The national press has misplaced its focus in the coverage of the Title IX complaint. Media outlets have emphasized Yale’s poor response to several high-profile incidents of harassment (the DKE chant, the Zeta sign, the theft of the Take Back the Night shirts, etc.) and have neglected the more important issue on campus: Yale’s persistently inadequate institutional response to reports of rape and sexual harassment on campus.
Yale’s first response to this complaint — the creation of a University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct — makes me worry that Yale, like the reporters covering the story, is missing the point. The problem with Yale’s current system is not that the relevant committees are not well-integrated but that their operating procedures are not transparent and that they are alleged to discourage Yale students from pursuing legal solutions to crimes.
I hope the Title IX complaint will force Yale to respond to these criticisms and overhaul whatever consortium of committees is tasked with responding to reports of sexual assault. While we wait for the Department of Education to review the evidence and issue guidance, there’s a lot of work we need to do as individuals to change the sexual climate and protect all of Yale’s students.
Several people I know have had unwanted sexual encounters at Yale that don’t fit into the conventional model of rape. They weren’t abducted and abused by a stranger and weren’t taken advantage of after being roofied or becoming intoxicated. One of the ways in which my friends were taken advantage of occurred when a partner removed a condom midway through sex. Some of the men did not tell their partners they had removed their condoms, and some asked their partners quickly for permission in the middle of a sex act.
This is one of the offenses that Julian Assange has been accused of in the rape cases currently pending in Sweden, and many people questioned whether this kind of behavior could be fairly described as rape. The fact that most media outlets couldn’t decide whether this abusive act constituted rape is evidence that our society lacks common expectations of what consent entails.
The confusion about what constitutes consent or how consent can be withdrawn during a sexual act makes it possible for someone to have the experience of being raped even if the person who had sex with him or her did not intend to commit rape. I don’t believe that the students who abused my friends meant to hurt them or have necessarily ever recognized their own behavior as unacceptable. Because of the ambiguity surrounding sexual behavior, none of the women I know wanted to report their sex partners as rapists to any of Yale’s committees on sexual harassment.
Yale should do a better job clarifying what “glorious consensual sex” entails, instead of just encouraging us to seek it. In the meantime, I’ve written a quick primer on sexual ethics below. The list is not exhaustive, but I hope it can help spark conversation and re-evaluation of appropriate sexual practice:
If you change the method of protection you are using during sex, whether or not you ask your partner for permission, you are behaving abusively. The method you use to achieve safe sex should be worked out ahead of time, to avoid pressuring your partner to agree out of fear of ruining the hookup.
If you change the kind of sex acts you are engaging in or try to switch to a riskier or more intimate kind of sex act, you need clear permission from your partner, and you should have gotten it before you started hooking up.
If you’re not really sure which sex acts are acceptable to both you and your partner and therefore don’t know what changes would require checking in, stop. You are not ready to have sex with your partner.
Consent requires conversation and clarity; you can only make an effort to respect your partner’s boundaries if you are aware of them. A desire to preserve romance or a sense of spontaneity is not a justification for mistreating your partner. Only by having forthright discussions is it possible to avoid inadvertent abuse.
In the coming months, I hope Yale will revamp its procedures to be more supportive of victims of sexual assault. But by committing to conversations about consent, we can reduce the number of students who will ever need to turn to the Committee on Sexual Misconduct.
Leah Libresco is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.