Apply sexual consent policy at private colleges, too

College campus.
College campus. Photo Credit: Starbucks / Cadbury

A recently adopted policy guides all 64 SUNY campuses on how to prevent and respond to sexual assaults. Now New York’s 188 private colleges and universities should follow the same rules.

As part of his “Enough Is Enough” campaign, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed a law that would require private institutions — from the very first day of freshman orientation — to conduct awareness campaigns about the rules of engagement for sexual activity. Throughout students’ time on campuses, they would know that sexual violence, which Cuomo called pervasive and disturbing, will be treated seriously.

A key part of the legislation defines consent to sexual relations — a very difficult task for situations that don’t lend themselves to clear, bright-line yes and no interpretations. The benefit, however, is that a new approach would get students to talk about their behavior, their expectations and the risks of misunderstandings for both partners.

The law would require consent to be affirmative — “clear, knowing and voluntary.” Interpreting that in the fog of relationships and alcohol and drugs could be murky, but surely it would be refined along the way. While a new policy could open the door to some false claims in university disciplinary tribunals, sexual assaults cannot be allowed to go unpunished.

Our biggest concern is that the bill doesn’t require college administrators to report allegations of sexual violence to law enforcement. These are crimes, and the way to take them out of the shadows and reduce their stigma is to treat them like any other felony. Over and over again, stories have highlighted how name-brand institutions with strong self-interest kept incidents as quiet as possible. Federal law unfortunately pre-empts state laws and college rules from requiring that sexual assaults be reported to law enforcement. That decision is left to the person alleging an assault. The federal law must be repealed.

Until then, Cuomo is pushing New York’s colleges to reduce incidents of sexual violence and trying to hold those institutions accountable. It’s a good start.