The age of consent

Eighteen months after making national headlines with its action plan on campus sexual violence, Students for Consent Culture (SFCC) released its first retrospective report last Wednesday.

SFCC is a national collective of students dedicated to fighting campus sexual violence and reforming university sexual violence policies. The group supersedes OurTurn National, which was founded by a group of Carleton students in 2016.

The retrospective report was pushed after one of OurTurn’s board members abruptly incorporated the group last year. All other board members were fired in the process. Those students then went on to form Students for Consent Culture.

In October 2017, OurTurn published OurTurn: A National, Student-Led Action Plan to End Campus Sexual Violence. Released just one week after allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein were made public, the report quickly made national headlines. SFCC National Chair Connor Spencer credits the timing of the report with boosting the action plan’s public profile.

Spencer also said it was the first real attempt to identify best practices for university sexual violence policies. “The combination just sort of made it spiral way past the impact we thought it was going to have,” said Spencer. “We knew what we had created was important, but we had no idea people were finally ready to listen.”

Since the OurTurn report was released, members of SFCC have participated in eight federal and five provincial consultations on sexual violence. OurTurn’s chair at the time, Caitlin Salvino, was appointed to the Federal Status of Women Gender-Based Violence Committee. The report has been mentioned four times in the House of Commons.

The OurTurn report’s scorecard, which drew considerable media attention, assigned letter grades to university sexual violence policies. With a grade of D-, Concordia received the lowest score of the 15 schools evaluated. A lack of a proper standalone policy, the inclusion of a frivolous complaints clause, and a failure to acknowledge the existence of rape culture on campus, were among the reasons cited.

“Despite the extensive media attention, the goal of the report and scorecard was not to embarrass institutions, but rather to fill a knowledge gap in best practices for campus policies in order to empower student activists and advocates,” the retrospective report reads.

Instead of new grades for each policy, the retrospective report includes a template for students to grade their own schools’ policies. CSU General Coordinator Sophie Hough-Martin graded Concordia’s old and new sexual violence policies, the latter of which was released in December 2018. She gave the old policy 37 points out of 100; The OurTurn team had given it 52. “The initial policy evaluation by OurTurn was hyper-inflated, as it counted common practices that weren’t included in the policy itself,” she said.

Hough-Martin gave the new policy 52 points out of 100. “The only substantive improvements were that we gained 3 points in the section on education. Additionally, for the formal and informal processes [for handling a complaint], our grade improved from 5/30 to 13/30.”

“With that said, the document is still highly referential and reliant on other policy processes,” said Hough-Martin. “It does not stand alone as defined in the OurTurn: One Year Later report

Spencer said SFCC is working on new grades for each school, which will be released in fall 2019.”

The new report also includes a list of best practices for university sexual violence policies. Among these, universities must have a stand-alone policy. This policy must include rape-shield protections that prohibit investigators from questioning complainants about their sexual history. It must also acknowledge the existence of rape culture on campuses. Spencer defined rape culture as “a sociocultural understanding that promotes or enables sexual violence or the disbelief of women when they come forward.”

The anniversary report also outlines what shouldn’t be included in a sexual violence policy. Notably, it says that policies must not include a frivolous complaints section that discourages students from knowingly filing false reports. “Such a clause is likely to deter someone from deciding to file a complaint through the policy,” the report reads.

Policies must also not include time limits for filing complaints, or exception clauses. The former allow administrators to intervene in the complaint process to influence the outcome. Spencer said such policies are rare, with one example mentioned in the anniversary report coming from the University of Ottawa’s policy: “An exception to this policy will only be considered by the president in rare or in unforeseen circumstances.”

“Let’s say that a donor’s child is accused, and is going through a process and is going to be reprimanded. The president could step in and be like ‘nope, never mind,’” said Spencer.

The retrospective report lays out SFCC’s plans for the future. They will publish an evaluation of the changes in sexual violence policies across the country in the past two years. They will create a cross-country support network for students fighting sexual violence. In January 2020, SFCC will publish a national research report on predatory professors.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin.

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