U of M considering 'yes means yes' sexual consent policy

University of Minnesota student leaders are exploring the possibility of implementing a beefed-up 'yes means yes' sexual consent policy.

The university's current policy defines "consent" mostly in terms of what it's not -- for instance, the policy says, "If physical force, coercion, intimidation, and/or threats are used, there is no consent. If the victim/survivor is mentally or physically incapacitated or impaired so that the victim/survivor cannot understand the fact, nature or extent of the sexual situation, and the condition was or would be known to a reasonable person, there is no consent" -- but a 'yes means yes' policy would put the onus on students to make absolutely sure their partner consents to sexual activity before they proceed.

U of M student body president Joelle Stangler says the policy under consideration at the U is inspired by a law approved in California a few months ago requiring colleges that receive public funding "to adopt policies concerning sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking that include certain elements, including an affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by a complainant."

But Stangler cautions that discussions about the U possibly adopting an "active consent" policy are preliminary, and that much research remains to be done.

"It seems like a really good opportunity to evaluate policy and take some time to determine whether it is a good one," she says. "We'd prefer to be ahead of the curve if it's going to be something that is going to be spreading across the nation -- proactive rather than reactive."

If a beefed-up consent policy does ultimately make it to the University Senate for a vote, Stangler says the hope is that it "eliminates gray areas." But she acknowledges ambiguities about when someone is consenting and when they aren't can't be eliminated entirely.

On that note, an MPR report regarding active consent contains the following quote from George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf, a critic of 'yes means yes' policies.

"Suppose the guy says, 'May I touch your breast?' She says, 'Yes.' OK, does that mean through her shirt?" Banzhaf said. "Does it mean taking off her shirt through her bra? Does it mean reaching under the bra, but not taking it off?"

Nonetheless, Stangler says she's heard from many sexual assault survivors who say they hope the U follows California's lead.

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