U consent policy near finish line

Brian Edwards

When it comes to consent at the University of Minnesota, “yes” may soon mean “yes.” 
 
Following concerns from students and advocacy groups, affirmative consent — which requires all involved parties to agree to a sexual encounter — may soon be a rule at the University after proposed changes were announced last month. The updated policy, which is now available for public comment, also changes language for sexual assault and relationship violence 
 
“Our policy before stated that consent had to be mutually understood, which created these gray areas,” said Joelle Stangler, president of the Minnesota Student Association. “[The changes] make it really cut and dry.”
 
The policy drew influence from the affirmative consent legislation in California, said Kimberly Hewitt, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action at the University. The EOAA investigates complaints regarding sexual assault. 
 
She said policies from schools like Cornell University and the University of Iowa informed Minnesota administrators while they were drafting the policy in the spring.
 
They also relied on interviews with students and testimonials from groups such as the Aurora Center.
 
Erik Baker, a student senator in the Northwestern University Associated Student Government, said the school adopted an affirmative consent policy in January 2014, but the school is still working on strengthening its program.
 
Students have spoken about the difficulty in determining consent when alcohol is involved, as well as their policy regarding emotional abuse within relationships, Baker said.
 
Northwestern is working on a campus-wide survey to gauge students’ reactions to the recent policies, but Baker said he has primarily received positive feedback.
 
“I think people are more confident that we are on the right track, especially compared to a couple years ago,” he said.
 
The University of Michigan, another Big Ten school, is still in the early stages of creating a new sexual assault school policy.
 
Cooper Charlton, president of the University of Michigan’s Central Student Government, said a recent survey found that 12 percent of students had been victims of sexual assault at Michigan.
 
Charlton said he’s working on a campaign to spread sexual assault awareness that will get students to speak out against potential assault.
 
Hewitt said the University leaders believe affirmative consent will help during future investigations. 
 
“It is easier to ask people about how they understood they had consent,” she said. “And to educate them on thinking about consent at each stage of sexual activity.”
 
The new policy refers to victims of sexual assault as the “reporting party,” which Stangler said shouldn’t alter legal protections for students, but may change the way people think about victims.
 
She said the proposed changes to the policies, especially the addition of affirmative consent, will benefit students.
 
“I find it to be a very positive definition that frames the type of campus culture we want to see,” she said.