Very rarely is there a time when students, who are inundated with so much other work, can keep up with the administrative actions of Lewis & Clark College. So, I’m unsurprised a change to the school’s Sexual Misconduct Policy went unnoticed by the student body. But the policy changes the administration makes, however seemingly abstract, will have an effect on the daily lives of students, and therefore should carry significant weight in student discourse.
The Sexual Misconduct Policy was substantively expanded in 2012 to recognize multiple “forms of prohibited conduct,” like intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation, “non-consensual sexual contact” and “non-consensual sexual intercourse.” On Sept. 7, 2016, the Executive Council, comprised of school administrators, further revised the policy, replacing “non-consensual sexual intercourse,” with “non-consensual sexual penetration.” Students were not notified.
Nonconsensual sexual intercourse and nonconsensual sexual penetration effectively accomplish the same goal, policy wise, and it’s not a huge change from the previous edition. Why this choice of words is certainly the question, but also why the change at all?
The issue is that both words have specific connotations that communicate different expectations. The word penetration necessitates a specific motion of one person inserting “any object or body part” into another person, which describes a discrete event, whereas intercourse happens over a continuous stretch of time and doesn’t have to include penetration. However, the policy initially defined “nonconsensual sexual intercourse” specifically as nonconsensual sexual penetration. Intercourse, then, could be criticized as vague, while penetration is arguably more straightforward.
Either word can be criticized as heteronormative, or as only legitimizing the type of sexual assault committed by men onto women, when in reality, sexual assault can happen to anyone of any gender or sexual orientation. This analysis helps us understand how words alienate certain populations whose sexual behaviors might not include penetration, and how changing the policy from “intercourse” to “penetration” might create a hierarchy of sexual acts.
Let’s look at the bigger picture. Instead of why is “penetration” a better or worse word than “intercourse,” I wonder why either is necessary. What is insufficient enough about non-consensual sexual contact that it might not include non-consensual sexual penetration or intercourse in its definition? Does the revision excuse some types of sexual misconduct, or lessen the severity of the perpetrator’s disciplinary conclusion just because there was no penetration involved as they sexual assaulted someone?
I believe the way our policy is structured communicates to those who look into it, either for investigative purposes or because they access it to seek reparation after a non-consensual sexual event, that as long as you weren’t penetrated, it probably couldn’t have been that bad.
On Sept. 7, 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos called for schools to specify their “incredibly broad definitions of assault and harassment” in order to prevent false accusations and protect the rights of the accused. DeVos’s claim that “actual” harassment is lost in the ether of ambiguous definitions of sexual misconduct fails to account for how a too specific policy could do the same by creating a hierarchy of sexual behaviors.
What do Betsy DeVos, the LC administration and I all have in common? We all believe in due process. But the application of due process necessitates that those historically underserved, specifically the survivors of sexual assault, are equally protected. I believe that the college has structures in place to assist survivors of sexual misconduct. However, its most recent attempt to bring clarity to the Sexual Misconduct policy deserves criticism. If not for the change itself, at least for its failure to communicate that change to the student body.
Corrections 10/6/17, 3:18 p.m.:
An earlier version of the article misstated the date when the Sexual Misconduct Policy changes occurred. The changes were made Sept. 7, 2016, not Sept. 7, 2017.
Language was added to clarify the Sexual Misconduct Policy’s definition of “intercourse.”
Additional language was changed to improve clarity.