. But a few bad men can do a lot of harm.

More From MIT, From February:

Earlier WBUR Coverage:

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on wbur.org.
  • Moonlight

    I heard this interview this morning on the radio and Alex’s story really touched me. I feel angry and frustrated for her but I also thank her for her strength to tell her story. I am young woman in my mid 20′s and fortunately, have never been in that kind of situation. I wanted to share something though that has really empowered me and I hope more people consider- taking self defense classes. I have been taking Krav Maga at a martial arts gym and it is one of the best things I have ever done for myself. Not only am I physically stronger then I have ever been, I learn very practical self defense techniques. If feel that most times if a guy is targeting a girl, he is assuming he can over power her mentally and physically. Taking Krav Maga I feel physically better able to defend myself,causing me to also feel mentally stronger. I have more confidence in life and I am more aware of my surroundings. I feel this confidence will help me stand strong if I ever see someone being harassed or if I am feeling harassed myself.

    There are a lot of things the schools/communities need do to address this issue, but in the meantime I wanted to shed light on a martial art that taught me respect for myself and others and that my body can do amazing things, I don’t have to feel helpless.

  • patrick reynolds

    I found this discussion debilitatingly upsetting. I think we do ourselves a collective disservice by treating what this young woman went through as in any way ambiguous. There is no grey area. Zero. She was raped by someone who is a predator and should be in prison (if proven guilty, obviously.) This is not ‘two drunk kids doing what drunk kids do.’ Being drugged is the pharmaceutical equivalent of hitting someone over the head after jumping out of the bushes. I see no difference.

    • GCabot

      I think you are misreading the situation. I do not think anyone disputes that what happened to Alex was a horrific crime.

      The problem Alex faced was the practical reality of what can be done afterwards. As the article said, pressing charges, either through the university or through the legal system, would have meant enormous public exposure and attention. This means being constantly reminded of an incredibly traumatic event that the victim often would just rather forget.

      Furthermore, it exposes the victim to harassment by friends of the perpetrator who either make excuses or just do not believe the sexual assault actually occurred. When the perpetrator is a popular figure on campus, this makes it incredibly difficult for the victim to get on with their lives with some semblance of normalcy. That is why sexual assault victims are often forced to transfer schools.

      Here, Alex, understandably, wanted to stay at MIT, so that she could graduate from the college she worked so hard to gain admission to. Ultimately, there was no way for her to get the justice she deserved while simultaneously having a normal college experience moving forward. Identifying solutions to this dilemma is one of, if not the greatest challenge academic institutions have in dealing with sexual assault today.

      • patrick reynolds

        I think it’s obvious that MIT is in fact disputing the severity of the crime based on the absence of proper response. THAT is the crime.

        • GCabot

          It says that she withdrew her complaint because she did not feel she was getting a satisfactory response. How you draw the logical inference that this extremely vague statement of affairs equates “MIT disputes the severity of the crime” against her is curious, unless you happen to have personal knowledge of what MIT did in response, the reasoning behind MIT’s response, the personal reasoning behind Alex’s withdrawal of the complaint, etc. Otherwise, your claim is merely baseless conjecture, which detracts from the issue at hand.

  • essence

    God, this is profoundly disturbing and enraging. The culture of male entitlement in our country is sickening. Alex’s rapist should be doing hard time, not attending college.

  • Lawrence

    I found the lead photo, about females getting sexually assaulted deliberately upsetting and racist.

    • GCabot


  • Bangor58

    Many decades ago, when I was an undergraduate at a UK university, the lines were very clear. We women students had curfews and were treated as respected equals by our male classmates. At the same time, the town girls who arrived at the college dances just as we were leaving, were treated quite differently by those same young men. Could the fact that there are now some female undergraduates who agree to ‘hook up’ lead to confusion among their male peers.

    • Lawrence

      So, females are treated according to how they behave?

      • Bangor58

        I meant that when the undergraduates who lived in the womens’ dorm were assumed to be ‘off limits’ and the town girls whose parents allowed them to come late to the dances were fair game, it was less likely that the male undergraduates would be confused about who was ‘available’.

  • Kristina S

    This is a man’s issue, since they have the most control in the situation. Langston is spot on that men need to pressure others to stop this behavior. Sadly our families have failed to educate these young men on appropriate behavior. So when they start college thinking it’s all about having fun, and they forget about respecting women’s rights, how can we expect change?

  • Ann Deez

    In part, escapist fantasies regarding the utopian lifestyle of the mythical noble savage motivate people to chase illusions such as socialism, communism, and the welfare state.

  • tamtam13

    The guy she spoke of drugged her. He is a predator and remains a predator and she should let the world know who he is. He will not stop. If he is using drugs then he is a true criminal. This is not a confusing situation however it is one where men have continually whined “Oh she’s lying you’ll ruin my reputation” How about men start looking out for women and these predators. It’s like the military. I am not impressed with their personal code of conduct. My brothers would never had stood by while someonw was being victimized. Our father taught them better. Young men need to step up and show some backbone. Also it would help if some of the college administrators got sexually assaulted so they could relate more to the victims.

  • Moonlight

    Agree, that is what we are taught in our defense classes, we are not looking to fight, but if we are stuck in a bad situation, there are ways of defending ourselves.
    We learn moves to help quickly disarm/disable our attacker to the point where we have an opportunity to locate and exit and run!

  • Aliya15

    I’d like to raise a point that has not yet been raised in the comment section, and that is the importance of college counseling resources for sharing painful stories.

    I, and I am sure many other college-aged women, are grateful and indebted to Alex for telling her story. Her strength to speak up makes such a difference in the lives of students in general, Boston-area colleges in particular.

    Telling this story to a close friend, or even a college/police official, takes a great deal of mental strength. Speaking on the air, however, with far-reaching audience, and having the transcript posted on the Internet for all to read, is an amazing act of strength and courage.

    I’m concerned, because on the show, Alex’s voice was shaky and she hesitated during certain statements. Since I couldn’t observe her body language, I can’t know for sure, but she sounded uncomfortable in the studio. I wish I could have held her hand while she told it. This was a moment of vulnerability that she made her own. This was an inspiring feat; Alex, I applaud you.

    For survivors of sexual assault, especially during the (horrific and disgusting) continued exposure to the attacker in the classroom, the story itself can also feel out of the survivor’s control. For example, Alex may have avoided opening up to one of her MIT peers, because the predator’s presence may have silenced her voice in that forum. WBUR, to Alex, was a media platform where she could use her voice in a powerful way. Here she was able to practice ownership of her story and her voice. I’m proud that she did that, and I hope for her sake that she has been receiving warm support from the MIT administration and student body.

    College counseling services need to be present and active on every campus. Period. Survivors of sexual assault are owed quality, qualified, non-judgmental support. Period.

    Not only to recover from the traumatizing events, but also to build the mental strength to tell the story. To reclaim the story in a safe space, with a counselor, so that its telling may become a declaration of independence. Storytelling should be cathartic and empowering to the teller, but without the support survivors need, the storytelling too can become another act of painful vulnerability.

    I don’t know where Alex falls on the spectrum of readiness, but I do know that Alex and anyone in her position should have been connected with on-campus counseling resources, to address both the short-term emergency distress and the longer-term processing. Alex, if telling this story made you feel weak or worn out, please know that there is support out there to help you make this story your own, and to turn it into a positive force in your life. You have been so brave, and it was not for naught – your resilience inspires survivors and their peers at MIT, Boston, and beyond.

Most Popular