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‘Innocent until proven guilty’ can be used to ‘silence survivors,’ Harvard office says

Reiterating the basic rules of the American legal system is an attack on rape victims.

That’s the head-scratching logic from the Harvard Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response on its “vocabulary” page, which includes several definitions and explanations of concepts “written by OSAPR staff with the intention of contextualizing terms used in our work.”

Read a few of these explanations and you’ll get the sense that the OSAPR staff could use a remedial English class.

MORE: Harvard can’t explain its own sexual-harassment rules

Here’s the definition of “innocent until proven guilty” (h/t Campus Reform), which notes and then brushes off the elevated threats to “minority populations” who are disproportionately accused of sexual assault:

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. 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. Survivor-centric policies do not take away from the necessity of “innocent until proven guilty” in the criminal justice system, as these ideas are not mutually exclusive. Trauma may exacerbate or create an imbalance of access, mobility, and rights; the provision of care, concern, and protection for survivors can correct that imbalance.

“It is assumed”? It is actually a fact – so-called interim measures punish and set back those accused of sexual assault before any adjudication has taken place.

It’s also telling that Harvard can’t even bring itself to use neutral language – “complainant” rather than “survivor,” “respondent” rather than “the person who has caused harm”  – in a paragraph that is ostensibly about not jumping to conclusions about an accused person (who just might belong to one of those vulnerable “minority populations.”)

MORE: Professors say Title IX enforcement has ‘upended due process’

You shouldn’t worry about “false reports” because those are only 2-10 percent of reports, the office says. Interestingly, it doesn’t give an estimated figure for “unsubstantiated” reports, which it calls reports “where the facts presented are determined not to have met the standard of evidence” (keep in mind, in college that is the “more likely than not” preponderance standard).

Speaking of the “person who caused harm,” you shouldn’t call him a “perpetrator” because … well …

“perpetrator” has negative social connotations, [so] a survivor might prefer the term “person who caused harm” or “someone engaging in harmful behaviors.” These terms still recognize the severity of the acts committed, but perhaps allow for those who have caused harm to own their actions and hold themselves accountable without identifying as “perpetrator.”

Right, because a wrongly accused person feels better when described with a verb. (Amusingly, OSAPR chooses to use “perpetrator” in another definition – “restorative justice.”)

MORE: University threatened witnesses defending accused black athletes, says lawsuit

Did you know that “consent” must be verbal or else it’s suspect, and (per Coastal Carolina University) your partner must be “excited”?

Many people are taught that it is okay to be unsure in a sexual encounter, that it’s okay to interpret body language (which is often misinterpreted and then used to victim blame) instead of asking or talking.  In actuality, consent is a mutual agreement to listen to and stay engaged with one another throughout all interactions, to respect both yourself and your partners’ needs, and to understand that someone may choose to disengage from the experience at any time. You want to know, without a doubt, they are excited to engage with you in whatever activities you agree upon, regardless of whether the experience is amazing or mediocre. Many factors influence how consent is given and received including power dynamics or alcohol consumption. It is the responsibility of all parties to receive consent from their partner(s).

But it’s the person who makes the first accusation – most likely someone without a penis – who will always be judged the victim, regardless of the evidence.

“Incapacitated” may be the most useless one of all:

Incapacitated is a state in which a person is incapable of consenting to or inviting sexual activity as a result of drugs, alcohol, sleep, unconsciousness, or emotional and psychological distress. Signs of incapacitation might include but are not limited to stumbling, difficulty maintaining balance, blacking out, vomiting, inability to focus, disorientation, and inability to communicate coherently. Not all persons who are incapacitated will demonstrate any of the aforementioned symptoms.

So in other words, a person who acts normally may still be “incapacitated” – and therefore unable to give consent – under Harvard’s definition.

MORE: ‘Title IX has become a political weapon’ 

“Sexual harassment” follows the blatantly unconstitutional “blueprint” agreement the Department of Education signed with the University of Montana:

… any expression or behavior that can be interpreted to be of a sexual nature and is unwelcome by the recipient. … In many instances, someone who has experienced harassment may have a difficult time recognizing it because rape culture has normalized sexual objectification to feel commonplace.

“Standards of evidence” include beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal cases, but

Criticism of this standard exists because in cases of sexual assault, it places a burden of proof on the victim.

Actually, in the case of any criminal behavior – not just sexual assault – it places the burden on the state to prove a defendant’s guilt. Clearly OSAPR should have run this page by some law professors.

MORE: Sex is rape if it’s not ‘sober’ and ‘enthusiastic’

We haven’t even gotten to “rape culture,” “hegemonic masculinity” and other inscrutable definitions that OSAPR apparently thinks will be helpful to the average student.

Since the vocabulary page is undated, it’s not clear whether these definitions have changed since students complained to Harvard’s Title IX chief that they couldn’t make heads or tails of the definitions.

Read the vocabulary page, but take some aspirin first.

MORE: Lawmaker sues Department of Ed for unenforceable rape rules

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.