Editor’s Note: Leslie Morgan Steiner is the author of The New York Times best-selling memoir, “Crazy Love.” Her TEDTalk on why victims stay in abusive situations has been viewed by over 3 million people. She lives in Washington. The views expressed in this commentary are hers.
Recently, there has been a lot of press coverage devoted to cases of sexual assault
Leslie Morgan Steiner: This is a positive step forward because we're finally talking about the disturbing issue
Lately it feels like this is the season of uppity women taking over every news cycle. It’s long overdue.
At the same time, stories of sexual assault and objectification at our finest universities have shined a harsh light on some of the darkest realities of being female in our country. In June, a rape victim at Stanford University wrote a letter to Brock Turner, the man who assaulted her behind a dumpster, that was read by millions, including on-air by CNN anchor Ashleigh Banfield. Earlier this month, Harvard University canceled the men’s soccer season after another op-ed written by female victims, this time soccer players whose male teammates assigned them sexual ratings and ideal intercourse “positions.”
The press attention devoted to sexual assault, particularly when magnified by election coverage, provokes uncomfortable, disturbing emotions. But the media coverage is good news for women, because of one fact: We’re talking about it.
These experiences are all too familiar, for myself and millions of others. From the time I was 11 years old, I’ve survived unwanted kisses and exposure to strange men’s genitals, slut-shaming, relationship violence and sexual harassment. It’s time that victims and the media speak out about these issues, especially when it comes to institutions of higher learning, our most hopeful melting pots.
And yet, on the same day that Harvard took action against its men’s soccer team, Rolling Stone magazine and writer Sabrina Erdely were found guilty of defamation in the infamous 2014 article, “A Rape on Campus.” University of Virginia administrator Nicole Eramo’s triumph against Rolling Stone and Erdely – the jury awarded Eramo $3 million – is a pyrrhic victory. Although the story’s lead anecdote was quickly debunked, it remains true that sexual assault is a problem on college campuses.
As the documentary “The Hunting Ground” revealed, universities have long betrayed students by questioning victims’ integrity, by framing assault as an unprovable, unprosecutable offense and by levying shallow penalties such as “suspension after graduation.” Imagine if UVA and other elite universities fought as valiantly to protect their students as they did their brand.
And what about Harvard, my alma mater? When I was a freshman in 1983, Harvard police proudly demonstrated the emergency blue-light campus phones and warned us about strange men in Harvard Yard. Beyond these rudiments, we faced a deafening silence about acquaintance rape, relationship violence and sexual degradation. In my experience, if assaulted, most women told no one, not even our own mothers, for fear of being disbelieved, blamed or labeled as less valuable potential wives or employees.
Lucky for me, my 19-year-old sister, who had been at Harvard for a year, stopped by my dorm during freshman orientation. Sitting on my college-issue twin bed, she told me, “Les, this is what’s gonna happen. A cute guy, probably a football or hockey player, is going to come up to you at a party. It’s gonna feel great, like he really likes you. He’s going to ask you to go to his room for some reason. Just don’t go, no matter what. OK?”
Two nights later, I went to my class ice cream social. A boy with ice-blue eyes and straight black hair, wearing a Harvard hockey jersey, flirted and told me about a better party hosted by upperclassmen from the team. Did I want to go? Sure, I agreed, flattered. Would this be my first Harvard boyfriend? He put his hand on the small of my back, steadying me as I threw my ice cream cone in the trash as we left.
“Just one thing,” Mr. Blue Eyes said as we walked down the worn marble steps from the freshman union. “It’s getting cold. I need to stop by my room to get a sweatshirt. OK?”
Remembering my sister’s words, I stammered some excuse and rushed back inside. I’m grateful I never found out if I could have been assaulted that night. But over four years at Harvard, I discovered other truths: that (if their experiences were anything like those surveyed for the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey) as many as close to 20% of my classmates were victims of rape or attempted rape, that we were most at risk during freshman year and that the real threat came not from strange men infiltrating campus, but from classmates in my coed dorm, in the carrels next to me at Widener Library and sitting behind me in Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare class.
If a 19-year-old like my sister knew we were vulnerable, why didn’t the smart, seasoned folks running Harvard? If they knew, why didn’t they protect students? The painful answer is that many administrators at Harvard, UVA and other campuses surely did know then, and do know now, the risks students face. Yet too little has been done to prevent sexual violence on campuses. Universities apparently fear that confronting assault will hurt a school’s reputation, so they repeatedly leave students vulnerable.
So bravo, Harvard, for taking a stand to right years of wrongs, by declaring publicly that written and verbal degradation of women is intolerable, a gateway to more serious behavior. There’s more to be done to end sexual assault and discrimination, but this is a step forward. And shame on those who dodge chances to raise awareness about intimate violence, and the people who try to tell the messy, complex truths about rape culture in dorm rooms, bedrooms, and boardrooms today. Every school, employer, family and bystander has one simple obligation when it comes to sexual assault: to protect everyone from it.