In light of recent events, it has become increasingly vital that our student body educate itself on how Vassar College legally defines sexual assault. My position as a Student Fellow has particularly pushed me to develop my understanding of our policies. However, when I sought resources to become more aware, I found that there lie major contradictions between what our policy states and what student leaders are asked to teach. Being part of a house team is an invaluable experience, granting me positive influence on other members of my community by equipping me with greater knowledge of campus resources. However, the room Vassar College has left for confusion in the construction and dissemination of its sexual assault policy has forced me to re-consider my own ability to be a substantial resource for my fellow group and other residents in my house. My initial research left me feeling both confused and under-qualified, and without one, clear, campus-wide policy on sexual assault, our community is providing students with ample opportunity for imprecise and ambiguous definitions of consent.
At the final Vassar Student Association (VSA) council meeting of the fall semester, student representatives from the Committee on College Life (CCL) conducted a forum reviewing their yearly goals. In this revision, a discussion occurred about Vassar’s official sexual assault policy and what it actually means. The student representatives detailed the entirety of Vassar’s policy on sexual assault, specifically referencing our defined legal standard of consent.
Vassar College’s legal definition of consent reads as follows:
“ Consent is clear, knowing, and voluntary. Consent is active, not passive. Effective consent can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions create mutually understandable clear permission regarding willingness to engage in (and the conditions of) sexual activity.”
Vassar College’s legal definition of incapacitation, which defines our policy on the ability to give consent under the influence of alcohol, reads as follows:
“Incapacitation is a state where someone cannot make rational, reasonable decisions because they lack the capacity to give knowing consent (e.g., to understand the “who, what, when, where, why, or how” of their sexual interaction).”
This was the first instance in which I had personally heard our school’s official policy word-for-word. It appears that this was also the first instance CCL and VSA representatives were hearing the specific details of this policy since some were convinced that it was new, which upon speaking with a House advisor, I was shockingly assured the policy has been in place for years. While it was consoling to discover that I was not the only one confused about the exact “whats”, “whens”, and “hows” of Vassar’s sexual assault guidelines, it was appalling, and quite frankly unacceptable, that student representatives, who serve as the primary gateway between students and administrators, have little knowledge and subsequently no say in the definitions of this policy.
In comparison to other institutions, our policy’s definitions and wording are relatively on par with the standards of the legal system. For example, New York State has very recently mandated a uniform sexual assault policy for all 64 of its educational institutions which reads very similarly to ours. It is argued that such a policy alleviates the confusion surrounding sexual encounters that were deemed consensual by all parties yet still involved alcohol consumption. Concurrently, it is also argued that, under a more strict definition of consent, any student who consumes alcohol and then has sex, whether mutually consensual or not, can legally be viewed as a perpetrator of sexual assault. It can equally be argued, however, that our current definition only increases the blurriness surrounding alcohol and consent. Our policy states that “the question of incapacitation is determined on a case-by-case basis that will include an analysis of whether the accused knew, or a sober, reasonable person in the position of the accused should have known, that the complainant was incapacitated.” What exactly defines “a reasonable person”? Does this leave room for bias? What are the legal differences between intoxicated and incapacitated? Which term do we, as the Vassar student body, choose to support? These are extremely important questions we must ask ourselves as we discover which narratives and parties are being privileged over others.
On the VSA floor, the two most shocking, yet commonly unknown facts of our policy involved its endorsement of an individual’s ability to give consent through actions and the individual’s ability to give consent under any influence of alcohol or other substances. Why did this come as such a surprise to the student representatives? The answer lies in the way information about consent and alcohol involvement is communicated to our student body.
During August House Team training, Student Leaders attended a presentation that provided a definition of consent that sharply contrasts the official policy. A Powerpoint presentation stated that consent must be:
“Clear, Voluntary (never coerced), Active (ask for each action), Sober (look for cues), Verbal (don’t assume), At each new act.”
Keywords like “sober” and “verbal” clearly contradict Vassar’s legal policy. The disconnect does not stop there. When searching the Vassar’s Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) webpage, I found a bright and prominent graphic that again described consent as a sober and verbal “yes”.
Even CARES, the anonymous student help line specialized in providing support for cases of sexual violence, provides students with an “official” definition of consent that does not mirror Vassar’s legal definition. To be completely certain that our house team was disseminating the correct information to our first-years, we consulted a CARES representative and were emailed an “official” definition of consent at Vassar, which provided a list of instances that don’t constitute consent, including anytime “someone’s judgment is impaired by substances.” With such extensive discrepancies, I feel that I have been placed in a very difficult situation as I navigate disseminating the correct information to my peers, grappling with my personal beliefs, and choosing which definitions to share.
As a freshman, I did not read my handbook in its entirety. With an abundance of information from student leaders and orientation programs on consent, I was certain I didn’t need to do any personal reading because I was being provided information from resources and administrators that I believed to be reliable. However, it has become increasingly apparent that the mixed messages circulating our campus lack distinction between student opinion and the legal definition with which all sexual assault cases are evaluated.
The conclusion I have drawn from this experience is that, although the origins and effectiveness of our current sexual assault policy are unclear and somewhat ambiguous, one thing is certain: crucial information has been severely miscommunicated and poorly disseminated. If so many students, on so many levels of leadership and communication with administration are utterly misinformed, what does this mean about the general student body’s knowledge of other policies — and of our institution’s larger framework?
At the heart of the problem, no one knows whose responsibility it is to consistently publicize clear information about our policies — or if such a position even exists. Julian Williams, our current Title IX coordinator, and Charlotte Swanson, our new SAVP coordinator, are perhaps immediately connected to this issue, however, it is unclear if this responsibility is even in their job description. Someone higher up in Vassar’s chain of command must consistently be monitoring how such information is dispersed, and the diffusion of responsibility to do so up to this point exemplifies Vassar’s blatant disregard for the importance of sexual assault on this campus and the people it most directly affects.
I encourage us all, as members of the Vassar community, to both hold ourselves responsible for spreading informed knowledge throughout campus and holding Vassar administration accountable for their negligence so a consistent policy can be constructed that is reflective of our community and that we all play a role in shaping.
Photo Credit: Drew Leventhal ’17