U of M rolls out new policy defining sexual consent

Affirmative consent campaign button
The Aurora Center for Advocacy & Education at the University of Minnesota is putting on a social media campaign during the opening week of school to urge students to get affirmative consent.
Courtesy of The Aurora Center for Advocacy & Education

As University of Minnesota students return to the Twin Cities campus, they can expect an education on the school's new "affirmative sexual consent" policy. It's based on the idea that truly consensual relations require active signals from the participants, not just the absence of objections.

Classes start next week. As students move into their dorms, apartments and houses on and around the U of M's Twin Cities campus, the university is finding ways to tell them about the new policy.

Trish Palermo, community advisor and committee director of Campus Affairs and Student life, says she talked about the policy to residents in the freshman dorm Territorial Hall on Wednesday.

"I explained that it redefines consent to 'yes means yes,'" Palermo said. "I said this is putting the pressure on both individuals to make sure that the other person wants to engage in whatever sexual activity is about to happen."

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Last month, the university adopted the affirmative consent policy, which also makes clear that people who are incapacitated by drugs or alcohol are incapable of giving consent. Student government leaders began pushing for the change last year, saying the former policy, which called for "mutually understood" consent, was too vague.

Similar affirmative consent policies have been adopted at schools across the country, including private colleges in Minnesota like Carleton and Macalester.

Got Consent? underwear are part of campaign.
"Got Consent?" underwear are being given away by The Aurora Center for Advocacy & Education to students who respond correctly to Twitter and Facebook quizzes about the University of Minnesota's new affirmative consent policy.
Courtesy of The Aurora Center for Advocacy & Education

U of M fraternities, sororities, coaches, and athletes are meeting with campus organizations on the new policy, and messages are being sent out to the entire student body over email and social media.

Gavin Grivna with the U's Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education says the center has sent out surveys to the student body about affirmative consent and has been posting quizzes on Facebook and Twitter, offering prizes to students with the right answers, including buttons, T-shirts, and underwear with the words "Got Consent?" printed across them.

"When they come into the office they tell us the answer," he said. "So they say that's true, or that's false, and then 'OK great, would you like a pair of our 'Got Consent?' underwear?'"

Junior Jon Solberg says volunteers from the Aurora Center gave a presentation to his fraternity this week. He likes the policy, though he worries about due process for people accused of violating it.

"I feel like this gives people a little bit of reassurance to know that they can say 'no' whenever, which I agree is a good thing," he said. "I'm a little worried about how if it's mutual consent what will happen if someone regrets it the next day, even if they are given consent."

Kimberly Hewitt, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, which oversees university investigations into sexual assault complaints, says the new policy doesn't change much for investigators, though it might make them ask about consent differently.

"We won't conclude there was consent if someone says there was silence. And I think that might've been the case before," she said. "We would look for other indicators of consent if someone said, 'well, this person said nothing so I thought it was ok.'"

She says affirmative consent does help reframe the issue for students.

"The specificity is probably most significantly helpful as an educational tool for students," she said.

Senior Taylor Day says it's a good move on the part of the university.

"There are so many ways that consent can be blurred," she said. "It's really important to have a definition of consent, and if 'yes' is that definition I think it's definitely moving in the right direction."