Defining Consent on College Campuses and at McDaniel College

Can you guess what Princeton, Harvard and Dartmouth all have in common? If you guessed that they’re all Ivy League colleges, you’re correct. If you guessed that they are among the 76 colleges being investigated by the Department of Education for their sexual assault policies, you’d also be correct.

In recent years, colleges across the country have come under fire for the way they handle sexual assault cases. Among the concerns about their policies is how they define consent.

California’s Affirmative Consent Law is the most recent attempt at defining consent. This policy details how any sexual act without conscious and clear consent from both parties is considered to be sexual assault.  Colleges receiving state funding in California will be required to enact this policy.

The Affirmative Consent Law, which is also known as the “Yes Means Yes Law,” deviates from the usual “No Means No” policies that many colleges still have in place. Those policies define consent as being assumed, unless one party specifically says “no.”

California’s new law is the first of its kind, and it has received both praise and scrutiny for the way it defines consent. Katarina Winhauer, a junior at McDaniel, thinks that the “Yes Means Yes” policy is an exciting step towards combating sexual assault.

“I think it would be effective especially because people will often times have the argument of ‘Well she didn’t say “no,” but she didn’t say “yes” either.’ To have something where ‘yes’ means ‘yes’ and anything but ‘yes’ means ‘no’ would be so much more effective at preventing sexual assault than just a no means no policy,” she said.

Winhauer would like to see McDaniel adopt a similar policy. Logan Wicke, also a junior, agreed.

“I think it is a rather noble policy, especially if it shows a greater commitment to preventing sexual abuse on campus,” he said.

McDaniel’s sexual assault policy, which can be found in the Student Handbook, defines consent as “an informed decision made freely and actively by both parties.”

McDaniel’s Student Handbook also provides students with information about how to report sexual assaults, as well as a list of resources that students can turn to in the event that they are sexually assaulted.

Dean Elizabeth Towle handles many of the sexual assault cases on campus. “I sometimes tell students that ‘no’ means ‘no,'” says Towle of McDaniel’s policy. “And sometimes ‘yes’ means ‘no,'” she says, referring to cases when students are intoxicated.

According to the Crimes and Rule Violation Report that is issued each year by Campus Safety, there were two reported sexual assaults at McDaniel in 2012. In 2013, this number jumped to 17. Thirteen of these offenses, however, were perpetrated by the same student, according to Towle.

Of this increase in the number of reports of sexual assault at McDaniel, she explained, “I see this as a positive thing. What it says to me is that students see the college as a resource and feel as though they can report these things to us.”

To address the increase of sexual assaults on campus, McDaniel has implemented several new programs, including Haven, which is a companion to the Alcohol Edu program that incoming freshman must complete.

McDaniel is not alone in seeing a rise in reports of sexual assault. According to the National Institute of Justice, there’s been an overall increase in reported sexual assaults.

The Bureau of Justice statistics estimates that roughly 25 percent of female college students have been raped or sexual assaulted during their college career.

California’s Affirmative Consent Law is just one potential answer to sexual assault policies on college campuses.

When asked her opinion of the “Yes Means Yes” policy, Towle says she doesn’t have one. What’s important to her is that people are trying to define what consent is.

Says Towle, “College campuses need to continue to help students understand what consent is and what it looks like and what it sounds like.”