Definition of consent clarified by SAPAC

James Coller/Daily
Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the University’s Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Center, speaks to the University’s Board of Regents last February. Buy this photo

By Alyssa Brandon, Daily Staff Reporter
and Lara Moehlman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 12, 2015

Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, announced Sunday that SAPAC updated its website to reflect changes to language used to define consent.

The change occurred following a Michigan Daily report that revealed discrepancies between language in the University’s Sexual Misconduct Policy and language SAPAC promotes and encourages students to follow.

The Student Sexual Misconduct Policy says consent is a “Clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed in mutually understandable words or actions, to engage in a particular activity. Consent can be withdrawn by either party at any point.”

SAPAC’s definition is more stringent, identifying consent as an explicitly verbal agreement, not satisfied by silence or body language.

In an editorial published Wednesday, the Daily’s Editorial Board voiced concerns about the discrepancy between SAPAC’s and the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy’s definitions of consent: “While we understand that SAPAC’s definition of consent is educational and not a standard used to hold individuals accountable to University policy, the large discrepancy between the two is troubling; ‘mutually understandable words or actions’ is too ambiguous,” the Board wrote. “The current policy sets a dangerously low threshold for consent that can be misconstrued and misunderstood.”

In an op-ed published in the Daily, Rider-Milkovich said SAPAC staff have reviewed the organization’s educational materials on its website to clarify the distinction between the University’s policy and the standard SAPAC strives to promote.

“It is an encouraging sign of a shift in our campus cultural values that many students desire for affirmative, verbal consent to be included in the institution's consent definition, and even more importantly, be fully integrated into our behaviors and beliefs as the expected, common practice of students when they have sex,” she wrote. “As a culture, though, we are not there yet and SAPAC makes this distinction in our educational efforts. In order to address the issue raised by the Daily's editorial Board, SAPAC staff have carefully reviewed our website materials and revised the information provided on consent to make this distinction clearer.”

The updated SAPAC page on consent now includes this new addition:

“One of the core values that guides SAPAC’s work is respect. And for SAPAC, consent is respect. As we work towards a world free of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking and sexual harassment, we promote equality and respect for all members of our community through our commitment to primary prevention. Our primary prevention approach is centered on our vision and hope for a future where we all expect consent for sexual activity to be verbal or oral, sober, and enthusiastic.”

However, language around the University’s alternative definition of consent — as articulated in the Sexual Misconduct Policy — remains largely unchanged compared to a version updated on Jan. 17, 2015.

The top of the page begins by describing consent as “when someone agrees, gives permission, or says ‘yes’ to sexual activity with other persons.”

The page then proceeds to note that, “The University of Michigan Policy on Sexual Misconduct by Students defines consent as a clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed in mutually understandable words or actions, to engage in a particular activity.”

During his fireside chat on Wednesday, University President Mark Schlissel told students that the University is planning to roll out changes to the University’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy by the Fall 2015 semester. He said changes could potentially include the guidance students are given in regard to seeking counsel, among other issues.

The University most recently made changes to its Student Sexual Misconduct Policy in 2013 in response to guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in 2011. These alterations did not address the University’s definition of consent, but focused on amending the University’s responsibilities in the investigation process and the burden of proof applied in University disciplinary proceedings.