Problem, Challenge, or Focus:

Sexual Assault Prevention and Response

Listen to Sarah Rankin's Story

  • Profession:
    Psychologist, Social Worker
  • Focus:
    Gender Violence, Prevention, Health Promotion, Social Justice
  • Job Title:
    Director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response
  • Organization:
    Harvard University
  • Song Credit:
    At Last by Megashira
  • Possibility Fellow:
    Nora Eccles
  • Profile Made Possible By:

Please describe who you are, where you are from, and your current role.

My name is Sarah Rankin, and I am the director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response at Harvard University.

What problem or challenge are you currently working to address?

What we are trying to do here is two-fold. First, we provide comprehensive student-centered intervention services. If something has happened to a student around the issues of interpersonal violence, like sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, or harassment, we try to ensure that they have a place to go to help them navigate all of their needs. We also want to help keep them on their academic life track, and not let this incident derail them. So that is sort of our goal on an individual level.

On a global level, we are trying to work ourselves out of a job, as many people are trying to do in the health care field, by preventing interpersonal violence from happening in the first place. We dedicate a lot of our resources towards prevention. We have a full-time education specialist and a part-time prevention specialist who work primarily with student groups around peer education and bystander intervention, to give students the tools to help them intervene in the moment.

Given that our topic is around sexual assault and dating violence, the majority of perpetrators are men. True prevention comes from preventing perpetrators from doing what they are doing in the first place. Our goal is really reaching out to men to be allies in prevention by challenging the men who are potentially committing these acts. We have a large student group called Harvard Men Against Rape, through which we train men on how to intervene and speak up to their male friends who joke about things or have cavalier attitudes.

Why is this problem or challenge important?

I have a master’s degree in Psychology. I lived in Seattle, and after grad school, I was hired to work at the Crisis Center, where we did domestic violence, sexual assault, and suicide intervention work. I worked in the sexual assault arm of the agency facilitating support groups for kids and adolescents who had been sexually assaulted or abused. I did that for a couple of years, and then I moved on to supervising and training the volunteers that staffed the hotline, before ultimately becoming the director of the sexual assault agency. After that, I did some work with domestic violence perpetrators – men who had been court mandated to go to treatment. I did this for a while, but I didn’t feel like I did it well. I think that is something that you learn – what you are good at and what you are not good at.

Around that time, the university in the town I lived in got a grant through the Department of Justice to start a campus-based victim advocacy center. I was hired to direct and coordinate the grant. I worked there for six years and then I moved to direct the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response at Harvard.

Give a sampling of the work you do on a day-to-day basis.

Boy, it depends on the time of year. Typically during the school year, I spend a lot of my time having confidential, individual discussions with students. I meet with students who have had something happen to them or who want to know how to help a friend who has had something happen. The rest of my time is spent doing trainings and outreach. As the director of OSAPR, my role is to supervise the staff and the students who work in our office.
I also go out into the community and give trainings to nurses, doctors, policemen, lawyers, and other staff around Harvard to provide information about the issue, why it is important, how to hear cases impartially, and what response students need. There are a lot of myths about sexual assault victims, so I think these trainings can begin to debunk them.

OSAPR also has an Education Specialist and a Prevention Specialist on staff. They work most directly with students, doing a lot of nights and weekends to support student events, workshops, and discussions. They also work with all of the student clubs and unrecognized groups on campus like final clubs and sororities.

What are the enjoyable parts of your work? What are the less enjoyable parts?

Oh, I love the students. I love any campus I’ve ever worked on, and Harvard is no exception.
College is such a great time of life for students. They are just figuring things out, learning about themselves, and it is a fun time to be involved. I love helping a student. Not that I love that something has happened to them, but I get the greatest joy when I can do something concrete for them. For example, it makes me very happy when a student is really worried about an exam and I can help them get an extension on it, or something very concrete like that. And of course, the prevention work that we do is wonderful. Students are very engaged here and when they get excited about something, they have brilliant ideas and endless energy, so that is really fun to be around.

The challenges are like probably any job anywhere: navigating red tape and figuring out how to make change happen in a way that’s moving us forward. Sometimes things move slowly, which can be frustrating. Probably the greatest challenge, I think, is coming up with a brilliant idea and knowing that we have to appoint 25 committees to discuss it (laughs).

What is a challenge that you have faced in your career? How did you deal with that challenge?

One of the greatest challenges for me was when I was working with domestic violence perpetrators and I realized that I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I wasn’t good at it, and I don’t think it was fair to the guys or to me. It was hard because I tried to have great empathy for the men in the group with me, despite the fact that I would read the police reports and know that they did pretty awful things. It was hard to be in the presence of twenty men when I would rather have been with their wives or girlfriends.

I remember a very large guy, a professional football player actually, who just oozed hostility and anger at me. I co-facilitated the group with another man, but the anger was always at me. The guy would make lots of remarks, but at one point, and I think he was saying it intentionally provocatively, he told me something about how I should go home and be attending to my husband, or something really sexist like that. I think I just lost it. I snapped sarcastically at him, and that was the moment for me when I realized that I just shouldn’t be doing this.

What types of interests and activities do you maintain outside of your work?

I have two kids, so I love to hang out with them. I also like to read, spend time with my friends, and run.

Can you recommend pieces of media that profoundly shaped you?

– I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb
– I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
– Half The Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

What advice do you have for people in their early stages of exploring?

Well, this is career advice that I got and thought was dumb (laughs), but in hindsight I think there is a lot of truth to it. I remember someone telling me to think about something I would automatically have a knee-jerk reaction to, that I thought I could never do for whatever reason, and try it.

For example, the first thing I said when I found out about my first job working with sexual assault victims was, I can never do that. I could never counsel these victims. This wonderful woman who worked at the agency told me I should give it a shot and that I would be good at it for a number of reasons, so I ended up applying just because she said that. It changed my life.

Or, I had always said I could never work in a nursing home because I felt like I would be sad all the time and seeing people near death would be very hard. But I volunteered at one for that very reason because I said, try what you think you won’t do. I tried volunteering at one and it was probably the most rewarding experience of my entire life. So, you never know.

What is your vision for the problem or challenge you are working to address?

I think our vision here is building an environment for students. Being on a college campus, we are fortunate because we have this captive community. Our focus is our students and we have a clear path to them. We want to build this community where we have thoughtful policies and procedures for how the school handles sexual assault, but also where we are actually affecting cultural change. I think on a broad scale, ultimately our goal is to plant little seeds in our students, knowing that they will then go scatter them. We want to culturally critique how they were raised and the gender stereotypes they hold. Our students are going to become parents, teachers, lawyers, doctors, presidents. They will raise kids, teach in classrooms, create laws, or whatever, and we want to reach the future by planting these seeds of thought now. I think we are trying to just reach students and say, have you ever noticed this? Or what do you think about this?

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