Christine Quinn did not hide her surprise at the number of people sitting in the seats of the PBHA parlor room on the night of the Let’s Talk Harvard dinner last month. A full room awaited the night’s discussion between Our Harvard Can Do Better, the student group that filed a lawsuit against Harvard for Title IX violations, and Quinn, current advisor to New York Governor Cuomo and leader of his task force against sexual assault on college campuses. Over the course of the night, Quinn and the student leaders detailed their experiences fighting sexual assault at college.
Quinn has been involved in the fight against sexual assault on college campuses since she helped Andrew Cuomo found the Women’s Equality Party during his 2014 reelection campaign for governor of New York. After Governor Cuomo took office, Quinn worked with him to pass legislation which implemented a standard sexual assault policy for the State University of New York system. The two are currently attempting to expand this law to private colleges in the state. The policy already put in place in the sixty-four SUNY campuses includes an affirmative consent clause, training for campus police and administrators, a streamlined reporting protocol, and an awareness campaign targeting both college and high school students. Over the course of the Let’s Talk dinner, Quinn advocated for each of these strategies in sexual violence prevention.
Both Quinn and the members of Our Harvard Can Do Better primarily deal with college administrators, and though they come from opposite ends of the authority spectrum, their experiences have been similarly unsatisfactory. Quinn laughingly described the SUNY administration’s attitude towards sexual assault as “not fabulous,” and explained that though no college outwardly refuted the policy, administrators have raised “concerns, thoughts, [and] tweaks.” Our Harvard Can Do Better expressed outward frustration with administrators from the College. They reported meeting with administrators about once a week alongside their work with the Department of Education in their Title IX investigation. Though Our Harvard Can Do Better believes the burden of eliminating sexual violence should fall on administrators, the policy changes have been the result of an unreasonable amount of student labor.
While both student groups and public officials deal with many of the same people and issues in their fight against sexual violence, their strategies are different. The Let’s Talk Harvard dinner provided these two entities the chance to understand what people on the other end of the spectrum are attempting, and both Quinn and Our Harvard Can Do Better took advantage of this opportunity.
Quinn has long lauded the efforts of college students to speak up against sexual assault on campuses, and her work has involved bringing college students to Albany to voice their opinions to the state legislature. She intently listened as the representatives from Our Harvard Can Do Better answered her question about the changes they want Harvard to make. The two Our Harvard Can Do Better representatives responded that they would like to see transparency from the administration—for example, in terms of what happens to alleged perpetrators at the Administrative Board. They also call for better efforts to make the new procedures and bodies that have emerged in the last year accessible to students, citing that the new sexual assault policy is hard to find and difficult to understand.
Quinn responded by identifying transparency as an ongoing fight between colleges and students. To improve visibility, she wants to create an easily accessible online database with all the important information about sexual assault at each college, exemplifying her repeated process of putting victim and student voices at the forefront of her work.
Our Harvard Can Do Better wanted to learn about the strategies Quinn uses to enforce student-informed sexual assault policies. She listed a few possible enforceable policies, such as requiring a certain percentage of a school’s operating budget or state budget to be allocated towards sexual assault prevention. If schools did not comply, Quinn suggested the universities could lose their state charter. Quinn then tempered her suggestions, explaining college students had raised concerns that taking money from schools might affect scholarship possibilities.
Both Quinn and the Harvard students at the event were also eager to address the LGBT experience with sexual assault at college. Quinn, the first openly gay city councilwoman of New York, recounted her experience running a college program which dealt with sex crimes in an LGBT context. She found that LGBT victims can be reluctant to report assault, and had to work to incorporate their voices in creative ways. When Our Harvard Can Do Better raised the concern of making sexual assault policies inclusive of LGBT students, Quinn responded that they need to employ completely gender-neutral language throughout.
The conversation continued to circle back to the role of students, with Quinn crediting them for much of the progress that has been made against sexual violence at colleges. The Harvard students who filled the room seemed to exceed her expectations, and their energy, knowledge, and pointed questions lent a hopeful air to the evening. While Harvard administrators must ultimately be held responsible for the safety of their students, there does not seem to be a shortage of students willing to contribute their time and effort.
A few days after the dinner, Quinn sat down with the HPR to reflect on the night and share more of her thoughts on sexual assault at Harvard and other campuses.
Harvard Political Review: What impressions were you left with after the Let’s Talk Harvard dinner?
Christine Quinn: I was immensely impressed at how many people showed up on a Thursday night in the cold—which it seems to be only lately, but it was really cold—to have a conversation. I mean, I thought that was just terrific, and it was for me very exciting and inspiring, and I was also, I mean, not that sexual assault and rape is an issue exclusive to women, but, that is often how it’s perceived, and more victims are women than men that do the reporting, and there were a lot of men there, and to me that was very exciting. And I also thought it was very exciting how many of the folks who asked questions were freshmen; that freshmen were there, that they were speaking up, I thought that was just really, really terrific. I also thought the two young women from Harvard Can Do better were very on top of it, very informed, really had their stuff together.
HPR: The law that you’re working on with Governor Cuomo includes an affirmative consent clause—do you think that this provision is necessary to have an effective sexual assault policy?
CQ: I think an affirmative consent, kind of a yes-means-yes, is critical. And I think part of how we as a society deal with, tolerate, accept, don’t accept, reject the idea of sexual violence has changed over time. I don’t like to use the word evolve, because that makes it sound like there haven’t been a lot of people fighting and pushing which there have been, but it changed. And it’s not perfect, it’s not where it should be, but on the issue of victim-blaming there’s less of that than there used to be.
Now I think the affirmative consent comes out of all the work that everyone has done. Because you started with “this could never really happen,” right, and then you were deep in victim-blaming, and then it was like, “well she didn’t really make it clear, I didn’t hear no, I didn’t know she was drunk, I didn’t know he was drunk.” So this [affirmative consent clause] is I think moving us forward on the societal march that sexual violence is not acceptable, we won’t tolerate it, and actually having “yes-means-yes” is critical in moving forward to a place where we end sexual violence.
HPR: Harvard has implemented a new sexual assault policy this year after being under investigation by the Department of Education for Title IX violations. Professors from Harvard Law School have come out publicly and said that the policy goes beyond the stipulations of Title IX. They say that it’s stacked against the accused because it doesn’t give the accused the right to learn charges, and it doesn’t provide adequate representation for the accused, and they don’t have the chance to provide a defense at a hearing—
CQ: Look, I can’t speak to the specifics of the Harvard policy. That said, in the work I’ve been doing, I think there is a real confusion—and I’m not surprised to hear this from the Law School. This is not a criminal court. People who are victims have the right to go to criminal court if they want to, and I support that and I would urge as many as possible to do that. But when Harvard University or the State University of New York takes actions, that’s not a criminal setting. So even the kind of concept of defense attorneys being provided, this is not a criminal setting.
So kind of drawing a parallel (and I’ve had these discussions with civil libertarians and civil liberties activists in New York), this is not a parallel where they’ve quoted penal law as it relates to Governor Cuomo’s bill, this is not a criminal law, this is not what that is. Victims have that right, but this is not what that is, one.
Two, we’re talking about a policy here, or, we’re talking about a system here, which for God knows how long has denied that [sexual assault] has even happened, and where the victims had no voice, no standing. I find it so curious that there’s this movement of sorts on behalf of alleged perpetrators. I don’t really understand it, honestly. They have held all of the cards, the victims have been presumed to be liars, in my opinion. So I can’t speak to the specifics here, but look: there’s a lot of smart people at Harvard Law School, I’m sure. And if they were really interested in the nuts and bolts of this, then, tweak the policy. Red-line it. Propose solutions. Get at the table with the president of the College and Our Harvard Can Do Better, and try to find something. Nobody’s looking to do anything unfair to any student. But we’re talking about people here who are committing a horrible act that will forever—notwithstanding that people make unbelievable recoveries in their lives—will forever change that victim, let’s make no doubt about it. And for decades and decades and decades those perpetrators have gotten off scot-free and that has to come to an end.
HPR: What are some misconceptions that you think people have about sexual assault at colleges?
CQ: Well, I think a misconception people have about sexual assault generally, which you really see played out in colleges, is that it’s about sex. That it’s just a sexual encounter that went a little too far and one person was confused. Sexual violence is not actually about sex. It’s about power and control. And that’s a critical thing we have to understand.
Two, I think there’s a bit of an attitude at colleges that everything can be written off by people having drank too much. People who are not sexual assaulters can be three sheets to the wind, and they’re not going to sexually assault anybody. And you can have a sexual encounter when you drank too much that isn’t sexual assault. But everything gets written off as “they just had too much to drink.” That’s not a defense, that’s not accurate.
I also think people have this misconception about revenge charges. That the other person’s going to wake up in the morning and be mad that he or she doesn’t want to be their boyfriend or girlfriend and going to charge them. That doesn’t happen. I have almost never seen that happen, and there is absolutely no substantial evidence that that happens in any significant way. Because saying somebody sexually assaulted you is—although I wish it wasn’t—traumatic, embarrassing, stigmatizing. It’s still a lot of negative things, so people don’t do that.
And I also think there is this idea, “kids will be kids.” This isn’t a childlike act. This is not sexual experimentation; we are talking about sexual violence here.
HPR: Why do you think that sexual assault on college campuses has gained so much attention recently? Why do you think students have been protesting it so much more?
CQ: Well, I think society for awhile now has been working on the issue of sexual violence, and advocates and survivors and elected officials and others have done good work in bringing this issue out of the shadows and working against victim-blaming and victim-shaming. And we’ve made progress in that area and I like to think that progress has been helpful for college students to feel like they can start to come out of the shadow. I mean, that’s kind of the positive.
The negative I fear—and with the positive having happened, I think there’s been more conversation—and the negative is that in the conversation, people began to learn more and more and more that they weren’t the only one. And began to see kind of a growing number that made it so clear that we had an enormous problem, that it was no longer possible to not do anything.
And, perhaps most significantly, there have been brave people, particularly very brave women, who have stepped out and taken an enormous risk. And we know from history that when one person does that, it creates the opportunity and the ability for other people to do that.
And also, I think with something like this, people think, “Well, I was not a victim or survivor of sexual assault, so I cannot lead this.” But I think when other people speak out, there’s also the opportunity for other people to come out and be—I don’t like the word ‘bystander,’ I like to use the word ‘upstanders’—so I think there’s an opportunity for people to be upstanders, to take their skill set, whether it’s research or it’s writing, or art, to you know, move the issue forward.
HPR: How do you think the situation will change in the next decade?
CQ: Well, I think you’re going to see more and more state university systems, and more and more states, take the kind of action that we’ve taken at the State University of New York and we will take in the next few months at the New York State legislature. I also think that we will see the federal government, in the Senate and in Congress, take more action as well, but I think you probably first will see more colleges and universities be forced to do it, then more state universities doing it, then more states, and eventually the federal government after that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Image credit: Flickr