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The Blue & Gray Press | February 19, 2018

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School Changes Sexual Consent Policy

The University of Mary Washington recently changed the sexual misconduct policy to include affirmative consent, the right of appeal for both the victim and the accused and a better outline of the standard of evidence.

Changes in the sexual misconduct policy were made to better protect victims of misconduct and to bring UMW into compliance with federal law.

According to Leah Cox, special assistant for diversity and inclusion, “The Office of Civil Rights under the Department of Education came out with new guidelines for all colleges and universities that need to be implemented. These guidelines work to insure the safety of all of our constituents on our campuses.”

Cox was actively involved in the revision of the sexual misconduct policy.

“I was involved with making the changes to the policy, working with the Attorney General’s office and presenting them to the Board of Visitors for approval,” she said.

One of the most noticeable changes in the policy was requiring affirmative consent.

“Affirmative consent needed to be actively written in to the policy. This policy explicitly states that silence does not equal consent,” said Jessi Bell, a senior at UMW and a member of Feminists United on Campus.

Chris Kilmartin, professor of psychology, and author of various books dealing with men’s issues, prevention of gender-based violence and sexual harassment, said, “Affirmative consent doesn’t mandate verbal consent, but it highly recommends it.”

According to Kilmartin, many violators of the sexual misconduct policy do not think they committed any sort of violation by not asking for consent from their partner for sexual interactions such as kissing, fondling and other sexual gestures. They often times think that silence does mean yes.

However, UMW’s policy explicitly states that silence does not mean yes.

“Research indicates that 39 percent of sexual assault victims show an ‘immobility response.’ When people encounter surprising and traumatic situations, sometimes they “freeze up” and find it difficult to do much of anything,” said Kilmartin. “Not saying no is often part of that reaction, and it is the responsibility of the person initiating the sexual behavior to make sure that he/she has the consent of the other person.”

Kilmartin further mentions that many violators of this policy would rather assume their partner’s consent than actually asking for it.

“Sexual communication is a set of skills. You have to invest time in it. We invest time and energy in learning a skill when we value the outcome. If it is important to you that you have consent, you will learn how to appropriately ask for it,” said Kilmartin.

There was also a change in the right of appeal for both the victim and the respondent. In the previous policy, the respondent was the only one who had the right to appeal.

Kilmartin commented on the previous policy’s rights of appeal by saying, “That isn’t right because obligations to complainant and respondent are equal.”

An additional change is that the new policy explicitly states the standard of evidence used. The standard used is preponderance of evidence, which means the Board or Administrator needs to be 51 percent sure that the respondent violated the policy in order to find them guilty of a violation, further guaranteeing equal rights for the respondent and the complainant.

UMW students, such as Bell and others, in attempt to positively revise the sexual misconduct policy, made a petition. The petition was useful in both raising awareness about the issues of sexual assault on college campuses, specifically UMW’s campus, and making a change for the better.

Since many students don’t think of sexual assault as an issue until it becomes personal to them.

“The petition was really an effort to get students aware of the changes in the policy and aware of the issue at our school. We decided to do the petition on RAINN Day (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) to help raise awareness for the issue as a whole,” said Bell.

When violations of the Sexual Misconduct Policy come up in the future, Bell said, “I feel totally confident in Dr. Tuttle and Judicial Affairs to take every type of inappropriate sexual behavior seriously.”

In addition to revising the sexual misconduct policy, Kilmartin believes it would be beneficial to educate students about what consent means, and how to ask for it. He concluded with saying that most people want consent and getting this consent is extremely important in obtaining a healthy relationship with someone.

Cox agreed with this statement, and stated, “Hopefully the more we educate our campus the more we can change inappropriate behaviors and the cycles of violence.”

Many positive changes have been made to the policy, as Cox said, “I am happy to see that we do not have to wait for charges to be brought to investigate alleged assault or sexual misconduct on the campus. To have the ability to move forward to make sure this is a safe environment. It is also nice to know that we (human resources, judicial affairs, campus police) are now in sync with one another and we can better coordinate services across the campus.”