One student's rape complaint exposes a big potential problem with how a college defines 'consent'

The University of Michigan’s student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, has a report out on student sexual assault that reveals some potential problems with the university’s policies.

The Daily’s article chronicles one female student’s sexual assault complaint against two male students she alleges raped her during her freshman year. A university investigation determined that while the sexual encounter was not wanted by the female student, it could not be considered assault because she never said “no.”

“The investigation and the appeals board found that because [the female student] did not provide verbal dissent at any point, the incident could not be considered sexual assault because the men involved would have had no way of knowing their actions were unwanted,” the student newspaper reports.

However, as both the complainant and The Daily point out, UMich may present students with two conflicting definitions of sexual consent.

“It is undeniable that the University’s sexual assault adjudication and education processes contain significant policy faults that cannot be ignored,” according to a Daily editorial called “Clear, unambiguous action required.”

UMich’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy defines consent this way: “Clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed in mutually understandable words or actions, to engage in a particular activity.”

However, the university’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC) states: “Silence is never consent. If a person does not verbally say no, it does not mean that they mean yes.”

Additionally, the SAPAC website states, “It is never acceptable to assume that consent is given. Each one of us is responsible for making sure we have consent in every sexual situation. If you are unsure, it is important to clarify what your partner is feeling about the sexual situation. Consent can never simply be assumed.”

SAPAC provides this information in both training and literature to all UMich students, according to a report from the university’s appeal board cited by The Daily. To the student newspaper’s editorial board, the two definitions used by different parts of the university represent a clear conflict.

“The current policy sets a dangerously low threshold for consent that can be misconstrued and misunderstood,” The Daily argues. “To remedy these ambiguities, the policy should clearly state that silence and inaction are not acceptable and do not, under any circumstances, constitute consent.”

University of michiganGetty ImagesUniversity of Michigan students.

To be clear, UMich has no legal responsibility to adopt language that would implement these changes. SAPAC’s definition of consent, as The Daily notes, “is educational and not a standard used to hold individuals accountable to University policy.” The state does not currently mandate affirmative consent standards.

We have reached out to The University of Michigan for comment on The Daily’s article and editorial, and will update with any statement we receive.

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