Yes means yes

Yes means yes

Proposed state law will give more power to students who are victims of sexual assault

By Alicia Doyle 08/21/2014

 

I'm exhausted from living in the same house as the student who sexually assaulted me nine months ago,” wrote the anonymous author of Dear Harvard: You Win, a first-person account published as an Op-Ed in The Harvard Crimson in March.


Her account of the aftermath of a sexual assault in 2013 was written in her dining hall, a short distance away from the student who allegedly pressured her into sex in his bedroom.


“My hands are trembling as they hover across the keyboard,” she wrote. “I’m exhausted from fighting for myself.”

 

 

The anonymous author was among a group of Harvard students who filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year. She alleged that university officials didn’t take her case seriously, while others reported difficulty navigating the administration’s process for dealing with sexual assault reports.


“I’m exhausted from sending emails to my resident dean, to my House Master, to my Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment tutors, to counselors from the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, to my attorney. … I’m exhausted from avoiding the laundry room, the House library and the mailroom because I’m scared of who I will run into,” she wrote.


As universities face pressure over the handling of rape allegations and adopt policies to define consensual sex, California state lawmakers are considering legislation coming before the Assembly this month that would require all schools that receive public funds for student financial assistance to set an “affirmative consent standard” that could be used in investigating and adjudicating assault allegations.


Molly George, assistant professor in criminal justice and sociology at California Lutheran University, said she is very pleased to see that sexual violence on college campuses is receiving much-needed attention as an important social problem.


“This is obviously a very serious issue that must be addressed, as students deserve to be safe on every campus,” George said.


After an incident involving Steubenville High School football players who raped a 15-year-old incapacitated by alcohol, Andrea Bowers, a Los Angeles-based artist, presented an installation showcasing the twitter texts the boys sent out the night of the rape.


“I grew up in the same sort of environment … where most of the young men were never told ‘No’ and were culturally given the right to do whatever they wanted. This needs to change,” Bowers wrote of her exhibit.


California’s Senate Bill 967’s “affirmative consent standard” is a well-intentioned step in this direction for colleges and universities, but would be complicated to operationalize and to enforce, George said.


“The legislation would put more responsibility on schools to investigate and adjudicate sexual assaults, which may exacerbate the problem of academic administrators mishandling sexual assault cases; law enforcement and criminal justice professionals are the ones who need to be handling all serious crimes,” George explained.


The law defines affirmative consent as “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.”

The law is a civil law about how schools and campuses are going to investigate allegations of sexual assault within the realm of the university rules and conduct, explained John West, supervisor of the sexual assault and family protection unit at the Ventura County District Attorney’s office.


“It’s not a criminal statute and my understanding is, the law is not going to change the criminal statutes or the burdens of what the prosecution has in proving consent or lack of consent beyond a reasonable doubt in a courtroom,” West said.


The university’s primary role should be support and prevention, George said.


“Prioritizing campus programming to ensure that student cultures are positive, equitable and safe will likely be more effective than adopting legislation that may only complicate university disciplinary systems,” George said.


Sexual violence on college campuses is a significant problem across the country, noted Julie Mickelberry, vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Santa Barbara, Ventura & San Luis Obispo Counties Inc.


“The numbers are staggering — approximately 20 percent of women and 6 percent of men in college are survivors of attempted or actual sexual assault,” Mickelberry said.


Planned Parenthood applauds Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara and west Ventura Counties, and her state Senate colleagues for working hard to strengthen public policies that address and prevent sexual violence on college campuses, Mickelberry added.


“Senate Bill 967 establishes stronger standards for accountability, promotes greater safety for California’s college students and will help bring justice for survivors of sexual assault,” Mickelberry said.


California Lutheran University is proactive in its efforts to help students understand the many issues surrounding sexual assault, from bystander intervention to survivor’s rights and resources, said Dr. Melinda Roper, interim vice president for student affairs and dean of students at California Lutheran University.


“If this legislation passes, Cal Lutheran will integrate the ‘affirmative consent standard’ into our student code of conduct,” Roper said. “Further, we would incorporate this standard into all of our education efforts to ensure that students have a thorough understanding of what constitutes affirmative consent, that it must be ongoing and that it can be revoked at any time.”  

 
In regard to the affirmative consent piece of the legislation, it will require colleges, universities and communities to change the way they define consent and to think about it in a more progressive way, said Caroline Prijatel-Sutton, executive director of the Coalition for Family Harmony, a nonprofit based in Oxnard that provides direct services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.


“However, this is just one piece of the legislation, and it is important that we look at the greater initiative, which is to ensure that campuses institute best practices that incorporate ongoing intervention, education and recovery for students,” Prijatel-Sutton said.


This includes access to accommodation for classes, counseling services and other recovery services, Prijatel-Sutton continued. “As the rape crisis center for Ventura County, our aim is to ensure the victims have resources and know their rights.”


California Lutheran University is committed to sexual assault awareness and prevention, Roper said.  


For instance, the University Policy on Sexual Misconduct currently includes a detailed explanation of what constitutes consent, and conditions under which consent is not valid.


“We have already been providing students with information and resources on the topic through online and printed materials as well as educating them during wellness program presentations and events,” Roper said.


“We have also developed a new session specifically on sexual assault awareness and prevention that will be part of new-student orientation at the end of the month,” Roper said.


This year California Lutheran University is also launching an online sexual assault prevention and awareness training that all transfer students and incoming freshmen will need to complete.


“The safety and well-being of our students in all regards is paramount,” Roper said. “This includes protecting students from sexual assault, so it is an important issue at Cal Lutheran, just as it is at colleges and universities across the country.”


This legislation is significant as part of the overall effort to protect college students from sexual assault, Roper added.


“Regardless of whether the legislation passes, there is much work to be done,” Roper said. “The fact that we are now having these conversations is a very good thing.”  


Prijatel-Sutton said she remains hopeful that new legislation makes reporting sexual assault a little easier. The same barriers, however, such as shame and fear, may exist.


“The legislation does create more avenues of services and accessibility for the victim, which might make reporting that much easier if the students are aware of how they can receive help,” Prijatel-Sutton said.


This topic forces us to think about policy change, the definition of consent and victim-centered strategies to address the issue, Prijatel-Sutton further noted.


“Awareness is growing, and therefore education and understanding of this issue [are] key in helping survivors find the resources they need and take the important first step in their healing process,” Prijatel-Sutton said. “We find this a very significant movement and are working towards collaboration with the county’s campuses to help in every way we can.”


The National Initiative from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault requires college and university settings of all types to address sexual assault policies and initiate a cultural shift in how sexual assault is handled on campuses, Prijatel-Sutton added.


“There couldn’t be a better time to start having these discussions and institute policies and procedures that are clear and give victims their rights,” Prijatel-Sutton said.


Roper said that he hopes all students will feel empowered to make informed decisions about their sexual activity, that they will not make assumptions, and that they will know to stop if there is any ambiguity.


“In the event a sexual assault does take place, I would encourage the survivor to seek help and support,” Roper said.


According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, with 60 percent still being left unreported. But even when the crime is reported, it is unlikely to lead to an arrest and prosecution. Factoring in unreported rapes, only about 3 percent of rapists will ever serve a day in prison.


Which leads to the question: Will this law have any impact on unreported rapes?


“It’s difficult for us to predict,” Prijatel-Sutton said. “The aspect of shame and fear are still there in our opinion and I don’t think those fears will go away when someone reports. We still point them in the direction of reporting if that’s what they want to do. But it’s hard to say what the person will feel at that moment.”

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