When a young woman embarks on higher education, her risk of being sexually assaulted rises exponentially: An estimated one in five female students in the U.S. will be the target of sexual violence during her college years.

Spurred by this appalling statistic, efforts to step up sexual assault education, investigation and discipline are being carried out at schools nationwide — including the seven campuses of the University of Maine System, which has just approved a tough new policy that strengthens the definition of consent and mandates participation in prevention programs. Though the standards aren’t a silver bullet for the culture of sexual assault in higher education, they’re a bold step forward toward the goal of safer campuses for all University of Maine students.

Like a growing number of other universities, the University of Maine System is redefining sexual assault as sexual activity to which the victim has not actively agreed. The policy is known as “affirmative consent,” or the “yes means yes” standard. So for the purposes of an internal university investigation into allegations of sexual assault, the central question is whether the student accused of assault got a clear signal, through words or actions, to go ahead with a sexual encounter.

“Consent is clear, knowing and active,” according to the new policy. “Consent is active, not passive. Consent may be withdrawn at any time.” Silence doesn’t equal consent. Neither does lack of resistance. And just because someone has said “yes” to a particular partner before doesn’t mean that they’ve agreed to all future sexual activity with that person.

“Is the person actively participating? Are they touching me when I am touching them? Are they encouraging me when I’m doing various different things? Those would all be signs that the person is an active participant in whatever is going on,” Mary Spellman, an official at California’s Claremont McKenna College, told National Public Radio.

Critics of affirmative consent say that it sets up unreasonable expectations of human behavior, and that it creates an atmosphere of ambiguity. But the same can be said of “negative consent,” or the “no means no” standard, which defines a “no” as the verbal rejection of sexual advances. And the lack of a “no” from someone who’s too drunk or high to understand what’s going on around them doesn’t mean they’ve agreed to sexual activity.


What’s more, the same people who say that it’s unclear what constitutes affirmative consent fail to acknowledge the vagueness of “no means no.” What behavior on the part of the victim constitutes enough resistance to show that she didn’t want to be forced into sex?

Granted, embracing “yes means yes” entails a shift in thinking, and putting the concept into practice requires knowing how to look for the “yes” or “no” in someone else’s words, gestures and actions. The University of Maine System policy calls for the system’s 30,000-plus students, faculty and staff to undergo training in the new policy, including education about how to recognize and intervene in potentially dangerous situations and how to respond when someone confides that they’ve been assaulted. The mandate creates an expectation of action on the part of bystanders, making prevention a community responsibility.

Maine’s larger public campuses have reported higher sexual assault figures in recent years.

The number of cases at the University of Maine’s flagship campus in Orono, with more than 10,000 students, fell from nine in 2010 to five in 2012, but soared to 24 in 2013, the year that recommendations to beef up sexual violence education and reporting policies took effect.

The University of Southern Maine, with about 6,000 students, saw a similar sequence of events after getting a federal anti-sexual violence grant in 2009: The number of assaults reported went from six in 2010 to 15 in 2012, dropping to four in 2013.

Greater awareness, though, isn’t the only factor in the greater number of reports. Studies on two different college campuses have shown that the higher-risk periods for sexual assault coincided with periods of more partying.

On one campus, that “red zone” encompassed the beginning of the first year, when freshmen, away from home for the first time, were trying to make friends and fit in, as well as winter term, when students took just one class and had more time for drinking. At the other school, reports of sexual assault rose at the beginning of the second year, when students were socializing a lot as part of fraternity and sorority rush.

That said, it’s important not to oversimplify the association between alcohol use and sexual assault. The former doesn’t cause the latter. As Emma Gray, an editor for Huffington Post Women, said in a column last year: “We need to place the burden of blame for these assaults squarely where it belongs — on the shoulder of those individuals who choose to commit them.”

In a culture that both explicitly and implicitly holds victims responsible for having been assaulted, it’s all-too easy for perpetrators to evade accountability for their actions. This is a double standard that has been a long time in the making and won’t be dismantled overnight. But by creating a space where victims are taken seriously and all students are encouraged to look out for one another, the University of Maine System’s implementation of affirmative consent has the potential to effect long-term change.

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