By Ebba Zajmi Gjergji
SUNY introduced a new sexual assault policy in October similar to California’s “Yes Means Yes” law, that will focus on affirmative consent. The policy is intended to prevent cases of sexual assault. 64 SUNY campuses have adopted it and Governor Cuomo has called it the first step in a statewide policy, raising the question of whether CUNY campuses should adopt the same measures.
The policy defines consent as: “a clear, unambiguous, and voluntary agreement between the participants to engage in specific sexual activity.” It directly states that silence cannot be interpreted as consent, as it can be with a “no means no “policy. Furthermore, consent to any previous form of sexual activity does not imply consent to future activity, nor does it imply consent to any other forms of sexual activity.
Victims who were drunk at the time of the assault will not be blamed for it as they have been in the past, which will likely make them more comfortable reporting their assaults. Campus staff will also receive training for victim sensitivity.
The policy also includes a Victim’s Bill of Rights which explains how to report incidents to local, campus, or state law enforcement. It also provides information on how to obtain counseling, health, and legal support services. Additionally, there will be an active initiative to inform students, such as talking about the issue during freshman orientation, and climate assessments to gauge students’ awareness and attitudes about the policies.
Obscura president Jasmine Miranda, said, “If you combine this policy with mandatory sessions explaining the policy in detail, then it can be preventative. I think that sessions on consent are especially important for incoming students.” Miranda observed, “SUNY has a more traditionally aged demographic and more dorming students whereas CUNY, especially Lehman, has students who are older in age and all students are commuters. I do think that it’s still important for CUNY to have a system available for victims so that they aren’t unprepared to attend to victims’ needs in the future.”
Photography major Justin Mercado questions the policy’s definition of consent. He believes that it is beneficial to create guidelines of consent versus having none, and that the policy provides victims with help in finding support. However, he wonders whether the policies should be more specific when saying that consent can be given verbally or through action. “There are obvious signs of non-consenting actions to many, but what are consenting ones?” he asked. “Isn’t the fact that that can be left to interpretation terrifying?”
Dr. Norma I. Cofresi, director of Lehman’s Counseling Center, agrees that because of this confusing issue, Lehman must make a conscious effort to discuss it. She believes that defining consent is a major factor in preventing sexual assault.
Dr. Cofresi said that she has not received reports of sexual assault at Lehman since 2011, when she was hired. She suspects that if Lehman students are experiencing sexual violence, they are not coming forward. As a result, the Counseling Center, along with the Wellness Center and Public Safety, are trying to create awareness around sexual assault. One event that helps create discussion and reform surrounding the topic is “Take Back the Night,” which is held every spring semester at Lehman. Dr. Cofresi says it allows people to tell their stories and encourages others to come into counseling either about recent traumas or childhood abuse .
An assessment sent out through email by the Office of Student Affairs at Lehman, gives students a set of scenarios in which sexual assault may take place. Dr. Cofresi supports the assessment, but believes it should be distributed along with other information about sexual assault at freshman orientation. Regardless, she feels Lehman has stepped up its effort to inform students on these issues.
“In general, our crime statistics are fairly low,” said Dr. Cofresi. “There’s a culture of respect on this campus driven by students, the majority of whom come from communal cultures and traditional cultures where there’s a strong differentiation between gender roles, but where there also exists a dominant ethic of respect.”
Public Safety statistics show just one reported incident of sexual assault in 2011 and none since then. Nonetheless, the Counseling Center, in collaboration with the Wellness Center, Public Safety, and the Office of Student Affairs are committed to increasing awareness regarding the issue of assault on or off campus. For information and support, students may contact the Counseling Center at 718-960-8761 or visit the office, located in Room 114 of the Old Gym Building. To report an incident, students may call Public Safety at 718-960-8593 or visit the office, located in Room 109 of the APEX. There are emergency buttons throughout the campus.