Three student groups advocating for changes to Harvard’s handling of sexual assault cases joined together to start a petition on Wednesday urging the University to adopt a policy of affirmative consent, which would require partners to actively communicate their willingness to participate in sexual activity.
The petition launches only a few months after Harvard instituted a new, University-wide sexual harassment policy that some students have continued to criticized despite its implementation.
“We are members of the Harvard community committed to creating a safer and more equitable university, free from violence and discrimination, in which all students are treated with dignity and respect. We are concerned that Harvard’s new sexual harassment policy falls short of supporting this aim by omitting a critical element: affirmative consent,” the group wrote in an online statement Wednesday introducing their petition. “Silence—the absence of a ‘no’—does not mean ‘yes,’ and our university policy should explicitly recognize that.”
One of the three groups behind the petition is Our Harvard Can Do Better, a group of undergraduate activists that last semester filed a federal complaint that spurred the U.S. Department of Education’s ongoing investigation into the College’s adherence to Title IX.
“As the university continues to evaluate its policy in light of an ongoing investigation by the Department of Education, we call on Harvard to adopt an affirmative consent policy,” the statement reads.
The other two groups involved—the Graduate Students Advocating for Gender Equality, or GradSAGE, and Harvard Students Demand Respect—represent graduate students.
This summer, Harvard unveiled a dramatic restructuring of its policy and procedures for handling cases of sexual harassment, including sexual assault. A Faculty of Arts and Sciences committee is currently working to adapt the University-wide policy to FAS. Some student leaders have already criticized the new policy for not including an explicit affirmative consent clause, which is now the required standard for state-funded colleges in California under a recently approved law.
Mia Karvonides, the University’s Title IX officer, defended the policy at an open meeting in September and argued that it “gets us to the same place” as the affirmative consent policies of other colleges. “The absence of a ‘no’ does not mean a ‘yes’” under Harvard’s policy, she said at the time.
Still, some student activists have argued that the policy’s definition of sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” is insufficiently clear.
“We thought [the petition] would be a good way to show both the FAS [committee] and other offices in the University that students do support affirmative consent, they do know what it means, and that that’s something that they feel is a crucial piece that needs to be added to Harvard’s sexual assault policy,” said Jessica R. Fournier ’17, an organizer for Our Harvard Can Do Better.
The groups’ statement does not specify how long the petition will remain live online.
—Staff writer Madeline R. Conway can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MadelineRConway.
—Staff writer Steven S. Lee can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenSJLee.