Last week, Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88 Ph.D. ‘06 emailed the student body a list of proposed changes to the College of William and Mary’s sexual misconduct policy. The list includes many positive changes, expanding the instances of prohibited conduct to include stalking, domestic abuse and dating violence. But we are behind the times — we should go beyond the changes we’ve made and adopt an affirmative consent policy.
At universities without affirmative consent policies, the burden is on the victim to show that they resisted in some way. An affirmative consent policy would require both partners to clearly seek and grant consent. While the policy would likely add legal danger to sexual situations in which consent is ambiguous, it would gradually build a culture of consent — one that would empower both men and women.
An affirmative consent policy would force potential sexual partners to be open with each other. If both partners expect to obtain clear consent before proceeding, they will be less likely to misunderstand each other and less likely to think that consent is assumed. It would also make partners more aware of their capacity for misunderstanding, because the consequences of misunderstandings would be more severe. Thus, the initiator would need to pay more attention to the nuances of their partner’s feelings and reactions, explicitly seeking consent when ambiguity is present. Both partners would feel more comfortable establishing clear boundaries, knowing they will be understood and respected.
Affirmative consent would also make the College a safer, more inviting place for women. Sexual assault investigations are often humiliating experiences in which women are forced to explain why an assault was not her fault — that she did everything in her power to indicate that she did not want sex. In reality, the threat of violence pervades many sexual encounters in which women are simply afraid to say no; even without the threat of violence, a lack of resistance should never indicate that a person has given consent.
The College is making progress in offering protection and support to victims of sexual assault. The administration has encouraged students to complete the National Sexual Misconduct Campus Climate Survey in what appears to be a genuine effort to better comprehend the prevalence of sexual assault at the College. The Haven will provide a support space for victims, run by Mallory Tucker ’15 and Senior Assistant Dean of Students Donna Haygood Jackson. Unfortunately, Jackson will be working there in addition to her current duties; the College should hire a full-time staff member to ensure that the Haven will always have a professional available for students.
As the College considers what changes it will make to its sexual misconduct policy, it should continually encourage students to submit comments and suggestions. Further, it needs to clarify proposed changes, so that students will understand them and be more willing to engage with them. Students and administrators must work together to build a strong and effective sexual misconduct policy.