By Christina M. Kim
In 2012, Harvard University discovered an online “scouting report” in which male soccer players ranked female players by attractiveness and suspected sexual preferences. Freshmen women players, some as young as 17, were evaluated based on their looks and sex appeal with numerical scores and offensive descriptions. The report assigned each woman a hypothetical sexual position in addition to her position on the soccer field. For example:
“She seems relatively simple and probably inexperienced sexually, so I decided missionary would be her preferred position.”
This ranking system appears to have been a and was not isolated to a few individuals. In response Harvard University suspended its men’s soccer team for the remainder of the 2016-17 season.
While it is easy to dismiss the scouting report as “locker room talk,” sex discrimination and exploitation on college campuses is not so neatly confined. Universities across the country are struggling to address sexism on and off the fields.
In 2015, more than 150,000 students at 27 universities participated in the Association of American Universities (AAU) Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. The purpose was to “help participating universities better understand the attitudes and experiences of their students with respect to sexual assault and sexual misconduct.” In the aggregate, the results showed that about 1 in 4 women (23.1%) experienced nonconsensual sexual contact on campus. Among the female undergraduate respondents at Harvard, more than 72 percent had experienced sexual harassment. Evidently, Harvard was not unique.
There is a critical need for universities to recognize the serious effects of sexual assault and sexual misconduct against women. Being a victim of sexual assault negatively impacts a student’s mental and physical health. It is related to a host of detrimental social functioning outcomes, such as academic failure, depression or anxiety, and alcohol and drug abuse. Beyond emotional consequences, there are legal ramifications as well. When students suffer sexual assault and misconduct, they are deprived of equal and free access to education. In short, sexual violence interferes with a student’s right to receive an education free from discrimination.
In an effort to combat this, universities should adopt harsher penalties for students found in violation . Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal funding. The law encourages colleges and universities to provide a nondiscriminatory environment and to proactively address sexual assault on their campuses. The law also instructs schools to have a Title IX Coordinator, whose responsibility is to ensure complianceTitle IX has a clear, legally mandated role to ensure that colleges respond appropriately to sexual complaints by students.
While Title IX may provide a good model for addressing sexual assault on campuses, the Harvard “scouting report” reflects the need for improvement. Universities need to make clear the procedures for reporting, investigating, and rendering decisions on incidents in which students are accused of non-physical sexual misconduct. The conduct of the Harvard men’s soccer team reflects a culture that objectifies women. Moreover, their report exposed a potential gap in the law; it is ill-equipped to deal with cases that are not “clear-cut” instances of physical sexual violence. The negative impacts of their behavior reaffirms the need for accountability for all types of behavior and not just the egregious ones.
College women are told to feel empowered and proud of their athletic and intellectual abilities. Instead, they are regularly reduced to their physical appearance and fear sexual assault. This is a frustrating reality that women face on college campuses, and will likely continue to face when they graduate and enter the workforce. Despite how common the experience of sexism is for women on campuses, these women are not remaining silent; they are demanding change. In the words of the Harvard women who were listed in the 2012 “scouting report”:
“Finally, to the men of Harvard Soccer and any future men who may lay claim to our bodies and choose to objectify us as sexual objects, in the words of one of us, we say together: I can offer you my forgiveness, which is—and forever will be—the only part of me that you can ever claim as yours.”