Rep. Erin Murphy discusses sexual consent legislation

Rep. Erin Murphy spoke on campus about a proposed legislation to help prevent sexual assault at colleges and institutions. Photo by Justine Brown.
Rep. Erin Murphy spoke on campus about a proposed legislation to help prevent sexual assault at colleges and institutions. Photo by Justine Brown.

Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, must believe in the old adage, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ She held a public discussion about sexual consent policy on college campuses Wednesday evening at SCSU, in hopes of gathering public opinion on legislation she plans to propose that will potentially prevent thousands of college students and employees from experiencing the trauma of sexual assault. She started the meeting by explaining some key points of the bill, and then opened the discussion up for comment.

The bill, HF 1689, will require public colleges and universities in Minnesota to adopt “sexual assault and sexual harassment policies to contain an affirmative consent standard” and will require campuses to implement sexual harassment and sexual violence outreach prevention programs.

Currently, the MnSCU Sexual Violence Policy defines consent to sexual activity as “informed, freely given and mutually understood.”

The bill that Rep. Murphy is proposing differs from the current policy’s definition in that it states as one of its provisions that “all parties to sexual activity must express affirmative consent. Consent must be active. Consent must be given by words or actions that create mutually understandable, unambiguous permission regarding the willingness to engage in, and the conditions of, sexual activity.” Another provision of the bill is that “consent may be withdrawn at any time,” which is not expressly stated in current SCSU policy.

Jessica Nyman, a Minnesota House employee assisting Rep. Murphy on HF 1689, further explained affirmative consent at the meeting.

“Changing the consent standard means changing the standard from a lack of a ‘no’ to an affirmative ‘yes,’” said Nyman.

Affirmative consent has already been implemented on many campuses across the country, including the University of Minnesota, after California passed a law mandating public colleges and universities to adopt affirmative consent policies.

One of the challenges of implementing an affirmative consent policy, in addition to the passing of the bill itself, would be making students and faculty aware of the new policy and what it means. This was a big point of discussion at Wednesday night’s meeting. Attendees discussed ways to implement a culture shift on campuses, not just new policies. One idea was requiring all syllabi to include information on the affirmative consent standard, were the bill to pass.

Benjamin Bol, a student at SCSU, talked about the need for a change in attitude among many of the students on campus.

“A lot of guys have this attitude of, ‘I’m getting laid tonight,’” said Bol. “A culture change is the biggest thing we need. People need to get it in their heads that you can be an assailant too.”

Britton Mikkelson, president of SCSU College Democrats and organizer of the event, explained why changing the policies to contain an affirmative consent standard is important.

“[Sexual assault] is still an issue because people aren’t clarifying that it’s not a ‘no’, it’s not a ‘stop’, it’s a ‘yes’. You should not be looking for the ‘no’, you should be looking for the ‘yes’ in a situation like that,” said Mikkelson. She also said that the issue of sexual assault on college campuses is something she is passionate about and plans to fight against throughout her life. She explained how this issue affects her personally, as a student.

“My roommate and I have to make sure that we get off work at the same time so we don’t get assaulted on our way home at night…it feels like walking home at night is dangerous,” said Mikkelson. She explained how these types of precautions have limited her ability to make more money by working late hours, and to study late hours away from home. Another reason she plans to fight against sexual assault is to help protect future generations.

“I have a 9-year-old sister…and when she goes to high school and college, this issue is still going to be here, which scares me,” said Mikkelson. “I don’t want my sister, or the young people coming after me to feel like they’re in a battlefield. School shouldn’t be dangerous.”

Rep. Murphy echoed these sentiments when she explained why she is spearheading this legislation.

“It’s important to me that kids are able to navigate this part of their young lives with their own authority and I think education is a part of that,” said Murphy. “As a parent with kids who’ve come through college I want to make sure that students that are coming through universities and colleges in Minnesota are coming to a place that is safe, where they can learn and live the life of their choosing. It’s an important element to their education.”

The next legislative session begins March 8, 2016.

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