Opinion editorial

Fighting sexual assault can’t be optional for MIT students

Strong action must match bold survey, plans

On Monday, MIT released detailed results of a survey designed to investigate the scope and nature of sexual misconduct in our community. The survey is a rare quantitative examination of sexual assault at colleges — in several ways the first of its kind among MIT’s peer institutions — and is a true example of bold leadership by the MIT administration and chancellor. And the data and resulting action plan were released with public honesty in a time when many colleges across the country seem to be primarily trying to avoid the issue.

The summary of the results forces us to confront difficult truths about our community. Thirty-five percent and 14 percent of female and male undergraduate respondents indicated that they had experienced a form of unwanted sexual behavior while at MIT, respectively. And 17 percent of female undergraduate respondents indicated that they had experienced behavior defined as rape or sexual assault under conditions of force, threat, or incapacitation.

But there is another difficult fact that the survey and the administration haven’t seemed to acknowledge: the success of the administration’s proposals will require a level of student involvement that we simply haven’t seen before.

The administration leaves no doubt that it hopes these results will spur a campus-wide dialogue and that students will take the lead in many of the proposed projects. But without robust participation from the student body, these proposals will not be effective.

Community forums and requests for feedback won’t be productive unless students submit thoughtful suggestions. Increased provision of educational services won’t have a strong effect if students don’t take them seriously. A new peer mentoring program won’t get off the ground without competent student leadership.

Moreover, students can shape the content and delivery of these services in order to maximize their reach and legitimacy. Residence-based programs offer residential governments an opportunity to take the lead in working with the administration to shape these programs and substantially improve the lives of their dorm-mates.

The administration is right — there is only so much they can do, and any meaningful decline in the troubling rates of sexual assault will require hard work by students to combat the most perverse aspects of their own culture. But it remains to be seen whether the MIT student population is up to this task.

Many MIT students too often pride themselves on a myopic focus on their technical work, even going so far as to deride peer institutions where students study the “less legitimate” subjects of history, politics, and gender studies and where student activism is prevalent rather than rare.

Of course, MIT students have mobilized for change when incensed. But here at The Tech, where we are often well-positioned to observe campus dialogue, it seems that student outrage, surprise, or even general concern about the rate of sexual assault at our school doesn’t even approach that expressed over such issues as mandatory dining plans, residential security changes, or mural policies. Indeed, it seems the predominant narrative around the survey’s release is external praise for MIT’s boldness in issuing the survey rather than student dismay at its results.

The cultures of many of our peer institutions are permeated by a basic literacy about and deep concern for these issues. That is not the case here. Sadly, MIT is the type of place where community and political discussions are seen as optional. It is also a place where the term “rape culture” is often used as a punchline for a strawman of feminism. But it’s hard to find a better term to describe a place where 40 percent of respondents don’t disagree with the statement that “rape and sexual assault happen because people put themselves in bad situations” and when 72 percent of those responding that they had experienced unwanted sexual behavior indicated that it came from another MIT student.

These are deficiencies in our culture, and it’s hard to imagine that efforts led by a small group of passionate students and administrators will move the needle on an overwhelmingly apathetic campus. After all, the survey results provide ample evidence that many students don’t take the problem as seriously as student leaders and administrators do, and some have downright regressive views. It is hard to expect releasing the results to change that fact. We do not want to be defeatist, but we do think we need a more frank discussion of the magnitude of action required.

We also call on the administration to more seriously consider what will be necessary to effect change given the current student climate. The aversion to heavy-handed, top-down policies is commendable and a valuable heuristic. But the administration should also not shy away from opportunities to strongly urge or even require students to take specific actions.

We understand that the administration will continue to expand and update its plans in the near future. But we would like to take this opportunity to encourage decision-makers to be as bold in their future proposals as they were in issuing the survey.

To quote President Reif, sexual assault “has no place here.” The administration is aware of the fact that it has more to do. But if the entire effort is to have a chance at success, students cannot opt out of this conversation — and that’s on us.

Kelley Lax over 9 years ago

Very well said. As an alumni, I can say that sometimes the academic life of MIT subsumes everything else, to the point where students lose sight of the fact that there is sometimes something more important than a p-set.

Anonymous over 9 years ago

I don't think it's fair to blame the students alone for their focus on work. Many students point out that this narrow-mindedness is a problem, but they feel they have no recourse: life at MIT moves fast and is unforgiving. In the short term, it is on the students to take part in this conversation. In the long term, it is on all of us to examine the priorities of MIT and the scientific community, and the metrics by which we judge each other's worth, that result in students coming in eager to participate in the community, but quickly becoming closed and taking on fairly self-serving attitudes (which seem to be accepted and encouraged by MIT's style of science, and necessary in order to survive the onslaught of work).

Anonymous over 9 years ago

I can't imagine there are many among us who want to sexually assault another. Honestly, I can't imagine there are ANY among us who want to sexually assault another. So while it's certainly our tendency to see something like "rape and sexual assault happen because people put themselves in bad situations" and assume it's victim blaming, maybe we should assume it's something a bit more nuanced.

Because if I didn't want to sexually assault someone, but I did, what happened? I didn't stop myself. My partner trusted me and I violated that trust. I feel terrible about it and I know I was wrong, but I still did it and there is no undoing it.

Rather than strive to prevent these scenarios, I think we should encourage openness about these scenarios while they're still minor forms of assault. Friends reporting friends. Brothers reporting brothers. Sisters reporting sisters.

If someone's too drunk, I know who to call. If someone's having a mental health issue, I know where to send them. If my professor schedules a final assignment due during finals week, I know who to email. I can even do all that anonymously. But if I saw my friend do something kinda questionable with a partner on the dance floor and I'm afraid it might happen again...I got nothing.


For anyone who counters this by saying I'm allowing sexual assault...yes, I know I am. But keep in mind that this lovely scene from Gilmore Girls (thanks Netflix) could be considered sexual assault if Rory decided she didn't want the kiss:


Education is good, but not everyone will get an A. I'm not suggesting we stop the education, but we need to supplement it to catch the ones who slip through the cracks. This failsafe should be optimized to catch them as soon as possible.

And now I continue my Gilmore Girls marathon...

Anonymous over 9 years ago

3 - The idea that accidental rape is equivalent to accidentally scheduling an exam a week off is abhorrent.

As for the Gilmore Girls scene, your link isn't working for me, but I have an idea of what it is and I will respond with this: Part of rape culture is making it appear cute to violate people's boundaries. "Oh, if you had only said yes, then your rape would've been _adorable_!"

Part of rape culture is making it "strange" or "unromantic" or even "creepy" to try to ask if someone wants to sleep with you.

This is not rocket science. Before you sleep with someone, verify that they want to sleep with you. If they're not in a state to make a decision, don't say "yes" in their place. The default is "no". Just like if you want to borrow a friend's car. (Bodies are personal property, and deserve more respect than a car - not less.) If you want your partner to do things without asking first in the future as long as you don't explicitly say no, say so! But that should not be the starting assumption here.

tl;dr - The part that's worth repeating: Before you sleep with someone, verify that they actually want to sleep with you.

Anonymous over 9 years ago


Apologies about the link. An equals sign seems to have gotten lost in the loop. Here's another try:


Your comment is grounded in the theory that rape is the only form of sexual assault, or at least the only form of sexual assault worth discussing. Sexual assault has a much wider scope, including touching or kissing. The incidence rates for these less severe forms of sexual assault are much higher.

Although there would be nothing stopping a report of rape from coming through my proposed reporting system, my hope is that it would primarily be used for less severe forms of sexual assault. Then, additional education provided to students who are reported would hopefully prevent a mild form a sexual assault from evolving into something more severe.

Further, I apologize that my point was unclear. I didn't intend to argue that accidental rape is equivalent to accidental exam scheduling. Instead, I was trying to highlight that final exam violations have better reporting procedures sexual assault, which is something I consider abhorrent.

In case anyone's wondering, these are the reporting guidelines for a student. They look great if you're upset that you've been assaulted, but not so great if you're worried that a friend might be making someone a little uncomfortable:


Anonymous over 9 years ago

I think it's interesting that per the study authors, 17 of MIT respondents were victims of sexual assault. Meanwhile, 12 of students in the survey considered themselves to have been victims of any form or unwanted sexual contact. MIT apparently believes that 5 of the students who responded can't tell when they were assaulted.

Are MIT student-victims just bad at consent? Probably not- 83 of respondents clearly noted that just because a person didn't say no doesn't make an incident not-sexual assault.

This needs to be addressed. 5/17 = 30... That's a big percentage of potential cases where MIT thinks that someone committed an act serious enough to warrant expulsion yet both students seem to be okay with what went on. What's the factor here? Alcohol. If Person A and Person B both get drunk and enthusiastically have sex- yet are both plastered beyond the ability to give consent- they have (per MIT's definition) raped each other- even if both students were fine with what happened.

Awareness of sexual assault and consent needs to be raised. But so long as drinking is a big part of campus culture, consent will be a complicated issue that is not so black and white.

Recent Alum over 9 years ago

When I was a student and cruft-that-still-lived-near-campus, I tried to get a bunch of Bystander Response trainings by the BARCC held. There was one that got held in Talbot, but after that I got busy and haven't been able to follow up. Someone else who hasn't moved out-of-state should take this up and make it happen regularly.


Has the relevant information.

As to Anonymous #6 point, here is a flowchart for any confused about whether something is or is not rape: http://lawcomic.net/guide/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Was-It-Rape.png

Finally, did that ridiculous video suggesting to incoming freshman that they induce vomiting or wet themselves to avoid rape get changed to something less of a victim-blaming farce?