The Student View Of Sexual Assault On Campus

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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)

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:

This segment aired on July 11, 2014.

Headshot of Deborah Becker

Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.


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Shannon Dooling Investigative Reporter
Shannon Dooling was an investigative reporter at WBUR, focused on stories about immigration and criminal justice.



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