Yale University is attempting to dispel confusion about its sexual assault policy by clarifying what types of situations are considered to be sexual crimes on campus. This week, university officials released a series of examples of nonconsensual sexual activities to explain how they determine when students’ consent has been violated.
Last month, Yale University came under fire for failing to expel students who commit sexual crimes on campus. Yale’s most recent sexual misconduct report revealed that none of the six students found guilty of “nonconsensual sex” in the first half of 2013 were actually kicked out of school. Student activists were disappointed with the university’s light punishments for sexual assault in light of the fact that Yale has already been subject to several federal investigations to make sure it’s effectively handling rape cases.
The more detailed policy is a direct response to that criticism. “It is evident that Yale’s report must be more descriptive about what is meant by ‘nonconsensual sex,’ and more information should be made available to advise the community about the basis for penalties,” the university’s president, Peter Salovey, said in a letter to the campus community in August.
The new document reiterates that Yale’s current definition of consent “requires positive, unambiguous, voluntary agreement at every point during a sexual encounter –- the presence of an unequivocal ‘yes’ (verbal or otherwise), not just the absence of a ‘no.’ “ The hypothetical, gender-neutral scenarios detail different examples of when that type of consent is not present, and provide contrasting examples of how the situation could have gone differently in order to stay within the bounds of positive and unambiguous consent.
The first scenario, for example, involves a couple named “Ryo and Casey.” Ryo pressures Casey to have sex, and Casey eventually agrees — so Ryo initially obtained verbal consent. But in the middle of the sexual encounter, Casey says, “Wait — stop — that hurts,” and Ryo continues anyway. That’s an example of initial consent being withdrawn. Under Yale’s policy, Ryo could be expelled.
Other examples involve students having sex with a peer who is incapacitated by alcohol — confused, having trouble walking and standing, and losing consciousness — which the university strictly defines as nonconsensual. In other cases, the consent is ambiguous after one student repeatedly pressures another. The university puts forth a range of potential punishments, from expulsion to suspension to mandatory sexual assault prevention training sessions, depending on the severity of the violation.
Emily Greytak, a board member for Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER), thinks the updated guidelines were a step in the right direction. Yale now has “one of the better examples of a solid, detailed definition of consent,” she explained.
Greytak noted that it’s often not enough to simply define consent; usually, students want concrete examples of how it can be put into practice. That’s what Yale did right. “These scenarios are commonly what happens on college campuses … and what people want to know,” she pointed out.
Across the country, student activists have been pressuring their administrations to take rape more seriously and more severely punish the students who are found guilty of sexual crimes. That pressure has sparked a national conversation about the bounds of consent, and it’s inspiring some colleges like Yale to make an effort to better educate students about it. Schools like are slowly taking steps to incorporate more resources about sexual assault, consent, and healthy relationships on campus.
These efforts have their critics. Some conservatives complain that detailed sexual assault policies are preventing students from having normal dating relationships and hampering their free speech. Earlier this summer, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) sent a letter to the Department of Justice complaining that its recent efforts to cut down on rampant levels on sexual assault actually threaten to “single-handedly redefine the meaning of sexual harassment at all universities and colleges across the country.”