For students like Mills Myntti-Selkregg who are entering college this fall, discussions of sexual assault prevention are nothing new.
“It’s not necessarily been shoved down my throat, but I’m made very, very aware of what a healthy sexual relationship is versus not,” said Myntti-Selkregg, who will be a student at the University of Minnesota.
As she and her fellow freshmen prepare to arrive on campus on Sept. 2, controversy is building over a proposed affirmative consent policy that was tabled earlier in the summer. It stipulates that sex is OK only if both parties agree with “clear and unambiguous words or actions.” Otherwise, the incident would be defined as sexual assault.
Critics say the policy is impractical and perhaps even violates civil rights. Proponents argue that it’s a vital tool in the battle against sexual abuse and are angry that U administrators have delayed implementation.
A student-driven online petition has garnered more than 1,600 signatures pressing for it to be in place before classes begin on Sept. 8. Student leaders say their urgency is rooted in statistics that show the most sexual assaults occur on U.S. college campuses between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.
The policy was to take effect in July, but U President Eric Kaler delayed it for review by the Board of Regents, which won’t meet again until September. Kaler, who supports the policy, and the Board of Regents are “still in limbo” about its implementation, spokesman Matt Sumera said last week. Kaler’s action predated revelation of the sexual harassment case of former athletic director Norwood Teague.
The proposal is an example of how the sexual landscape on campuses is rapidly changing. Students are demanding change, and administrators are reworking policies, revamping education programs and revising standards for reporting and handling cases.
They’re also making new hires. The U is taking applications for the first men’s engagement coordinator, whose duties will include coaching students about what constitutes sexual assault.
“It’s really healthy for universities to be experimenting and trying different approaches,” said Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of the Washington-based Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). “The important thing is that they start the education very early, as soon as the student gets to campus — or even sooner, before that student enters college.”
Affirmative consent policies like the U is proposing are in place in California and New York, and have been challenged both by civil-liberties groups that say they unfairly place the burden of proof on the accused and by others who say they are unrealistic. Supporters counter that the polices raise awareness of the issues and open the door to dialogue.
The delay in implementation of the U’s policy is “not going to help with the culture shift,” said student body president Joelle Stangler, who created the petition demanding quick action. She is worried that delaying it until after the school year starts will result in students getting different perceptions of what is expected of them.
RAINN has not taken a stance on the policy, Berkowitz said. While some survivors of sexual violence with whom he works favor the policy, others have said it chalks up too much of the problem to miscommunication.
New ways of thinking
Stangler attributes the hesitance to outdated attitudes about sex.
“We just need to reflect and reorient the way we think about it,” she said. “That also doesn’t go back and retroactively make everybody a rapist in the same way that if you hazed someone during your college years, you’re not a terrible person just because you didn’t know any better.”
Consent policies aren’t new. One was proposed in Ohio in 1991, but it wasn’t taken seriously, even spawning a skit on “Saturday Night Live.”
Today’s student leaders and state legislators aren’t laughing. California became the first state to mandate affirmative consent in October, followed by New York last month.
Even though it’s not official U policy, the on-campus Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education introduced the notion of affirmative consent during orientation programs over the summer. Melissa Markay, who’s starting at the university this fall, saw the presentation.
“I’ve never been taught about seeking consent,” she said. “People assume, ‘Oh, guys always want sex.’ ”
Engaging all genders
Discussions of sexual violence don’t often bring men into the equation as victims or perpetrators, said Katie Eichele, director of the Aurora Center, a resource center focused on sexual assault.
“The sexual violence movement has the brand that it’s mostly a women’s issue, so what space does that leave for men?” she asked.
That’s why the university is hiring a men’s engagement coordinator, she said. One of his responsibilities will be to hold “friendship labs.”
“We want to create spaces for men to think about: Where did I actually learn that behavior? Do I actually believe that? What do I actually stand for?” Eichele said.
Another effort, called the Minnesota Sex Academy, was developed by student leaders to generate discussion about sexual assault. The fictional academy’s video called “Just the Tips” has accrued more than 1,400 views on YouTube since April. In it, a lecturer stands in front of a whiteboard outlining various scenarios and talking points that could lead to consensual sex.
New roles also have emerged in Greek life. Patrick English, a rising senior and member of Pi Kappa Alpha, is the first sexual assault prevention coordinator for the Interfraternity Council, a role he assumed in January.
English, who addresses issues like healthy behaviors and affirmative consent, has received mixed responses. In conversations about affirmative consent, he’s heard that it would kill the mood or create a gray area.
“What is a better mood than knowing that all parties want to move on?” he’s responded.
In that vein, he maintains that making sure sex is consensual is not a debatable issue.
“I don’t know how asking someone for permission and making sure you have permission is a gray area,” he said.