This Jezebel article titled “Yale Officially Declares ‘Nonconsensual Sex’ Not That Big of a Deal” was making its rounds all over my social media feeds. So, for a number of reasons, I made a point to read it. I would not hesitate to label this article as “misleading” because I feel as if the title and the information presented in this article is done from the perspective of someone who is not well-informed about how a college and the law do/do not interact. Granted, I am no law expert and have only been a student at a private college, but my experiences at school this past year have provided me with background for a different perspective on this issue.
Similar to this article, there was a conflict because students were unhappy with the way the school was handling sexual misconduct, and with good reason. My school was open to discussion of the policy and improving it to make students on campus more comfortable. As one of the students passionate about this issue, I was chosen to work on the panel. Through this, I learned a lot about the differentiation between what a college and legal court can and cannot do. Because I am not a legal expert, I will just explain what I can to the best of my abilities and speak from my experiences.
One reason students were upset, as also mentioned in the article, is that the school refused to use the term “rape”. When the school paper’s public safety blotter said that students were found “responsible for violation of the sexual misconduct policy with regard to consent”, we wondered why they couldn’t just come out and say “rape”. I mean, it sounded like exactly that so why not call it what it is?
Because a college or university is not a court of law, there are limitations with what they are able to do. For example, if someone is found “responsible” (“guilty” can’t be used outside a court of law) for sexual misconduct, they are only responsible within the confines of the campus. The misconduct policy at my school, as it stands, and will continue to stand, is much more lenient and likely to find someone responsible for misconduct than the courts will. That being said, the school can only act on it and assign punishments so much because the person isn’t legally a criminal, hence the writing papers referenced in the article and other punishments of that nature. The higher up people at my college insisted that “rape” was a legal term that they were not allowed to use. I am not entirely sure why that is, but I think it’s along the same line of reasoning as why they can’t use the word “guilty”, not that I really agree with the reasoning in this context.
My school is supposed to encourage (meaning, according to some testimony it has been discouraging) people who report sexual misconduct to go speak to police about it. Other students wondered why the school didn’t immediately call the police when an assault was reported. The reason for that is that forcing a survivor to go talk to the police is inappropriate and harmful to their healing process because the assault took power from them and forcing them to talk to the police would continue that uncomfortable circumstance. As a result, contacting the police is simply encouraged. However, the harsh reality is that without sufficient evidence, their case doesn’t stand much of a chance in court, especially if it has been some time since the incident. So, sometimes going through the school process has a more favorable outcome.
According to our policy, however, if someone is found guilty of rape in a court of law, the case will be handled entirely differently and the person will face much harsher and deserved consequences on campus. We are working to improve the policy so that even if the person is found responsible through the on-campus method of reporting, we are keeping the reporter’s comfort as the top priority. For example, this includes accommodating the work and class schedules of both involved parties and making sure the person who reported it does not feel as if they are being punished.
As a feminist and avid supporter of survivors of sexual violence, this is a frustrating situation because of course I don’t think it’s right for on-campus sexual offenders to get off easy. However, I do understand the complications that come with being a university that has rules but also has to consider the laws of the state and country it exists within. I really do think that the ideal situation would be for survivors to feel comfortable enough to go talk to police and deal with the situation through the law instead of through school rules. A college is not a court of law and I don’t think it is the environment fit for handling these situations. However, I also don’t think that the court, as it stands, is an ideal environment either. There are many reasons why people are uncomfortable reporting sexual violence to anyone, especially a police officer, and a lot of that comes from the victim blaming ideas that our society continues to perpetuate. If you doubt me, there are plenty of stories proving my point that are readily available through Google, Steubenville’s case being the most obvious. Also, Lucky by Alice Sebold is an amazing and emotional read that gives a first hand account of what it’s like to be a woman reporting sexual violence and going through with the court process. There’s nothing easy about it.
As a result, in our misconduct policy review meetings, we decided to create an education subgroup that focuses on ways that we can educate students about sexual violence beginning with its very basic definitions to what to do if you or your friend find yourself in a dangerous situation. Because a lot of what is missing to fix the victim blaming issue is education at its very basic level. Unfortunately, there are still many people who don’t understand what sexual violence is and don’t know they have even participated in something that is harmful! I am optimistic that with better education, ideally prior to college, the entirety of sexual violence in our society will improve. We have to start somewhere.
*This is written based on experiences at a private college. I don’t know what legal issues are like for a public university but if you have any idea, please comment and let me know!