On Oct. 4, members of the Student Union met with administration officials to discuss clarifying the school’s sexual assault policy to allow only verbal consent. What happened instead was a showcase of the ignorance in regards to sexual assault by the very people who are supposed to protect the interest of the students. Here are the arguments the administration presented, and why they are so dangerous to possible victims of sexual assault.
- The administration does not want to put the accused under undo pressure
The full quote comes courtesy of our Title IX coordinator, David Sipusic:
“So what do we do when we have an 18 or 19-year-old student who’s away from home for the first time who can make choices and who has the freedom to make decisions on their own? Do we want to put them in a room full of attorneys across the table from the accuser to confront that situation at 18?”
The biggest issue here is that speaking in these terms is trivializing the criminality of sexual assault. Sexual assault is a crime. I know plenty of 18 and 19-year-olds who, even with this newfound freedom and choice, have not committed sexual assault. Not every college freshman is a raving sex maniac who is just waiting for the opportunity to grope someone. The safety of JCU students hinges on the fact that sexual assault be viewed as a crime—and yes, as uncomfortable as it can be, that includes attorneys, hearings, and evidence gathering. John Carroll’s administration should explore ways to protect the dignity of both the accuser and the accused, but treating it as less than a crime is not the way to do that.
- The administration will not provide greater clarification on the policy because it will be too complicated
At the moment, the policy describes “effective consent” given by “mutually understandable words and actions.” Wondering what constitutes “mutually understandable” actions? You’re out of luck. Other schools go into greater detail to provide clarity about what nonverbal actions constitute consent, but when pressed about why John Carroll doesn’t do the same, David Sipusic again responded, “We can’t put everything under the sun in the policy.”
Sexual assault on college campuses commonly begins with misconstrued body language – what one person hopes to communicate as neutral or friendly behavior can be perceived by the other as flirtatious or even openly giving consent. There in-lies the issue with such a vague nonverbal policy – consent cannot be given nonverbally because there is no definitive meaning to body language. The only way that definitive consent could be given is by verbally expressing a desire for sex. If the administration insists upon keeping the nonverbal clause, then there needs to be more clarification in exactly what body language constitutes consent, and what does not.
- Keeping the nonverbal policy is important because some people may freeze up and not be able to speak
This is the argument laid out by Donna Byrnes, the associate dean of students at JCU.
Uhh…isn’t this argument a great reason to get rid of the nonverbal policy, not keep it? This is representative of the issue with body language – what does “freezing up” mean? Someone may not say anything because they are too uncomfortable to deny sexual advances; but the assaulter could just as easily argue that “not saying no” meant that she or he wanted it. There is too much ambiguity here. Someone experiencing sexual assault being too afraid or unable to speak up and say something is all too common; it is also why verbally saying “yeah, I’m okay with this” is the only way for both parties to know for sure what the other is thinking.
The thing about ditching the nonverbal policy is that it actually protects both parties. It makes determining sexual assault much clearer. If one party does not want to partake sexually, and says so verbally (or does not give verbal consent), and the other person goes too far anyways, that is sexual assault, and can be persecuted. This also protects from baseless accusations of sexual assault – if someone is accused of committing sexual assault, and the accused says that they both clearly gave verbal consent, then it becomes easier to parse the issue.
The administration putting forward these outdated arguments is concerning. Victims of sexual assault need to feel that going to the administration is a good option; that they will be believed; that they won’t lose rapport because wearing a short skirt sent the wrong message, and that the accusations put forth will be taken seriously, not as a simple mistake by a silly college kid.
The administration dropped the ball here, and it is scary to think that those who are supposed to be representing our interests subscribe to such outdated ideas about sexual assault. The nonchalant attitude towards changing or clarifying the school’s policy is disturbing. Especially considering the myriad sexual assault prevention activities JCU’s freshmen must participate in, treating sexual assault as an accident or a mistake is ignorant of the trauma inflicted, endangering men and women who are depending on sexual assault being treated seriously for their safety, and insulting to those who have been molested and violated against their will only to experience their assaulter be treated as though they made a simple mistake. Sexual assault on campus happens far too often. The administration’s failure to address their policies is irresponsible and inexcusable; their arguments ignorant, insulting, and dangerous.
We must demand better.
*For more on this issue, check out the piece from The Carroll News!