We are members of the Harvard community committed to creating a safer and more equitable university, free from violence and discrimination, in which all students are treated with dignity and respect. We are concerned that Harvard’s new sexual harassment policy falls short of supporting this aim by omitting a critical element: affirmative consent.
We are individuals with agency and when we are silent, it could mean a variety of things. Silence – the absence of a “no” – does not mean “yes,” and our university policy should explicitly recognize that. An affirmative consent policy denotes the “freely expressed willingness and active participation from all parties throughout sexual activity.”(1) Affirmative consent is not a means to badger students with an unrealistic P.C. standard; rather, is it a baseline for confirming that a sexual partner wants to be in that situation at that time.
We are not alone in thinking this. The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault pointed to the definition of consent as essential to any policy on sexual misconduct.(2) The clarity such a definition provides students is critical to the prevention of and response to sexual assault. As undergraduates, graduate, and professional students, faculty, staff and administrators, we come from different backgrounds, cultures, and countries. But on this campus, we should have clear, mutual expectations for what it means to treat one another with full respect.
On September 29th, California passed legislation mandating affirmative consent for all state-funded universities. New York is poised to do the same. As the university continues to evaluate its policy in light of an ongoing investigation by the Department of Education, we call on Harvard to adopt an affirmative consent policy. We understand that any policy on its own is not a panacea for addressing sexual assault. However, the precedent set by university policy creates an important expectation for its members. Harvard’s policy must ensure a safe and respectful campus climate and reflect the values we hold as a community.
Lend your voice. Support our petition here.
Graduate Students Advocating for Gender Equality (GradSAGE)
Harvard Students Demand Respect
Our Harvard Can Do Better
1 For a delineation of “affirmative consent,” see Defining Affirmative Consent by OHCDB, the White House Comment by HarvardSDR co-founder, and the DOE Negotiated Rulemaking Public Comment by HarvardSDR
2 “We are also providing a checklist for schools to use in drafting (or reevaluating) their own sexual misconduct policies. Although every school will need to tailor a policy to its own needs and circumstances, all schools should be sure to bring the key stakeholders – including students – to the table. Among other things, this checklist includes ideas a school could consider in deciding what is – or is not – consent to sexual activity. As we heard from many students, this can often be the essence of the matter – and a school community should work together to come up with a careful and considered understanding.” https://www.notalone.gov/assets/checklist-for-campus-sexual-misconduct-policies.pdf