What Sex Signals Doesn’t Teach

How to take action after sexual violence

This year’s sex signals has come and gone, and, like every September, freshmen sit through two sessions that fail to answer the most important question about sexual violence on campus. What do you do if it happens to you?

This information is not found in either the visiting presentation or the workshop that follows. Instead, freshmen are only told to contact the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response in case of problems. How to go through the process of taking care of oneself after an attack and prosecuting is never addressed.

“We don’t go into great detail because we don’t have a lot of time and because the concrete specifics tend to not be remembered,” says Sarah Rankin, director of the OSAPR. “We try to hammer home the places that we hope that you will go to if and when you need that information.”

But what about information that is crucial to know on the spot? While one can bring a complaint to the Administrative Board at any time, delay can make a criminal claim more difficult, not only because material evidence deteriorates and witnesses forget details, but because the appearance of wavering on the part of the victim can be used by the defense to weaken the allegation that a crime occurred.

So, here’s what you do if you are sexually assaulted and may wish to make a claim to the Ad Board or in a criminal court. First, don’t do anything that will alter your body chemistry—shower, brush your teeth, or go to the bathroom. “Think like a crime scene detective,” says Gina Scaramella of the Boston Rape Crisis Center. “Preserve all the evidence,” She says. You should get a medical evidence collection kit done at Beth Israel hospital, the nearest medical institution certified for such an examination. An OSAPR staff member can accompany you. A medical examination is crucial even if you do not plan to use it for prosecuting purposes. Trained professionals will check you for hidden injuries, STIs and advise you on the morning after pill, if necessary. Rankin says the records will be kept for several months to a year. So, even if you are unsure about taking judicial action, get one done, and you will be healthier for it.


If the assault happened on Harvard property, it falls under Harvard University Police jurisdiction. HUPD detectives will be in charge of compiling evidence, says Rankin. The quicker you go to them, the “fresher” the evidence, Rankin says. Remember, when talking to police, to give “a complete picture,” according to Jennifer G. Long, Director of the AEquitas: The Prosecutors’ Resource on Violence Against Women. If this is someone you know—has he or she been violent before? What were your interactions leading up to the incident? Who did you talk to immediately following? Write down anything you can remember about the incident as quickly as possible.

You have several options to report the crime: the Administrative Board or the criminal justice system (or both at once), Rankin says. Know the standards and procedures for each. The Ad Board evaluates students’ claims by “well-established standards and the specific rules and policies established by the Faculty” according to the student handbook. The process involves getting a whole picture of the event and the aftermath. Information is compiled by independent fact finders, though “information the police investigation uncovered could be accessed by the Board if the students brought it forward, ” Dean John “Jay” L. Ellison, head of the board, writes in an email. Important to know is that the board does not discriminate against cases brought late—the Board has heard cases more than 18 months after the event, Ellison writes.

The criminal court holds the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a high standard meaning it may be hard to prosecute successfully. If you go forward with a criminal case, you might wish to be paired with a victim advocate who will educate you on the process and might alleviate common difficulties of criminal cases, such as their length, Long says by phone.

Throughout this process, you should be talking to a lawyer, though lawyers cannot be admitted in the Ad Board procedures or represent you there. This lawyer should, among other things, inform you of your rights within the school. Know that if you file a complaint at Harvard, the school is obligated to investigate it immediately. Harvard may not force you to change classes or pressure you to “wait on it” (more rights can be found on the ACLU website).

Finally, remember that if you are a victim of a sexual crime, your case is not just a matter of hearsay—it can be built on solid foundations. “These cases can be very difficult...they have a lot dynamics that may seem very difficult to overcome.” says Long. “[But] in these cases, there is always something more. There are questions we can ask and things we can learn.”

Madeleine M. Schwartz ’12 is a History and Classics concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.