sexual assault

Sexual Assault Awareness Month & AAU Survey

RC: We are going to take a break from our Q&A this week to talk a bit about Sexual Assault Awareness Month (happening now!) and the AAU (Association of American Universities) Survey that students are getting emails about.  This survey will follow up on a landmark survey completed in 2015 by the same association and asks students about their experiences and perceptions of sexual and gender-based harm on their campus.

LM: All Harvard students (both graduate and undergraduate) should have received an email about the survey on April 2nd from the email address This email contains an individualized link for you to anonymously take the survey.

According to the FAQ on the Harvard Title IX website, “responses will provide Harvard with a better understanding of student experiences on campus.  That understanding can help inform university policies designed to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault, improve resources, and measure change to create a safer environment for all of Harvard’s community members.”

Also, all students who complete the survey receive a $5 Amazon gift card!

RC: We also want to note that Harvard is observing Sexual Assault Awareness Month for the month of April. This year’s national theme is “I Ask.” OSAPR and partner offices are hosting a variety of events, including Harvard Wears Denim, coming up on Wednesday, April 24th.  To become a Solidarity Sponsor, email  The entire SAAM calendar can be found here.

LM: We recognize that SAAM can bring a lot up for people, and that the emails about the AAU survey may compound this. We want to make sure this is named, and make sure everyone is aware of some of the resources that are available. This month, OSAPR and the Center for Wellness are hosting Yoga for Restoration sessions every Tuesday from 7-8 pm in the Mount Auburn Room (Smith Campus Center, 2nd floor, accessible through the HUHS pharmacy). The OSAPR hotline is available 24/7 at 617-495-9100. Also, throughout the semester, the Center for Wellness hosts “Wellbeing Wednesdays” from 3-5 pm in the Mount Auburn Room, with tea, snacks, and a variety of relaxing and mindfulness-based activities.

RC:  We hope that as the weather moves toward spring you are able to care for yourself and your community in whatever ways feel most available to you.  We recognize that many of the things we’ve named in this week’s post may be complicated for people and want to honor that. At the end of the day, we write this in the hopes that you are as aware of things going on on campus as is helpful to you and we hope that you are able to make the most of what remains of the semester.

Supporting friends who have experienced sexual assault

A friend recently shared with me that they had experienced sexual assault.  I’m not sure I responded in the right way. How can I support them moving forward and how do I respond better if someone else shares this type of experience with me in the future? —(Un?)Supportive

RC: Hi (Un?)Supportive, we are so glad you asked!  It can feel like a lot of pressure to make sure that you’re responding well and we are happy to talk through some strategies to take some of that pressure off! In order to give the best advice we can, I’ve invited my colleague, Rose Poyau, Case Coordinator at OSAPR, to help me answer.

RP:  To begin, I’m thinking about questions that I often ask, which are usually, “how can I support you?” or “how can I be helpful?” This is one of the ways that I can center that person and their needs throughout the conversation. It also helps me to make sure I’m not imposing my ideas on them, but am hearing them and what they would like.

RC: Another thing we often talk to people about is making sure that you match their language. This is another way that we can make sure that we are not minimizing their experience or making meaning of their experience for them. For example, if someone describes their experience as “confusing but unwanted,” we recommend that you don’t use language like “assault,” because that might not be their experience. Conversely, if someone describes something as an assault, mirror that language so that it doesn’t feel like you are reducing the significance of that event.

RP:  It’s often really helpful to check in with people about what has helped them get through hardship in the past. This can remind people of their strength and capacity, and we certainly name those things to people every time we meet with them. Examples of questions to ask might be: “what are some of the things that have been helpful in the past?” or “what are some ways you take care of yourself?”

RC: As we named earlier, it can feel like a lot of pressure to hold this type of information for someone you care about. It’s really important to us that each person is able to set their own boundaries about what they can and can’t do. Because of that, it can be really helpful to know of resources in the community who can help provide support to friends who have experienced interpersonal harm.

At Harvard:

In the Community:

RP: Finally, it’s really helpful to make a plan for checking in with your friend in advance, so that you can decide when and how to check in. Some questions that might be helpful are: “do you want me to check in later?” “how would you prefer that I check in?” “when is good for me to check in?” Sometimes I also tell people that, depending on the type of relationship and friendship, it can be nice to do unsolicited acts of caring. I generally only offer that in relationships where that is already a norm.

RC:  Again, we are so glad you asked; the tools and strategies we have talked about apply in almost any type of interaction and we certainly use them in a wide array of conversations. These will hopefully help you as you navigate supporting your friend and any potential future conversations. While it may feel like there is a high bar for doing this right, what we consistently hear from people is that they appreciate having a friend who listens wholeheartedly and doesn’t make judgements.  

RP: We want you to know that you can connect with OSAPR at any time, whether over our hotline (617-495-9100), by walking in between 12-1 M-F, or by making an appointment (617-496-5636 or We are here for people who have experienced harm as well as for people who are supporting others.

RC:  Lastly, we do want to note that we are about to begin Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and this is the year for the AAU Survey. Both of those might bring up more experiences or conversations that at other times of the year. We encourage people to connect with each other and with resources as they are able.  Take care and thanks!

RC: Ramsey Champagne, OSAPR Community Advocate

RP: Rose Poyau, OSAPR Case Coordinator

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month!

RC: Hello! This week’s post is not going to be a Q&A; instead, we are going to give a brief description of why Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) matters and write a shameless plug for April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month events.

AG: Yes! The tough reality is that sexual assault happens and that it happens frequently. National statistics show that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 4 LGBTQ+ individuals experience sexual assault during college. However, we also want to stress that it’s not just women and LGBTQ people that experience sexual violence. Recent research from Columbia University indicates that 12.5% of men will experience sexual assault throughout college. Rates were noticeably higher for members of single gender organizations (like fraternities or sororities) regardless of gender.

RC: These statistics generally map onto lifetime prevalence data as well; national data indicate that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 6 men are likely to experience sexual assault throughout their lifetime. It’s really important to highlight that folks who have identities at the margins often experience much higher rates of sexual violence and often face significant barriers to reporting and accessing resources; for instance, 27.5% of Native American/Alaska Native women report experiencing sexual assault in their lifetime, compared to 20% of white women, and the Human Rights Campaign reports that “among people of color, American Indian (65%), multiracial (59%), Middle Eastern (58%), and Black (53%) respondents of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey were most likely to have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime.”

AG: Though of course, consideration and conversation about sexual violence ought to happen throughout the year, SAAM is an opportunity for us to come together in solidarity. We can use this month to think about ways to support people who have experienced or been impacted by sexual violence, to educate ourselves about the ways in which sexual violence shows up within our communities, and to hold ourselves accountable for change.

RC: The original SAAM awareness events began with Take Back the Night marches in the late 1970’s. These started in England and quickly spread.  In the 1980’s, while October was already recognized as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, activists identified a week in April for sexual violence awareness-raising, which quickly turned into the Month. Since then, advocacy organizations, coalitions, and states have had varying levels of SAAM engagement. Notably, in 2001, the U.S. observed its first National SAAM. To learn more about the history of SAAM, please visit:

AG: One piece of SAAM that we hope people begin to embrace is working to reframe our conversations about sexual violence. Historically, we have used rhetoric that dichotomizes victims and perpetrators. We find that it is more accessible to frame conversations about interpersonal harm in a way that is reflective of how harm can be complex and dynamic.  In service of that, we try to use language like: person who experienced harm, person who caused harm, etc.

RC: Ok, events!  To learn more about SAAM programs, please visit the OSAPR website.  For all undergraduates, there will be a weekly Yoga for Restoration class offered in the Dunster JCR on Wednesdays at 7.  Hear Me Now: A Take Back the Night event will be hosted in the Dudley Lounge on April 19th at 6pm. Our Voices, a student production, will be in the Leverett Library Theater on April 20th and 21st.  And, as always, Harvard Wears Denim will take over the Science Center Plaza from 12-2:30 on April 25th. We hope to see y’all there!


What can I do on a daily basis to reduce sexual assault at Harvard?

AG: Thanks for writing to Sexual Literacy! This is a really important question. Change will happen when people--students, faculty, administrators--come together and actively work to make our campus safer and more supportive to survivors. This is hard and takes effort but it is possible. The first thing we can do is just to be aware of the reality of sexual assault on college campuses. The most recent sexual climate survey showed that 25.5% of both Harvard women and TGQN (trans, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming) individuals as well 6.5% of Harvard men have experienced some kind of nonconsensual sexual activity during their time here. Of the female undergraduates who reported experiencing non-consensual penetration by force or incapacitation, 87% reported the incident took place in a House or Dormitory. This is not some urban myth--it is happening and it is happening way too frequently.

MS: AG, thank you for speaking to the importance of creating trauma-informed environments, and the role each of us play in acknowledging our attitudes and actions as well as their impact on community norms. Trauma-informed responses, environments, and policies consider the historical and cultural context of how trauma is experienced, and is often created and provided in partnership with the person or groups seeking care. It is a holistic approach that can be implemented by administrators, students, staff, faculty, friends and family, as long as there is a commitment to collaboration, transparency, empathy, and compassion.  A piece of being trauma informed is recognizing that all members of communities are impacted by interpersonal violence, whether firsthand or vicariously, and may have different experiences or responses.  

AG: I do think it’s important to understand that to completely eliminate the risk of sexual assault we would all basically have to lock ourselves in our rooms. It’s not realistic. But you’re right - there are tangible things that we can do to confront it and to make our campus safer.

MS: A crucial first step is to recognize that we all are capable of experiencing harm and of causing harm.  Without that understanding, it is really hard to communicate openly and to practice accountability when we do harm someone, even if unintentionally.

AG: Talk about it. Engage with your friends and peers. Having these hard conversations with each other about the structures and mentalities that allow sexual assault to exist is a hugely important starting place. Remind each other about the importance of communication during hook-ups and then continue to hold yourselves accountable.  

MS: Yes! In order to safely and respectfully explore ourselves and others, understanding our own beliefs and biases surrounding sexuality, consent, and gender is important. The more information and context we have about someone we are interested in - whether for a casual hook-up or a longer term sexual and/or emotional relationship - the better we are able to set expectations, navigate conflict, and have more fun! Consider a staff or peer-facilitated workshop that deconstructs the culture that we live, work, and play in here at Harvard - what are the cues we are giving out and receiving, and how do we know someone is down for…whatever?

AG: But then don’t let the conversations end there. Take this awareness to parties, to other dorm rooms and final clubs, and be a vocal and active bystander. If you see something that doesn’t seem right, please say something. Check in and look out for your friends (and if something does happen, please listen and believe and support them).

MS: Being an active bystander can be difficult if we don’t feel supported and validated by our communities when we take action - we know from the AAU Sexual Climate Survey that while more than 34.3% of Harvard women and 24.8% of Harvard men reported having witnessed someone acting in a sexually violent or harassing manner, 52.5% of those women and 51.5% of men reported not taking any action. Active bystander behavior is difficult if you don’t know what to look for, and don’t have established community norms around standards of behavior and accountability to validate checking in - whether it’s harmful beliefs, language, or actions.

AG: Acknowledge when or if you are in places or positions that allow you to exercise power over another person and think about the ways that this can affect the dynamic or their sense of comfort. Ask for consent without demanding a certain response and then accept the answer that’s given to you.

MS: Yes! Also, participating in conversations that examine where you have social influence and access, where you are modeling behavior for other students as a leader, and where you have capital to create policies and procedures that facilitate more equitable, comfortable environments is critical to changing campus culture.

Keep talking,




Meera Seshadri, MSPH

Associate Director, OSAPR