When (or, more realistically given a certain level of apathy to the UC on campus, if) you vote for your Undergraduate Council President sometime between today and Friday, you’ll also have the option of asking Harvard to examine its policies on sexual assault.
The ballot measure, which grew out of an earlier petition, asks for a couple of key measures. One is as adopting a standard of “affirmative consent,” which sounds redundant but in fact is meaningful. The term refines the definition of consent from “not saying no to sex” to “saying yes to the sex with words or clearly enthusiastic actions.” This is necessary not to harshly punish people caught in seemingly ambiguous situations, but rather to prevent these situations from being as ambiguous in the first place. It rejects the “gatekeeper” model of sexual consent, where one partner, usually a woman, rejects sex repeatedly before finally “giving in,” a model normalizes sex after one party says no repeatedly. It sets the requirement of clear communication up front, and it puts the onus on someone pursuing sex to receive clear communication that their advances are wanted rather than only requiring them to stop if they get a signal it isn’t. It requires and encourages equal agency for both partners.
The goal, as with all campus disciplinary policies, is to set a standard of behavior that is clear and consistent. Several other Ivy League schools have already adopted affirmative consent as their standard. This concept has also been hashed out in legal terms in the Vanderbilt Law Review. As author Nicholas J. Little writes, “The introduction of an affirmative consent standard would not only incentivize rational behavior on the part of both women and men in dating situations…such a shift in the law would potentially shift public perceptions of women and their role in sexual relationships.” It would do a lot for everyone, actually, because everyone is susceptible to sexual assault.
Other parts of the petition relate to transparency and clarity from the University, like setting a timeline for resolving sexual assault cases, defining mental incapacitation for consent, using language that is inclusive of LGBTQ individuals, and ensuring the eventual release of the case results (sans names of the parties involved). A few points on the petition are admittedly more ambitious (I say this practically, not because I lack enthusiasm), such as asking for increased funding for the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response and “offering comprehensive and inclusive sex education for all students of all years.”
On the whole, these measures are reasonable demands; all but the last two would be easy for the University to accomplish, and even the last two would require relatively minimal funding. The measures would demonstrate Harvard’s prioritization of one of the most dangerous and pervasive parts of college life. The National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the Department of Justice, estimates that 20-25 percent of women will experience an attempted sexual assault during their time at college. This means that likely hundreds of Harvard students have experienced this kind of very traumatic event.
Besides addressing pressing ethical concerns, adopting the changes proposed in the petition would also be legally responsible. This year, Yale University finally settled a 15-month lawsuit with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights after repeated failures to properly respond to sexual harassment and assault. The University is responsible for doing so because under Title IX, all educational institutions are required to create a reasonably safe environment for students regardless of sex. So long as any university receives Title IX funds, it is subject to a myriad of regulations, and one of them is making the campus as safe as possible for women, who are particularly likely to face sexual assault. Harvard can more effectively do so by adopting a standard of affirmative consent.
It is curious that despite evidence that peer institutions have faced serious trouble for lacking clear and consistent sexual assault policies, Harvard’s administration has declined to update ours since 2003. Even the current UC ballot measure does not demand some of the things that the federal government asked of Yale, for example, that the standard of proof in cases of sexual assault be a “preponderance of evidence:” a 51 percent likelihood of guilt. (In fact, different schools at Harvard have different standards of proof, as though it were easier to tell whether an undergraduate had committed sexual assault than a law student!) Certainly, it’s true that Yale’s investigation began because the administration did not respond to specific public scandals, where, for example, Yale students chanted abusive slogans in front of their women’s center. But the point of a sexual assault policy is to have rules in effect long before sexual assault or harassment takes place, to protect the victims, the accused, and even the university. This year’s ballot measure on sexual assault will pressure Harvard to step up on all three fronts.
Sarah C. Stein Lubrano ’13 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.