So Many Other Things I'd Rather Write About
Posted on November 7, 2011
Hi folks. Sorry I haven't written much. I've been busy paying close attention to...you. Yes, that's been me looking over your shoulder to make sure you're actually reading the book propped in front of you and not scanning Like-a-Little on your laptop to see if someone has noticed you. That's me watching you run up and down the soccer field or swim back and forth in the pool, working hard to earn another W for WC. That’s me in the audience listening to your contribution to a four-part harmony or being impressed by the question you ask a guest speaker. That's me passing you in the parking lot as you return from Norton Liquors, trying to remember what year you are so I can assure myself that you're over 21, without saying, "Hey [insert your name here]! So. How's that senior thesis going?" only to have you stare blankly at me, sophomore that you are.
Yes, a busy semester, for you as it has been for me. But I wanted to take some time on this quiet Saturday morning to write about a topic I really don't like to bring up with my students, lest I sound like your parents (not that that's a bad thing; it's just that it's above my pay-grade). We need to talk about sex.
This August, I met with first-year students during orientation (at least until Hurricane Irene turned out the lights). I talked to them about changes we have made to our sexual misconduct policy that are very important for them to understand, because failure to understand might lead to some very bad decisions that could, in turn, lead to their lives being severely impacted. I'm going to take this opportunity to share this information with the rest of you, as well as repeat it for those first-year students for whom orientation was a blur.
Why did we make changes to our sexual misconduct policy? Two reasons. One is that students requested it. We had a group last year called the Sexual Misconduct Assembly that reviewed and evaluated our current policy, our outreach and education efforts, and our response to sexual misconduct incidents. [Let me stop for a moment and explain that when I write "sexual misconduct," I mean sexual assault as well as other actions that fall under that heading, which I'll get to in a minute]. Their efforts have helped make important changes in all of these areas, which you can now find on our website (search on "sexual misconduct" and you'll find all of it).
The other reason is that the federal government, specifically the Office for Civil Rights, has instructed colleges and universities that we must provide certain information and develop a response that follows very specific guidelines. This is because sexual assault is considered by the feds to be a form of sexual harassment, which violates a federal law against discrimination based on gender, a law typically known as "Title IX."
So what I'm about to explain to you is the union of some of Wheaton's best thinking and the expectations of a federal agency that will cut off all access to federal financial aid if we disregard their instructions.
What I'm going to do here is tell you what's not allowed, explain two important terms that you NEED to understand, and then tell you what will happen should you find yourself or a friend involved in something that falls under this policy. Because even if this doesn't happen to you, you may hear from a friend that this has happened to her, or from a friend who has been accused of doing something that violates this policy (sorry for the gender specificity, but I'm going with the 99 percent of sexual assaults committed by men against women).
Our sexual misconduct policy prohibits all of the following acts:
- Any sexual penetration (anal, oral or vaginal), however slight, with any object (including fingers), or sexual intercourse without consent.
- Any intentional sexual touching, however slight, with any object, without consent. "Sexual touching" includes any bodily contact with breasts, groin, genitals, mouth or other orifice, or any other bodily contact in a sexual manner. It also includes ejaculating semen onto another individual without consent.
- Any disrobing of another, or exposure to another, without consent.
- Any sexual interaction with someone you know is incapacitated by alcohol, drugs, sleep or other condition.
- Sexual harassment, exploitation, non-consensual video or audio-taping of sexual activity.
- Attempting to commit any of these acts (please keep this in mind--it's not about succeeding; it's wrong to even try).
- Aiding others in committing any of these acts.
- Retaliating against someone who has brought a complaint or participates in an investigation of sexual misconduct.
There are two absolutely critical terms in this policy: incapacitation and consent. "Incapacitation" does not mean "had a couple of beers," except...it could mean that. A couple of beers might incapacitate someone, especially if s/he is on medication. So no, it's not a violation to have sex after drinking, but it's a violation to have sex with someone whose judgment is impaired in any way, and that, friends, is a very difficult assessment to make, especially if you've been drinking yourself.
The second term is "consent." It cannot be given by someone whose judgment is impaired. It must be verbal (I can't stress that enough) and clear. As in "yes, I want to do this."
Silence should not be interpreted as consent. Neither should lack of resistance. Consent for one act is not consent for another act.
Yes, I know. You're thinking that rules like this are something of a buzz-kill. A knife to the heart of the romantic moment. And I agree that there is a lot of grey area in those terms. But here's the thing: if you find yourself charged with a violation of this policy, you will be in a position of defending your interpretation of "incapacitation" and "consent" to a hearing board, and if their interpretation doesn't match up with yours, you may be found responsible for sexual misconduct. This is not a place to exercise your appreciation of ambiguity. Know what I'm saying here?
I want to be clear: if something like this happens, we have good resources and a fair process in place to respond. But nothing we do at that point can erase what has happened, or the pain of going through that process. So even though I'm confident in how we handle these matters, my preference is that we never have to.
But if you or a friend are assaulted, or you are accused, we will do our best to help. It's just that we can't fix everything. And that's why I'm writing this. It is not an easy thing for me to write (believe me; I have a hard time talking to my students about semen, and that's why I have this job rather than one as, say, a high school health teacher). I imagine it is difficult for the parents who read the d-Log to get through this without thinking of their students being involved in one way or another with this. And for prospective students and their parents, well, all I can say is that every dean of students on every campus in this country thinks these things, deals with these issues, and sees the damage done in the wake of sexual misconduct. I'm just trying to honor my promise to my students that I will always be honest with them.
And I am being honest here. My colleagues and I have dealt with enough of these situations in our careers (and really, one is too many). We have seen students devastated by the experience of being assaulted. We have seen students suspended and expelled for doing things they didn't think were any big deal. We have known parents of both who have been utterly broken by watching their children go through this, on either side.
I cannot be there late at night after you've been drinking, when your decision-making is seriously compromised. I cannot flip on the light switch and ask you what the heck you are doing. I cannot tell you at some critical moment in your evening to stop, think, say no, scream, ask permission, go home with your friends, switch to Coke, have an honest conversation with the woman or man you are or are not interested in having sex with. I cannot poke you in the ribs and point out a friend who needs you, the non-drinker, to step in. I cannot post this policy in your rooms (well, I suppose I could, but that seems a bit excessive).
What I can do is what I'm doing: giving you notice. Telling you to take care of your friends. Telling you to consider your parents and how it would feel for them to get a call from me saying either "Your daughter says she was raped," or "Your son has been accused of sexual assault." Telling you to have enough respect for yourself and for one another that you don't do something that will ever, EVER require you to search "sexual misconduct" on our website to read all the information that's there, or to remember that once upon a time Dean Williams put all this stuff in her d-Log in a desperate attempt to keep you safe. But that's what I did. I hope it makes a difference.