State legislators push for new approach to teaching consent

Thursday, September 17, 2015 - 6:35pm

Michigan Democrats are trying to change the way consent is discussed in the state — starting with how the concept is taught in schools.

Though a bill jointly introduced Wednesday by state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D–Meridian Twp.) and state Rep. Tom Cochran (D–Mason) will not change the definition of consent in the state of Michigan as a whole, it will require Michigan public K-12 schools to focus on a conscious, affirmative “yes” as consent to having sex.

The bill doesn’t impact University policies, but Hertel and Cochran said they hoped the bill would address the issue of sexual assault in college by educating Michigan students before they arrive on campus.

Several universities in the state of Michigan have been or are currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for their handling of sexual assault cases, including the University and Michigan State University.

“There's an epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses,” Hertel said. “One in five women will be a victim of sexual assault while in those college years. I think we need to do something to change the paradigm of what kids are learning before they get to college so we can actually give them the tools that will help alleviate this.”

Affirmative consent aims to go against the common “no means no” definition, which says an individual must clearly say no for a situation to be non-consensual.

The bill would require students be taught that silence and lack of resistance does not constitute consent, nor does relationship status, and that consent can be revoked at any time.

The Michigan Daily reported last year that the standard of consent in the University’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy defines consent as “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 Consent can be withdrawn by either party at any point.” The University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center promotes the affirmative consent definition in many of its educational materials, prompting SAPAC to clarify language defining consent on its website.

Earlier this month, University President Mark Schlissel told the Daily that he wanted to update the University's Student Sexual Misconduct Policy by next semester.

In a September interview with the Daily, Schlissel said he didn’t think a change in definition would effectively reduce sexual assault on campus.

“I don't think that a change in the definition of consent is adequate to result in a faster process or diminish incidences of sexual assault,” Schlissel said. “I'm open to considering it; I think time will tell whether it makes a difference.”

However, Schlissel said he would be interested to see the impact of legislation passed in California that changed the definition of consent in the state to require explicit verbal consent, including for the state's universities.

“The states that are pushing hard on this will be our laboratories,” he said. “If California all of the sudden has a huge drop in sexual assault or misconduct, then oh boy I’m ready to do that, too.”

In a written statement Thursday, SAPAC Director Holly Rider-Milkovich said she would continue to watch the legislation closely.

“The components of consent outlined in this proposed legislation closely reflect what the University of Michigan has been teaching students for more than a decade,” Milkovich wrote. “We are committed to creating a safe and healthy campus community that is free of sexual violence and teaching consent is a fundamental part of this effort. Efforts to educate students earlier than college about sexual violence are consistent with our own overall educational objectives.”

The University has implemented several education programs of its own to address the issue of sexual assault. Relationship Remix, which is required for freshmen, aims to promote healthy relationships and informs students on the University’s definition of consent.