IT’S A disturbing story that repeats itself, time after time, on college campuses. A student claims to have been sexually assaulted. But because she, fearing her safety, never explicitly said no to her attacker, the university’s hands are tied by its own sexual-abuse policy. There are important reasons to establish clear guidelines for sexual assaults, but the rules shouldn’t be so restrictive as to prevent a university taking action when an otherwise credible claim is made.
That’s the situation at Harvard in the wake of an anonymous op-ed published in the student newspaper last month that detailed one student’s inability to get the help she needed from college administrators after she reported being intimidated into having sex with another student. Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, sensibly responded by appointing a task force to look into sexual assault prevention on campus. But she should also bring the school’s rules into line with those of other universities that accept that sometimes victims may feel too threatened to express their objections outright.
At schools such as Dartmouth, Yale, and MIT, undergraduate handbooks specify that, for the purposes of school disciplinary rules, sex is only deemed consensual if both parties actively agree to it. Harvard lacks such a rule. In practice, that means the university often struggles to take action in a case in which a student doesn’t consent to, but also does not explicitly reject, a partner’s advances. Different schools within the university have varying policies, and even before the furor caused by the op-ed, the university had hired a special Title IX coordinator to bring them into line and ensure that they meet federal standards. At the least, Harvard should adopt a universal policy of active consent by both participants.
There are often ambiguities in cases of potential sexual misconduct, and the university mustn’t presume guilt simply because an accusation is made. But requiring clear consent is far more likely to encourage responsible behavior than requiring an explicit “no” — especially in the extreme situations in which a student feels like saying “no” might result in physical harm.
The goal should be for all students, faculty, and administrators to understand the steps that the university can take when confronted with cases that may fall short of criminal standards but clearly violate university guidelines. The safety and civility of the academic community require it.