At the University of Minnesota, yes now officially means yes.
The U’s revised “affirmative consent” policy on student sexual relations will roll out next week, in time for freshmen to begin arriving on campus for Welcome Week Sept. 2-7.
“I know that it has been important to you and others that this change be implemented before school starts in order to accommodate the necessary training and education programs for the upcoming academic year,” U President Eric Kaler wrote in a letter to student leaders Monday, the same day the administration officially signed off on a policy that includes some new language clarifying what “affirmative consent” means.
The updated policy says sex is OK only if the individuals involved offer “informed, freely and affirmatively communicated willingness to participate in sexual activity that is expressed by clear and unambiguous words or actions.” Without that consent, the sexual activity falls under the U’s definition of sexual assault.
Student leaders had pushed U officials to sign off on the revised policy in time for Welcome Week, the start-of-school orientation for incoming freshmen that leads up to the first day of fall classes Sept. 8.
Joelle Stangler, the U’s student body president, said that waiting until after Welcome Week would only confuse students by giving them two different policies: one when they arrived on campus, and one after a later regents’ decision.
“Really, if we didn’t implement it by this Welcome Week, there’s no point in implementing it this year,” she said.
Regent Michael Hsu, who made a motion at the regents’ July 8 meeting to delay action until the board’s Sept. 10-11 meeting pending a review from the Office of the General Counsel, said he was concerned that early policy language was too ambiguous.
The revised language clarifies that the definition of “clear and unambiguous” consent is based on what a reasonable person would understand as consent given the circumstances.
“It’s more clear to people that are involved in the sexual activity to understand whether or not they have consent,” Hsu said.
Critics of affirmative consent say it places an unfair burden on the accused. The policy has been implemented at schools across the country during the past year. But this summer, courts in Tennessee, California and Virginia have criticized it in cases where students accused of sexual assault didn’t receive due process.
“What the court said is that you cannot require someone to prove that consent was manifested, particularly in a typical date-rape situation where there is no other evidence and where it often comes down to he-said, she-said,” said John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University.
The U handles sexual assault cases in part through its Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. Kim Hewitt, the office’s director and the U’s Title IX coordinator, said the new policy language won’t change how those cases are handled. “I think we might ask questions differently, but ultimately, in terms of due process, it won’t change that,” Hewitt said.
Efforts to reach students during Welcome Week will primarily target freshmen, but the U’s thousands of returning students have to be educated about the new policy, too.
Matthew Sumera, director of student communications for the Office for Student Affairs, said students will get information about affirmative consent throughout fall semester and every fall semester going forward. Organizations across campus will be involved, he said, including the Aurora Center, which focuses on sexual assault and relationship violence prevention.
Ultimately, the issue isn’t just about students not getting consent, student body president Stangler said — it’s that many arrive on campus without a good understanding of what a healthy sexual relationship looks like.
“Sometimes higher ed bears the brunt of things that are 18 years in the making,” she said, “and then they’re forced to fix it.”