Standing in front of a crowd of incoming students and their parents in Baker Ballroom during Bobcat Student Orientation, Dean of Students Jenny Hall-Jones teaches consent through a metaphor: ordering pizza.
Before launching into her annual talk, she highlights the problems associated with the baseball metaphor for sex, an analogy that compares sexual activities to reaching bases on a baseball diamond. The baseball metaphor turns sex into a competition, Hall-Jones said, something she believes is unnecessary.
“I feel like we should talk about sexuality the way we order pizza,” Hall-Jones said. “I go into why I think that’s important, because it’s consensual and communicative.”
She gives an example in which she asks the audience to think back to the last time they ordered pizza with someone they didn’t know.
“‘What do you do? What kind of pizza do you like? Are you allergic to anything? Is there anything off limits?’ You work through this before you even get to order,” Hall-Jones said.
While giving the pizza talk, Ohio University’s definition of consent — policy 03.004 — is pulled up on a screen.
Policy 03.004 defines consent as an informed, knowing and voluntary agreement to a sexual act. It must be clear and unambiguous for each participant, and consent to some sexual acts does not equal consent to other acts.
The State of Ohio, however, does not have a definition of consent. That can lead to a different outcome when a person accused of sexual assault goes through procedures with the Office of Equity and Civil Rights Compliance at OU compared to when that person goes through legal proceedings.
Ohio University is not the only university to define consent differently than state law. The Ohio State University, the largest university in Ohio, defines consent as being active and states it must be given by words or actions. Miami University defines consent as knowing and voluntary verbal or non-verbal agreement between participants to engage in every sexual act.
The only Mid-American Conference university in Ohio that does not explicitly define consent differently than the state is the University of Akron. The school has not established a separate definition for what constitutes consent, UA Spokesperson Wayne Hill said.
The lack of definition at the state level generally doesn’t match the precedent many colleges set for students.
“There is no black-and-white definition of consent,” Athens County Prosecuting Attorney Keller Blackburn said. “We’ve been told if you consume alcohol, you can no longer consent. That’s not true, not in Ohio.”
There are also major differences in the way sexual assault cases are handled between the university and the legal system.
At the university level, a report is filed through the Office of Equity and Civil Rights Compliance. The office will inform the Title IX coordinator, Sara Trower, as well as local law enforcement if the report indicates sexual violence or other felonies have been committed. Once ECRC decides a matter will proceed, a joint investigation will be conducted by ECRC and the Office of Community Standards and Student Responsibility. Following the investigation, the investigative team will write a report, and pre-hearing meetings with the complainant and respondent will take place separately.
Next, if the respondent does not accept responsibility after a pre-hearing meeting, a hearing will be conducted. The hearing authority will use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, also known as the standard of proof, to make their decision about whether the policy was violated. A notice of final determination will be issued at the conclusion of the investigation.
The university’s investigations of sexual assaults are more informal than court proceedings, Elizabeth Pepper, chief assistant Athens County prosecutor, said.
When the state charges sexual assault cases, the alleged offenders go to a grand jury, where it is decided whether they are indicted. Once an indictment has been filed, they enter a pretrial phase where they either get a public defender to serve as their attorney, or they hire private counsel, Pepper said.
“(State statutes and code of conducts are) two very different worlds, and sometimes they come out with two different results,” Pepper said. “I’ve read results from hearings at OU that sometimes it will go one way, and I think of it a different way, but I mean that’s just how the cookie crumbles when you’re dealing with those two things.”
Hall-Jones acknowledged that consent standards outside the university are “a whole other ball of wax,” but she said she still values putting the university’s definition of consent out in the open.
“You’re trying to educate students on what consent is, and there could be 18 different definitions,” Hall-Jones said. “That’s why we try to make sure our definition and what we’re gonna do is out there.”
The reason for the pizza talk, originally found in a TED talk from sex educator Al Vernacchio, is to open a dialogue about what consent means at OU.
Brendan Hogan, a sophomore studying finance, said there are “multiple levels” of consent and that mutual agreement is required for each level.
“I think there are some strong levels of nonverbal communication,” Hogan said. “I think there’s a spectrum that leads to risks; I guess if there is any area of uncertainty, verbal would probably be best.”
Addie Brown, a sophomore studying psychology, said consent has to be verbal, even though OU policy states consent can be nonverbal.
“Consent is you ... giving a verbal, a very blunt type of answer,” Brown said. “Anything that’s not ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ to me, is not consent.”
She said she remembers Hall-Jones’ pizza talk, but she can’t always remember the meaning behind it.
“It’s something that definitely sticks with people, the idea of the pizza,” Brown said. “But the actual meaning behind it, I always kind of forget.”
Though people might not remember the specifics of the pizza talk, Hall-Jones said in an email her talk is only “one piece of a comprehensive strategy to educate people about consent and healthy relationships.”
Martha Compton, director of Community Standards and Student Responsibility, said she hopes students go beyond the policy.
“We certainly hope that students are … having really in-depth conversations,” Compton said. “We know that’s not always going to happen.”
She said she thinks OU’s definition of consent is realistic.
“Just because that question wasn’t asked and answered verbally doesn’t mean that there weren’t positive words or actions or affirmative words or actions that lead to an understanding of consent,” Compton said.
Hall-Jones believes OU’s policy is an affirmative consent policy, which means any sexual activity is known, voluntary and mutual.
“We teach this higher level of what we want people to use as consent,” Hall-Jones said. “We hold people to our policy.”