The University of Alaska system has defined “consent” for the first time when it comes to sexual misconduct terminology. The definition is in the university’s new student code of conduct, which is the basis of university disciplinary proceedings. One expert calls the definition good, but thinks it could go further.
“Consent is defined as being clear, knowing and voluntary. It can be withdrawn at any time. It’s defined as being active, not passive and cannot be given while an individual is incapacitated,” says Michael Votava, reading from the University of Alaska’s updated Student Code of Conduct.
Votava is the director of student conduct and ethical development for the University of Alaska Anchorage. He was part of the working group that established the definition.
“Past consent does not imply future consent. And that silence, or an absence of resistance, cannot be interpreted as consent,” Votava adds.
It can be words or actions that create mutually understandable clear permission.
“So in other words, UA is not requiring a verbal yes,” Votava says.
He gives this example:
“If there were two parties that were involved in a romantic encounter and one party started removing their clothes and started motioning with their finger for the other party to come toward them and had a smile on their face, that’s in my mind, I think a reasonable person would argue that that was a form of nonverbal consent,” Votava says.
“Why not start with verbal? Because verbal is the most common way we make agreements for anything,” says Mandy Cole, deputy director of AWARE, Juneau’s domestic abuse and sexual assault prevention nonprofit.
“What I would like to see and what I think is kind of a best practice is that we get more used to getting verbal consent and that we get more used to saying the words, ‘Do you want to have sex with me?’” Cole says. “Because honestly if you feel comfortable enough to have sex with somebody, you should be comfortable enough to say the words.”
Cole says UA’s definition of consent has the necessary elements. Other higher education institutions like The State University of New York, Northwestern University and University of California have similar language defining consent as either words or actions.
Cole says it’s difficult to require a verbal agreement, but she’d like society to move in that direction.
“It’s kind of a new thing really. When I went to college, no one said a word to me about consent. Certainly no one ever said a word to me about getting verbal consent before sexual contact, so I think this is developing,” Cole says.
One company Consent Game Changers has gone beyond verbal by selling consent kits. Each pouch comes with a contract card, breath mints and a condom. The company’s website says the contract gives both parties “the confidence of a documented consensual encounter (or to at least remind you to have the consent conversation).”
Cole says she’s happy UA has defined the term and is part of a national conversation, even if it was prompted by an increasing number of sexual assault reports in colleges.
More than a year ago, the U.S. Department of Education put UA on a list of about 60 colleges nationwide being investigated as part of a compliance review or for mishandling sexual assault complaints. That list is now at about 130.
Cole says advancing the conversation about consent keeps people safer and more prepared to discuss sexuality.
“So that we don’t continue propagating this idea that sex is about power,” Cole says. “So if we talk about sex being more about consent and agreement, and it’s freely and knowingly decided by both people, then it takes away some of the old thinking about what is legal and what’s not legal.”
Cole says it’s more about what’s right.