I was a graduate student in the Psychology department at the University of Hawaii Manoa in the late 1980s when I filed a class-action complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights alleging that UH systematically discriminated against students by failing to provide us with appropriate access to Title IX grievance procedures and resolution options. I won that complaint and served as the first in-house advocate UH hired to assist students alleging violations of Title IX.

Between 1992 and 2000 I handled some 900 grievances and conducted prevention education for the Manoa campus. Many cases were straightforward and easy to resolve. Low-level complaints (single incidents, miscommunication, etc,) were often addressed informally and with little fanfare. Other cases required formal investigation and were more involved and often quite difficult to resolve. In general, the more serious the allegations, the less likely we were as an institution to resolve a complaint effectively.

I’d like to be able to say that we are much better at preventing and responding to gender violence now than we were when I was a student or when I served as in-house advocate. But while the language of gender violence has changed dramatically and students and the broader campus community better understand their rights and responsibilities under Title IX than they did in the 80s and 90s, university officials are often no better equipped than they were 30 years ago to investigate and resolve serious complaints of gender violence on campus.

University of Hawaii at Manoa

University of Hawaii Manoa

There are many reasons for this including inadequate training for those involved in investigating and resolving complaints and confusion regarding lines of authority and responsibility. Ironically, these are the same problems UH faced when I was a student and while I was serving as in-house advocate.

As I observe the eagerness with which campus officials and others embrace the “Yes is Yes” campaign, I’m struck by its deceptive simplicity. The appeal of affirmative consent as both a concept and a policy is undeniable—it has excellent “brand” appeal. Who can’t get on board with “yes means yes” to sex between young adults? The problem is that addressing the problem of gender violence prevention and response on college campuses is not simple. If it were, we’d have solved the problem decades ago.

It’s tempting to let this most recent branding campaign run its course the way the “no means no” campaign did a some years ago. But risks inherent in “yes means yes” are more insidious. At minimum, the risks imbedded in this campaign need to be part of the conversation surrounding it.

For example, the newly minted UH gender violence policy incorporates affirmative consent (“yes means yes”) as part of what is intended to be a global shift in gender violence prevention and response programming. This policy update is critical, but it is a superficial step in the overall culture shift that gender violence prevention and response advocates have been seeking at UH.

Infantilizing adult students because we have collectively failed to address the problem of gender violence on our campuses is not the right answer.

Moreover, beginning with a change in policy intended to improve campus culture before the necessary resources to address culture change have even been identified can be a recipe for disaster at UH. The reason? UH has a history of failing to adequately resource implementation and enforcement of new or evolved policies. Furthermore, the changes implicit in the updated UH gender violence policy have the potential for exponentially increasing the demand on personnel and offices devoted to gender violence prevention and response on our campuses.

Below is a brief and incomplete list of issues campuses such as Manoa (Hawaii’s largest and the one I’m most familiar with) should understand, publicly acknowledge and address before making a change in policy that will dramatically increase the number, or change the type, of gender violence complaints it receives:

  • A large urban college campus (Manoa) is like a small city, where both good and bad things happen. An effective gender violence program focuses on risk reduction and prevention and will result in an (often dramatic) increase in complaints, many of them low level. An institution must have adequate staffing in place to respond to an increase in the number of complaints before rolling out new or enhanced training and/or changed policies.
  • University communities are made up of multiple groups with different roles and responsibilities. Their training needs are different and training protocols should reflect this in scope, content and choice of trainers.
  • Points of contact for students, staff, faculty and administrators should be appropriate for each group and provide suitable information access (e.g., face-face, web-based, social media chat, etc.).
  • Serious allegations (rising to the level of criminal complaints, for example) should only be investigated in-house by personnel who have been adequately trained and are experienced working in higher education settings.
  • Procedures for resolving complaints should involve stakeholders to the greatest extent possible.

UH officials trying to “do the right thing” to address gender violence issues have long been stymied by a lack of resources. At Manoa we’ve not even begun to address the brief (and admittedly incomplete) list of issues cited above, and we are ill-prepared to take on those associated with adopting an affirmative consent rule on campus.

But there are other problems with the adoption of this new rule only peripherally related to our historic lack of resource commitment to addressing gender violence prevention and response.

First, the “affirmative consent” rule we’ve signed onto is an enforcement nightmare. As a training approach to risk reduction and prevention it makes good sense, but as a policy intended to be used as the basis for grievances, it creates confusion, primarily because the practical implications of “affirmative consent” within these policies reflect the values and interpersonal communication practices of drafters, not the millennial and Gen Zers most likely to use them.

Second, the “affirmative consent” rule relies on implicit assumptions about the etiology of gender violence and sexual victimization rates of college age women that are incorrect.  While it is true that women attending college are at elevated risk of gender violence, this is a function of correlation, not causation. It is college-age women who are at elevated risk for gender violence, whether they are attending university or not. So what we are offering women attending a college or university is a level and type of protection from gender violence not afforded other adult women and not replicated elsewhere in society.

To be clear, I am not arguing against improved gender violence prevention education and more effective policies and complaint response at UH. I am suggesting however, that we think carefully before using policy to create sexual conduct rules for adults in a higher education setting that are not legally applicable to young adults in any other milieu. Infantilizing adult students attending college and university because we have collectively failed to address the problem of gender violence on our campuses is not the right answer to this complex problem. It will make an already difficult and historically under-resourced problem at UH even harder to address.

We need to do some really difficult substantive change work if we intend to improve the environment on campus and reduce incidence and prevalence of gender violence.  The most difficult part, ironically, will be not falling into the trap of making policy changes merely to limit the institution’s liability.  There will always be people who care most about that and many of them, unfortunately, hold the purse strings at UH.

But when reducing liability is the primary motivation, decisions are made based on cost-benefit analysis, and some will be short-sighted and simply wrong. In the end, we will wind up in the same boat we’re in right now because we’ve cut corners and avoided the deeper fix. If we think about solving the problem of gender violence on our campuses with a longer view and from a student-oriented perspective, we end up with better prevention and better response programs and as an artifact of those, we will reduce our liability.

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