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Editorial: Code of conduct needs to clarify nonverbal sexual consent

By Editorial Board

Oct. 31, 2013 1:35 a.m.

It is the university’s responsibility to craft a definition of consent that draws the line between consensual sex and sexual assault as boldly as possible.

Though it is no easy task to codify a concept embedded with such emotional complexity, the university must do all it can to eradicate gray areas in its definition of consent.

The UCLA Student Conduct Committee’s latest revision of the Student Conduct Code, updated Oct. 25, added important stipulations defining what constitutes effective sexual consent, including clauses stating consent cannot be obtained by force or while an individual is incapacitated or physically or mentally unable to make informed, rational decisions.

These are significant strides and signs of a policy more in tune with the ongoing national dialogue concerning consent on college campuses. Recognizing the role of alcohol and force in sexual assault creates a clearer understanding of how to prevent sexual assault and helps survivors and bystanders better discern the circumstances under which sexual assault occurs.

What the code still lacks is a comprehensive description of how exactly nonverbal communication can be considered a form of consent and whether consent can be withdrawn.

The updated code defines effective consent, in part, as “words or actions that show a knowing and voluntary agreement to engage in a mutually agreed-upon sexual activity.”

There is no perfect way to define sexual consent, and both words and actions can be ambiguous. But the idea of “actions” as a form of consent is particularly problematic.

The new definition states that effective consent cannot be obtained if an individual is “ignoring or acting in spite of the objections of another.” Yet, the code does little to address whether consent is implied when a partner does not actively object or fight back. When consent can be based solely on physical affirmation, the lines between sexual assault and consensual sex become blurred.

No matter how partners agree to consent – verbally or nonverbally – passivity and silence should never be considered a form of effective consent, and the code should reflect that.

The idea that sexual consent is a “yes” rather than the absence of a “no,” and that a “yes” can be revoked at any time, needs to act as a central tenet of UCLA’s definition of sexual consent. This expectation must be made clear to students and community members when they are first introduced to the Student Conduct Code at orientation trainings and at every on-campus training they attend thereafter. Keeping the definition as it is leaves too much room for misconstruction.

These proposed changes by no means create a perfect definition. Sexual consent is a spectrum, an ongoing conversation between partners. It should also be an ongoing dialogue on campus, and the code ought to serve as a living, breathing document that reflects the content of those discussions.

On-campus culture that encourages open, constructive discussions about sexual consent begins first and foremost with a clear-cut administrative policy. Amending that policy for a more concrete and all-encompassing designation of sexual consent is a necessary and critical step to furthering this discussion.

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