Dear too-many colleges: here’s why you’re next in line for a Title IX suit


Another week, another famous institution of higher learning in the news for mismanaging cases of sexual assault on campus.

This time, it was Harvard. The most common response, from what I can tell, seems to be summarized thusly: “Oh myyyyy – even at Hahvahd?” (eyebrows raised in surprise, mouth forming a delicate “o” of prim concern).

The morning the story broke in the local news, I happened to be having lunch with these two guys who work in administration at a nearby college. Guy #1 says to me, “So, have you heard about Harvard? And the sexual assault case?” Why yes, yes I have. Guy #1 continues, in a voice of genuine concern: “So, what can we do to keep people from drinking so much?”

Guy #2 murmurs in agreement, eyebrows knitted with empathy.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. EXHIBIT A. This, right here, is the crux of why colleges keep finding themselves in trouble when it comes to dealing with sexual assault.

I know, I KNOW. It’s not like Guys #1 and #2 are alone in their thinking here. Just read the comments section of any article on the college-sexual-assault topic for a primer on the latest and greatest in victim-blaming. The idea that intoxication negates one’s ability to provide consent seems to be a logical stretch for quite of few of the world’s armchair analysts.

But here’s the thing. I don’t really care if some random dude with a laptop disagrees with whether rape is rape when alcohol is involved. I mean, I don’t like it, but one guy with an opinion just doesn’t matter all that much. The extent of his power ends once his opinion’s been expressed.

However. If you’ve made a career for yourself in college administration or college health, and you continue to think that the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses is really about excessive drinking and morning-after regret, don’t act shocked when your school is next to hit the news with a Title IX suit and a bunch of unflattering media attention of your own.

Yes, you could be the next Harvard. Or Dartmouth. Or Mizzou. Because sexual assault is happening on college campuses EVERYWHERE. It has, without question, happened on your campus. And if this common-yet-ultimately-wrong-minded perspective frames how you choose to respond to a sexual assault survivor’s case once it’s been brought to your attention, there’s a good chance that survivor will feel justifiably wronged. And, if they’re feeling brave enough, they just might decide to take this dissatisfaction with you and your colleagues public. Very, very public.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not denying that there’s a problem with binge drinking on college campuses that we need to address. But it needs to be addressed as an issue that’s separate and distinct from that of sexual assault. After all, just because it might be easier to mug someone who’s walking home late at night after they’ve had few drinks with friends, it’s not like the mugging itself isn’t still a crime.

I mean, someone who’s been attacked and robbed isn’t told by the authorities that their mugger didn’t REALLY commit a crime, because, y’know, you WERE pretty wasted, after all, and maybe sorta kinda asking for it by walking down the street in the middle of the night. I mean, who’s to say you didn’t HAND that aggressive stranger your money when he asked nicely? Who knows? He said, she said. You know what? Let’s just chalk this one up to youthful indiscretion and a lesson learned.

Hell no. Safety bulletins are sent out, city and campus police start patrolling overtime, and no one rests until the assailant’s been caught.

Intoxication may make a predator’s job easier. But it doesn’t make them NOT a predator.

In a perfect world, everyone would GET THIS, and this tortured public debate over what-is-or-isn’t-rape would cease to exist. I’m not naive enough to think that sexual assault wouldn’t still happen – because some people are terrible human beings – but society would deal with it the way it does any other violent crime. Meaning a) those who choose to commit a crime are consistently removed from the community for the safety of others, and b) the threat of criminal charges and incarceration might make some of the would-be assailants of the world think twice before committing assault. Both of which would result in less sexual assault. And I’m pretty sure we can all agree that less sexual assault = GOOD.

Those of us who work on college campuses need to be held to a different standard than Random Laptop Guy. You can’t hold regressive and harmful views on a topic as important – and yes, public – as sexual assault, with those views shaping your institutional response to individual reports of rape, and NOT expect that it might come back to bite you someday.

Unless, of course, you’d been hoping to end up on the front page of the Globe someday. In which case, vaya con Dios, my friends.


No, Gardasil didn’t make your period go away


A new patient came to see me this week, concerned about the fact that her period was a little over a month late.

After ruling out the obvious (no babies), we ran some labs. A few days later, she returns to review her test results (yay normal!) and she presents me with this, the real reason she’s worried: she had her first dose of the HPV vaccine two months ago. And she’s been hearing some stuff about Big Bad Things happening to young people everywhere because of it. In fact, she’d read something somewhere about a girl who went into MENOPAUSE after she received it. Could Gardasil be the reason her period is overdue? Will she ever have a period again???

Let’s see. In the past two months she’s also moved to a new country, started a graduate program, been ROBBED (ugh – thanks for nothing, Big City), and engaged in several other unspecified interpersonal conflicts. In other words, she’s been going through a rough stretch. I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, there might be a few other things going on in her life right now that could be affecting the regularity of her menstrual cycle besides the HPV vaccine.

But here’s the thing. Even though I’m absolutely confident in saying that it’s highly (HIGHLY) unlikely that the vaccine had anything to do with her menstrual issue, can I say that there’s 0% chance? That it’s completely, unequivocally impossible? Well, no. But only because I’m almost never willing to commit to 0% or 100% certainty on anything. (See how even there, I said almost?) Because SCIENCE DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY.

This can prove to be a problem. Because it means that when you’re talking to someone who’s unfamiliar with how the research process DOES work, saying things like “it’s highly unlikely that” or “there’s no evidence to suggest that” or “no more frequently than placebo” may be accurate, but they can also sound suspiciously like “I’m not sure. Maybe?”

And if you’re, say, a cynical manipulative media type desperate to remind people that you have a daytime talk show no one seems to know exists (*cough* katie couric *cough*) then all you have to do is book a few sad stories for an episode that exploits this disconnect between perception and reality – because apparently a couple of anecdotes without any confirmed link to the vaccine in question are equivalent in relevance to an enormous and growing scientific evidence base – and before you know it, hey, people are talking about you again! Win!

Back to my patient. What I said was this: there is zero evidence or theoretical support, at this time, for a link existing between the HPV vaccine and anything scary whatsoever, including a late period. And, what we DO know is that the vaccine is highly effective at preventing HPV. Which is associated with the development of the vast majority of cervical (and vaginal, and vulvar, and anal, and oropharyngeal, and penile) cancer. And which you’re practically guaranteed to be exposed to if you plan on being sexually active with another human being at any time in your life, ever.

So, yes. You should most definitely plan on coming back for dose #2.