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Elizabeth Armstrong Identifies How Sexual Misconduct Policies Perpetuate Inequality

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Aug 26 2019

Stanford’s website provides prospective students and their parents with a treasure trove of information. By clicking a few links, applicants can learn about Stanford’s tuition,admission processand undergraduate programs. They also can learn about the types of financial assistance, athletic programs, and student organizations Stanford offers. 


 

But what about Stanford’s sexual misconduct policy? The school’s policy (Administrative Guide 1.7.3, found here) provides information about how Stanford will respond to allegations of sexual harassment and assault. According to University of Michigan Professor and CASBS Fellow Elizabeth Armstrong, “When parents are deciding where to send their kids to school, they’re probably not reading the sexual misconduct policies and thinking about them.”

But perhaps they should be.

 

 

 

 

At a Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows presentation in May, Armstrong revealed how the scope and content of sexual misconduct policies can vary – sometimes dramatically – from one university to the next.

Working in collaboration with Sandra Levitsky at the University of Michigan, Armstrong is gathering data about how 381 U.S. universities are defining and responding to sexual violence. Their sample includes state flagship schools, women’s colleges, the Ivy league, historically black colleges and universities, and four-year residential schools. 

photo of Armstrong
Armstrong

 

In addition to analyzing each school’s sexual misconduct policy, Armstrong and Levitsky are conducting in-depth case studies at several schools, interviewing key personnel, and documenting the rapidly changing cultural and political debates around the topic of sexual violence. Data collection began in 2016, and Armstrong and Levitsky will continue collecting data at least through 2021.

During her presentation at the Clayman Institute, Armstrong shared preliminary results from this National Science Foundation-funded project.

Take, for example, the definition of consent. At Stanford, consent is defined as, “An affirmative nonverbal act or verbal statement expressing consent to sexual activity by a person that is informed, freely given and mutually understood.”

 Stanford’s sexual misconduct policy also includes clear guidelines about what doesn’tcount as consent. Consenting to one act doesn’t automatically constitute consent to another act. A lack of protest or resistance does not count as consent. Silence is not consent. Being in a relationship does not confer consent, nor do anyone’s prior sexual relations.

However, if a student were to attend the University of New Hampshire, they would also be expected to consider their partner’s level of enthusiasm prior to engaging in any sexual activity. 

“What counts as sexual violence is absolutely politically contested. It varies enormously from school to school, from region to region. One of the implications for inequality is that some students may go to a school that has a very broad definition of what kinds of things count as sexual misconduct. Other students may go to schools with extremely narrow definitions.” Unlike Stanford, UNH’s policy clarifies that unclear answers like “I think so” are not the same as receiving an enthusiastic response. To ensure students understand the difference, they even provide examples of what enthusiastic consent might sound like, including, “Yes! Do it! I want it. Give it to me. Yes, Yes, YES!”

But not all schools are even providing students with a clear definition of consent. 

Armstrong is finding that many sexual misconduct codes are written in a manner that is virtually impossible to decode. For example, one school in Armstrong’s sample defines consent as, “Whether or not specifically stated, it is an element of every offense defined in this article, with the exception of subdivision (a)(3) of Section 13A-6-65, that the sexual act was committed without consent of the victim.”

“What counts as sexual violence is absolutely politically contested. It varies enormously from school to school, from region to region. One of the implications for inequality is that some students may go to a school that has a very broad definition of what kinds of things count as sexual misconduct. Other students may go to schools with extremely narrow definitions.” 

And the differences don’t stop there. 

Some schools – especially religious institutions – prohibit students from having sex outside of marriage. Some ban students from engaging in same-sex sex acts. Others prohibit students from dancing provocatively or viewing pornography. Still others prohibit students from expressing a desire to live as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. 

“And of course these schools have a huge problem figuring out how to adjudicate [sexual violence] because many sexual situations also yield violations of their student code of conduct, and sometimes [universities] still expel the individual who has been victimized.”

Armstrong, a professor of Sociology and Organizational Studies at the University of Michigan, has written extensively on gender, sexuality, education, organizations, and social movements. As a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behaviorial Sciences (CASBS), Armstrong has spent the 2018-19 academic year at Stanford, where she is collaborating with three other CASBS fellows, Estelle Freedman, Jennifer Freyd and Vanessa Tyson,  about interdisciplinary approaches to sexual violence research. Her co-authored book Paying for the Party (Harvard University Press, 2013) – which shows how universities create contexts in which sexual violence is a predictable result – received the American Sociological Association Distinguished Scholarly Book Award in 2015.

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