Harvard Students Petitioning For ‘Affirmative Consent’ Definition

–Brian Snyder/REUTERS

The idea of “affirmative consent’’ has been outlined in California’s recently enacted “Yes Means Yes’’ bill as “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.’’ But Harvard students want their school to provide their own definition of the term.

Last week, the student groups Our Harvard Can Do Better, Graduate Students Advocating for Gender Equality, and Harvard Students Demand Respect launched a petition demanding the school’s officials add a definition of “affirmative consent’’ to its sexual harassment policy.

The petition states:

Silence – the absence of a “no’’ – does not mean “yes,’’ and our university policy should explicitly recognize that. An affirmative consent policy denotes the “freely expressed willingness and active participation from all parties throughout sexual activity.’’ (1) Affirmative consent is not a means to badger students with an unrealistic P.C. standard; rather, is it a baseline for confirming that a sexual partner wants to be in that situation at that time.

While it led the Ivy League in sexual assault reports filed by students in 2013, Harvard is the only Ivy League university that does not have an “affirmative consent’’ policy in place. The Huffington Post reports that about 800 schools nationwide now have some variation of “affirmative consent’’ written into their misconduct policies.

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The basic definition of “affirmative consent’’ does not allow for silence, non-verbal come-ons, and lack of protest to qualify as blanket permission for sexual advances. The push to have both parties share responsibility for consent — to request and confirm permission to move forward — alleviates the fuzzy one-sidedness that comes with the traditional anti-sexual assault rallying cry of “no means no.’’

Harvard Students Demand Respect co-founder Rory Gerberg said her group did not have an official stance on the “yes means yes’’ advancements in other states, but she said the groups were united by a common deadline set by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Committee on Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedures, who will be accepting public comment on the current policy until November 1.

“We’re united around the question of having a definition of consent and defining consent in affirmative terms,’’ Gerberg told Boston.com. “We’ve been speaking with administrators and there’s a lack of clarity on the topic.’’

The Harvard Crimson added to the push with a pro-’’Yes Means Yes’’ staff editorial. It read in part: “The policy does not only aid in the courtroom, but it may also keep some assaults from occurring in the first place. With proper education in affirmative consent, perpetrators who may have previously waited for a ‘no’ perhaps now will wait for a ‘yes’ instead.’’

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Harvard Title IX officer Mia Karvonides told The Crimson that the reason the university does not include “affirmative consent’’ in its policy is because “there is no standard definition of affirmative consent.’’ Harvard’s current policy instead defines “unwelcome conduct’’ as instances when an individual “did not request or invite it,’’ or was regarded as “unrequested or uninvited.’’ The policy also notes that initial sexual conduct, does not “welcome’’ further contact, in this interaction or future ones.

Our Harvard Can Do Better criticized the use of the word “welcomeness,’’ contrasting Harvard’s use of the word to the way it is used in Yale’s definition: “Consent cannot be inferred from the absence of a ‘no’; a clear ‘yes,’ verbal or otherwise, is necessary. That is not the same as issuing a blanket “yes means yes’’ decree in ignorance of factors of coercion and other power structures that may compel a ‘yes.’’’

In an email to Boston.com, the organizers from Our Harvard clarified that it, as a group, does not use or endorse the phrase “yes means yes,’’ adding: “Affirmative consent shifts the burden away from survivors to have to physically or verbally resistance or protest; it requires us to cease conceptualizing sexual language or advances as consensual unless demonstrated otherwise and instead recognize that consent must be a continuous, free expression of positive agency. That is not the same as issuing a blanket ‘yes means yes’ decree in ignorance of factors of coercion and other power structures that may compel a ‘yes’ We have been disappointed by the pervasive and uncritical use of ‘yes means yes’ in the media coverage of the events in California and New York.’’

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Additionally, the void of student involvement in the development of the current policy concerned Gerberg, who noted, “Student inclusion is a critical part of understanding what the impact will be on our realities.’’

Harvard officials did not comment specifically on the petition. Karvonides declined to speak with Boston.com, but her office sent over a Q&A where she addresses the school’s stance on “affirmative consent.’’ “Our overarching commitment is to protect all members of our community from discrimination based on sex,’’ she said in the July interview. “The standard we’ve adopted is that of unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which is consistent with the standard in all federal civil rights laws that apply in an education setting, including Title IX.’’

Last April, Harvard President Drew Faust also instituted a Task Force on Prevention of Sexual Assault, made up of students and faculty. Its manifesto lists addressing the “role of alcohol and other drugs’’ and defining “a clear understanding of what sexual misconduct entails.’’ According to an email to Boston.com from Harvard director of university communications Jeff A. Neal, the group will “recommend how we can better prevent sexual misconduct at Harvard.’’

But what about the misconduct that has already occurred?

“It’s concerning that we would need to make an argument for what the standard is actually is for our policy to be effective,’’ said Gerberg. “It needs to be clear and accessible to students for it to have impact on altering student behavior.’’

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