By Josie Gereszek
Students and lawmakers are pushing sexual consent to the forefront of public discourse and policy. For many, their aim is to make affirmative consent — positive, voluntary and continuous agreement to engage in sexual activity — law.
Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Consent Week was organized by the women’s and gender studies department to advocate for “consent culture.” The week ended after Thursday’s Take Back the Night event, an international rally with the goal of ending sexual violence. Attendees were motivated further by some recent statistics many found daunting.
An Association of American Universities survey, released Monday and conducted in April and May, found that nearly 1 in 4 female undergrads is a victim of sexual attack.
The survey encompassed 27 universities and heard from 150,000 students, including those from the University of Minnesota. More than 23 percent of women surveyed said they had been victims of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact, and about 5.4 percent of men surveyed had experienced nonconsensual sexual contact. Rates of sexual assault were highest among undergraduate female, transgender and gender non-conforming and questioning students.
The survey also indicated that rates of reporting incidents to campus and law enforcement officials were 28 percent or less.
“I’m not very surprised by those recent statistics,” said Ian Anderson, a women’s and gender studies junior who helped organize Consent Week. “I definitely see a need for more advocacy on campus, because I know countless people affected by sexual assault.”
In response to statistics like these, state representatives are in the process of constructing a bill that would implement a statewide affirmative consent policy at all Minnesota universities. Minnesota Rep. Erin Murphy is one of them. She wants to pass a bill offering a clear definition of consent in university policies for students choosing to engage in sexual activity. California and New York lawmakers have already established affirmative consent policies for their universities.
Murphy said consent is important to her as a mother and public representative because she knows “too many people” who were assaulted in college, including legislative colleagues.
“I’ve heard far too many stories from young people, including my own daughters, that those rules of the road aren’t clear,” Murphy said.
Murphy said the key is making what is an uncomfortable topic for some more normalized. That’s why she traveled to MSUM and Concordia Sept. 21 to discuss her efforts. She met with about 30 MSUM students throughout the day to discuss the legislative proposal she hopes to pass in 2016.
“It’s a tricky conversation, because we’re in a subject matter that makes people uncomfortable,” Murphy said. “We’re using words that people aren’t used to using in a political forum or in a public policy forum.”
While policies at North Dakota State University and Concordia College include words like “active” and “affirmative” in their definitions of consent, MSUM’s policy has a somewhat weaker definition of being “informed, freely given and mutually understood,” but not necessarily explicit.
Murphy said these policies are vital in establishing “cultures of consent” against sexual violence. She said creating an atmosphere in which victims of assault can feel safe reporting crimes also helps to ensure justice against violence.
“There are always going to be people who harm other people, and no law is going to change that,” Murphy said.
But in the instances where there isn’t necessarily intention to assault or rape, and a violation is happening because, for whatever reason, a party can’t explicitly consent, Murphy said that’s where change can happen.
“We can change, so the expectation isn’t that ‘she didn’t say no’ or ‘he didn’t say no,’ but instead, ‘they said yes,'” she said.
In September 2014, MSUM President Anne Blackhurst commissioned a task force against sexual assault after the reported rape of a freshman student within the first week of class. The involved students, faculty and community members discussed building affirmative consent into campus culture, but a policy change would have to begin with a higher authority like the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system office or the Legislature.
Murphy’s bill would demand that state institutions offer “comprehensive prevention and outreach programs” to teach students the definition of affirmative consent. The bill would also set aside money to create an affirmative consent curriculum for the state’s middle and high schools.
The Minnesota bill failed this spring, but Murphy said she will be pushing for it to pass again next session.