Content Warning: This op-ed deals with discussions of sexual assault and harassment.
A couple of weeks ago, The Editorial Board published a piece about student safety on Harvard’s campus. After arguing last Fall that Harvard Yard should close its gates after 10 p.m. to improve the safety of its student population, this year, the Board offered a differing opinion, arguing that the real threat lies inside — as opposed to outside — the gates of Harvard Yard. We argued that fearing non-Harvard Cambridge residents unfairly depicts them as “as an alien menace” and retracted our previous position on locking the gates at night. Ever since we opined on this topic, I’ve thought a lot about the reality of danger in Cambridge and how it differs from popular notions of safety in the city.
Cambridge is not “dangerous,” and yet I call my parents for moral support when I have to walk back from Lamont to my dorm room alone at 2 a.m. Cambridge is not “dangerous,” yet I hold my breath and pick up my walking pace when I get cat-called on the street.
If Cambridge is not dangerous, why is it scary to navigate it all alone in the dark of night?
Because it feels dangerous – not just for me, but for many women. Recent research shows that women’s perception of their personal safety at night greatly differs from men’s. While about 20 percent of men felt unsafe walking in a busy public space at night, almost 50 percent of women felt unsafe walking in the same type of environment. This discrepancy in perceptions of personal safety did not change in a differing environment either. While almost 40 percent of men felt unsafe walking in a park or another open space at night, a little over 80 percent of women felt unsafe walking in that same environment. This variation in experience by gender suggests that this is a burden most heavily felt by women. This doesn’t come as surprising as nearly 99 percent of perpetrators of sexual misconduct are men. It’s no wonder then that men feel overwhelmingly more safe alone at night than women.
The problem here is that women are holding the burden of fear while they shouldn’t have to. Instead, we should be restructuring the way in which our society holds perpetrators of sexual misconduct – which are almost always men – accountable for their actions. We are in need of a stark cultural shift – one that places the burden upon men to simply be better people.
In the aftermath of sexual misconduct, it shouldn’t be so hard for our society to believe women when they come forward and say that they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted. The courage it takes to share their story is not always so easily developed. And it’s easy to see why. Once women share such vulnerable, terrifying experiences they’ve endured, they aren’t always believed — especially when the person who may have harassed or assaulted them is a well-known and well-liked public figure. While movements such as #MeToo have done a lot to help dismantle the culture of victim blaming as it demonstrated the wide extent to which sexual misconduct has affected women, there is still a cultural hesitancy to believe women.
And, even worse? There seems to be a legal hesitancy as well. Research has shown that only 2 percent of perpetrators of rape are convicted and imprisoned. Sexual misconduct is a hard thing to prove in the court of law. When you couple that with societal norms in a patriarchal system, it is no wonder that it proves difficult to try cases of sexual assault and harassment.
Considering the high likelihood that a previous perpetrator of sexual misconduct may be wandering our campus or the greater area plus the fact that victims of sexual misconduct overwhelmingly tend to be women, it is no wonder that it is women who are holding the burden of fear when navigating their day-to-day lives. This is a problem that is everywhere – both within Harvard’s gates and beyond them. Just because the public safety numbers on a report may make Cambridge seem “safe” does not mean that it feels that way. And the Editorial Board has no right to suggest otherwise.
Navigating a still slightly unknown city without fear is a privilege — one that usually isn’t afforded to students who identify as women or are femme-presenting. Being fearful of the Cambridge community is not unbridled alarmism, as the Editorial Board puts it, but a genuine fear that is rooted in the mass amount of violence seen against women. To say that it is anything other than that demonstrates privilege. A privilege to not have to be fearful. While I recognize that Cambridge is considered the “second safest city” in the country, if anything, the fact that there is a lack of perceived personal safety should serve as an indication that there is something seriously wrong with our society and our world. In order to correct this, we’re going to have to take a good hard look at how we talk about sexual misconduct and where we place the blame for its occurrence.
Nicole B. Alexander ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Kirkland House.