Harvard: ‘Presumption of Innocence’ Used to Silence Rape Survivors

University’s sexual assault prevention office draws criticism from staff, alumni

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Administrators at Harvard University argue that the criminal justice system’s principle of the presumption of innocence is sometimes invoked to silence rape survivors.

Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response offers a slew of definitions for vocabulary related to sexual assault on its website. One definition explains that the phrase "innocent until proven guilty" can be used to "silence" survivors of rape.

"This principle ideally protects those who are innocent and is of particular significance to minority populations disproportionately targeted for arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment or other consequences," the website reads, as first reported by Campus Reform.

"In the context of sexual assault, ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is sometimes invoked to silence survivors; when a survivor’s experience is validated through measures that either protect or provide care, it is assumed that there is an infringement on the liberties of the person who has caused harm, as well as a presumption of their guilt."

The website was rebuked by members of the Harvard community who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon.

"I find it heavily biased in favor of the women who are accusers," Harvey Mansfield, a Harvard professor of government and expert on political philosophy, said in an email. "These accusers are labelled ‘survivors’ as if what they say of the incident must be presumed true; and those they accuse are the ones who ‘caused the harm’ rather than referred to as the accused."

He also noted the definition does not take into account the power that an accuser has to harm the individual who he or she accuses of rape.

"The harm to reputation can happen even when the accusation is not proven in a court of law," Mansfield said.

"This criticism of mine doesn’t mean, of course, that sexual assault and rape, when proven in a court, are not very serious crimes and should not be punished as such," he said.

The website’s definitions, meant to use "current, accurate language" to describe terms relating to sexual violence, were written by staff members at the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.

The office, opened in 2003, provides resources to victims of sexual assault and also delivers sexual assault educational training to members of student organizations on campus. The office’s stated mission is to "eliminate harm, violence, and oppression through the intersectional promotion of gender equity and social justice."

The website defines more than three dozen terms related to sexual assault, including "rape culture," "gender inequity," "slut-shaming," and "hegemonic masculinity."

"Hegemonic masculinity relies on the notion that there are only two genders and that their roles are distinct and unequal. … This model of masculinity gives preference to certain characteristics such as dominance, stoicism, aggression, competitiveness, and strength," the website reads. "Other systems of oppression–namely patriarchy–rely on hegemonic masculinity to perpetuate gender inequity and gender-based violence."

A Harvard alumnus described the website as another example of politically correct culture run amok at the university.

"Harvard has been hijacked by a set of rogue radical administrators who are needlessly and thoughtlessly politicizing a great institution. The faculty should be outraged by what’s being published in the name of their institution," the alumnus, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Free Beacon.

Harvard administrators have been criticized in recent months for pushing controversial policies related to sexual assault prevention. The university announced in May it would bar students who join unrecognized single-sex social organizations from holding leadership positions in student groups and athletic teams in an effort to address gender discrimination and reduce sexual assault.

The new policy, which will take effect in the 2017 academic year, was widely panned by students, activists, and professors.

The move followed a months-long campaign by university administrators to compel the unrecognized all-male final clubs to accept women. The university has largely blamed the final clubs, which are located off campus, for high rates of sexual assault at Harvard despite statistics showing that the overwhelming majority of incidents of nonconsensual penetration occur in university residence halls.

Representatives for the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response did not return a request for comment by press time.

Morgan Chalfant   Email Morgan | Full Bio | RSS
Morgan Chalfant is a staff writer at the Washington Free Beacon. Prior to joining the Free Beacon, Morgan worked as a staff writer at Red Alert Politics. She also served as the year-long Collegiate Network fellow on the editorial page at USA TODAY from 2013-14. Morgan graduated from Boston College in 2013 with a B.A. in English and Mathematics. Her Twitter handle is @mchalfant16.