As Harvard students begin classes this week, the school administration still plans on implementing a new sexual assault policy decided on this summer. The new policy mandates that a victim of any form of sexual assault — from unwanted touching to rape — produce corroborating evidence before the university will launch an investigation. This can include a visit to Harvard University Health Services, contacting a police officer, or talking to a friend soon after the event. Harvard’s administrative board will not hear a case unless it includes such evidence.
Under Harvard’s new system, the university has decided to protect both parties involved — not only the accuser. They are seeking some basis on which to proceed rather than one person’s word against another’s. One can only hope that Harvard’s decision finally brings college campuses back to the most basic concept in our system of justice: the presumption of innocence.
Not surprisingly, the decision has sparked a barrage of criticism. Student groups have demonstrated, talking heads have hit the airwaves, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has launched an investigation to determine whether the new policy violates Title IX.
Since the late 1980s, colleges across the country have been at the center of a movement to raise the awareness of date rape. Unfortunately, the entire terminology of “date rape” cheapens the violence, degradation and evilness of rape. Few would disagree that any form of force — even after sexual contact — constitutes a rape. Yet feminist groups, basing their arguments on the assumption that women never lie and men always do, have expanded their definition of date rape to include verbal persuasion and continued (and ultimately successful) verbal advances. In earlier times, these methods were called seduction.
Yet aside from the debate of what exactly constitutes date rape, any formal charges, accusations and investigations stemming from ambiguous, drunken or regretted sexual encounters are rife with the potential for abuse. Reputations can be ruined, lives can be destroyed, and dreams can be crushed.
It’s not hard to find such examples. In 1996, Brown University senior Adam Lack was accused of rape by a female sophomore. Lack argued that the female not only consented to the sex, but initiated it. Furthermore, Lack claimed to have talked to her for many hours that night, and when the girl left in the morning, she had his phone number in hand. The female accused Lack of rape six weeks after the incident and claimed she may not have known she was drunk at the time. Although Lack never changed his story, and neither the university nor the woman in question ever disputed his version of the event, Lack was suspended.
In the Sept. 9 issue of The Harvard Crimson, Wendy Murphy and Ellenor Honig ask, “Imagine how it would feel to walk into a police station after having your wallet stolen only to have an officer say, ‘Sorry, we cannot do anything until you provide us with some proof. Your word alone is not good enough.'” Critics of the new measure — from commentators in The Crimson to guests on “The O’Reilly Factor” — have utilized this amazingly inaccurate comparison. Accusations of campus rape rarely refer to a “someone.” Most often, a specific male is named as the offender. When the accuser and the accused are the only two characters in such a performance, it is a “he said, she said” case — nothing more and nothing less — and the cases are generally irresolvable. Unfortunately, at college campuses across the country, the “she said” portion of the performance is regularly taken as absolute truth, destroying the lives of the conceivably innocent male victims.
The legal system of the United States is based on the premise that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. Regardless of the nature of the crime, the burden of proof rests with the accuser. Why should campus systems of justice be any different from those utilized in criminal courtrooms across the country? In the pursuit of justice, Harvard has made an honorable decision. One can only hope that other schools follow suit.
David White is a junior in Pierson College. He is the managing editor of The Politic.