by Elise McGlothian
The US Department of Justice says September is the most dangerous month for sexual assaults on college campuses. First year and sophomore students are especially at risk. As UNC entered that dangerous time this year, the University introduced a new sexual assault policy. It comes as a response to complaints that UNC mishandled sexual assault cases in the past. The policy changes the definition of consent, but some students question how it will be enforced.
On any given night, you can find students on Franklin Street either bar hopping or partying. But it’s what students do behind closed doors that the university is most concerned about.
Two weeks ago, the university announced the new sexual assault policy via Alert Carolina, a campus wide email alert messaging system. However some, like Junior Michelle Floyd, have paid little attention to it.
“I don’t really know what it says,” said Floyd.
Many students echoed Floyd’s thought, like foreign exchange student Lauren Gonzales who was out with friends Wednesday night. Walking towards Four Corners Bar and Grill, she and her group of friends stopped to look at a clothing shop’s window display before continuing their night. Gonzales said she briefly glanced at the policy but has since paid little attention to it.
“I saw how they defined what consent is but I haven’t given it much thought about my relationship about that,” said Gonzales.
However, Christi Hurt, the chairwoman of UNC’s discrimination task force who helped write the new policy, says it’s part of a larger cultural change among students. Hurt says the conversations students have with each other before engaging in sexual activity is a critical component of the policy.
“I always think of it as the policy outlines the parameters or guidelines but the actual real cultural change work happens when people are talking to each other,” said Hurt. “How we’re setting cultural norms and how we’re making an environment so we can all be aware of how we can help solve this problem.”
Hurt says addressing sexual assault claims will involve proving both parties consenting to a sexual activity or “affirmative consent,” rather than proving that one person said no.
“We also really focused on defining consent as an affirmative definition so that folks looked for an affirmative agreement to engage in some kind of sexual activity as opposed to the absence of a no. So we’re looking for that presence of a yes.”
But can the policy solve the problem of defining sexual assault if students aren’t paying attention to it? Senior Moses Richards says the answer is no.
“For me personally, it’s always a commonality that yes is yes, no is no, and silence is no. I don’t think a policy is going to make that big of a difference,” said Richards.
Some students also are concerned about the way that the policy defines “consent.”
Page nine of the policy reads: “consent requires an outward demonstration, through understandable words or actions, that conveys a clear willingness to engage in sexual conduct.” After reading the policy’s definition of consent, Floyd said the term “actions” make the policy harder to enforce.
“I just don’t know how an official document saying something is going to change how like one person perceives someone saying yes or no,” said Floyd.
The University plans to use staff groups, like the Title IX office and Campus Wellness to talk with students, faculty and staff about sexual assault in the hopes that the policy becomes clear for everyone.