Critic’s Pick: Definitions of Consent

This post was written by Avanti, SAFER’s Policy and Research intern this semester, and cross-posted at Change Happens.

If you missed last week’s post on Drug and Alcohol Amnesty Policies, one of our goals here at SAFER is to use the Campus Accountability Project to gather the best and worst practices of campus sexual assault policies. This week, we’re investigating Definitions of Consent.

As far as policies go right now, nearly every school has a different definition of sexual assault. Most agree, however, that sexual assault occurs when there is an incident of “non-consensual” sexual conduct. Unfortunately, many schools stop there. Students are somehow supposed to know what non-consensual sexual conduct is when the word consent isn’t defined anywhere! Definitions of consent are integral to sexual assault policies because they are the key to determining when sexual assault or misconduct has occurred.

A surprising number of universities’ policies never define consent. Some attempt to briefly discuss what consent is not but can’t seem to make it to what consent actually is. A concrete, clear, and well-defined definition of consent allows students to assess their own behavior and lends support to survivors who choose to file reports and take action.

Let’s start by looking at what some regard as the classic example: Antioch College. The Sexual Offense Prevention Policy aims to foster positive, consensual sexuality that emphasizes respect and ongoing communication. Directly following the preface, the policy states:

Consent is defined as the act of willingly and verbally agreeing to engage in specific sexual conduct.

A number of clarifying points follow this definition, stating, among other things, that “consent is required each and every time there is sexual activity,” that the person initiating is responsible for getting consent, that silence is not consent, and that all parties must have “unimpaired judgment.” The nearly 15 clarifying points are extremely important in making this definition of consent concrete and understandable.

Reed College also offers a good example of a definition. It divides its definition into two parts: effective consent and ineffective consent. The policy makes clear that unless consent is clear and effective, it cannot be considered consent. The great thing about Reed’s definition is how it gets across the message that victim blaming is not accepted. Take a look at some of what it says about effective consent:

Effective consent is informed; freely and actively given; mutually understandable words or actions; which indicate a willingness to do the same thing, at the same time, in the same way, with each other…Students are strongly encouraged to talk with each other before engaging in sexual behavior, and to communicate as clearly and verbally as possible with each other…it is the responsibility of the initiator, or the person who wants to engage in the specific sexual activity to make sure that he or she has consent. Consent to some form of sexual activity does not necessarily imply consent to other forms of sexual activity…Mutually understandable consent is almost always an objective standard…

Reed begins with what consent is in detail and then encourages communication in a sex-positive manner, while acknowledging that not all situations are identical. This definition also provides an exception (the only exception!): long-term relationships. The ineffective consent portion recognizes that there are many scenarios in which a person is unable to consent while putting the responsibility on the initiators of the act. It emphasizes that victims cannot be blamed for what they experience. All in all, Reed’s definition of consent is detailed and comprehensive while providing numerous examples to reinforce clarity.

Let’s give a few more shout-outs to schools with better-than-average definitions of consent: Case Western Reserve University, Emory University, Duke University, and Hamilton College. While these definitions may not necessarily be quite as comprehensive as the two discussed above, they give a pretty clear idea of what the schools define consent to be.

There is a long list of schools, including Cornell University, College of William & Mary and Bethany College, that do not say what consent is but manage to define what consent is not. While this is not ideal, at least these schools are one step ahead of those who do not even come close to clearly defining consent. Boston University, Brown University, and Haverford College all fall under this entirely unfortunate category. Sadly, this last list of schools is by far the longest.

It’s about time that campus policies included a clear and detailed definition of consent. It is not enough to say that the college or university does not tolerate “non-consensual” sexual conduct. There is no way for students to truly understand what that means and evaluate their own and others’ behaviors unless consent is defined. How can students be expected to only engage in consensual acts if they don’t know what those are?

One highly controversial aspect of policies that I didn’t address today in the consent definitions is the statement about “mentally incapacitated” or “mentally disabled” persons. Tune in next time to get a rundown of which schools are doing it well and which ones can’t quite get it right.

And remember: consent is sexy!

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3 Comments

  1. Greta
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    Because you are an expert in determining the sexual harassment protection at colleges, I would really appreciate it if you could compile a list of schools in each “rank.” I am starting to look into colleges, and such a list would be so much help in evaluating the protection offered for women at each school, and for determining each administration’s respective values.

    • Posted February 17, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      Hi Greta,

      I hear you! Such a ranking system is a long-term goal of ours. It’s difficult though, because there are so many components that go into a strong, comprehensive policy, and some schools are great on some of them but terrible on others (like they mandate primary prevention programming and have great definitions, but don’t have a strong disciplinary procedure, for example). In order to rank, we would have to weight the different components, or decide they are all equal, and we haven’t figured that process out yet. We are, however, in the process of collecting data about what components schools do or don’t have via our Campus Accountability Project, and we hope to eventually quantify those results in a more effective manner. So in short: we’re working on it!

  2. Posted March 6, 2011 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much. I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

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