New Sexual Assault Policy

Some Professors Concerned with Expanded Definition of Sexualized Violence


There will soon be a new policy regarding sexual assault and sexual violence at StFX. In response to concerns about sexual assault, the university administration is proposing a new framework to define sexual assault and sexual violence and to lay out the steps that ought to be taken to respond to these cases. This new policy has been the subject of consultations with faculty and staff, and some faculty have indicated concern about the policy, including philosophy professor Christopher Byrne.

In an email circulated to all faculty, Dr. Byrne outlined his concerns with the policy. He particularly takes issue with the proposed definitions of sexual violence, which he finds far too broad. For example, part of the definition of sexual violence in the new policy reads, “Acts of sexual violence include: unwanted sexual comments or advances; coercion of another person’s sexuality by physical or psychological intimidation; and/or the denial of another person’s sexual decision-making rights.”

As Dr. Byrne writes, “The way in which the new policy defines sexual violen [...] creates a problem: sexual violence will now be defined so broadly that the type of behaviour henceforth subject to punishment will be expanded enormously, far beyond what would normally be considered to be acts of sexual violence. Some of the types of behaviour that would now count as sexual violence sound rather odd; for example, it is hard to see how sexual violence should include the denial of another person’s sexual decision-making rights (this phrase seems to suggest that we are guilty of sexual violence if we deny someone else’s request for sexual favours).”

He also questions the need for this new policy, considering that numerous policies already exist to govern the issue of sexual assault. “We already have several policies on this matter, which collectively govern the conduct of all StFX students, faculty, and staff. Why, then, do we need yet another policy on sexual assault? Why don’t we just enforce the many policies that we already have?” 

Dr. Byrne claims that there are issues with clarity in the policy, which makes it challenging to figure out what exactly constitutes sexual assault under these new rules. “In part, the new definition of sexual assault is rather obscure; violating someone else’s ‘sexual integrity’ is henceforth to be considered sexual assault, but no light is shed on just what ‘sexual integrity’ is.    Most important, among the many types of behaviour that will now count as sexual assault is exercising ‘control’ in such a way as to make someone else feel uncomfortable. In other words, doing anything that would make someone else uncomfortable is now to be considered an act of sexual assault and, therefore, sexual violence.”

In a interview with the Xaverian, Dr. Byrne expanded on this point. This new definition of sexual assault is significantly broader than the criminal code definition. According to the professor, this is a concern for students because of “the notion that if you leave StFX with a conviction of sexual assault, people are going to think of the criminal code definition of sexual assault.”

Dr. Byrne explains that the StFX administration recently informed the faculty that these new rules will only apply to students. “This is more of an issue for students; if what we were told on Wednesday [during consultations with staff] is correct, it won’t apply to faculty and staff.”

The Xaverian also reached out to Women’s and Gender studies professor Rachel Hurst to hear her point of view. She is a member of the committee that helped design the new policy on sexual assault, and she addressed several potential criticisms of the new policy via email. In the email, Dr. Hurst explains what motivated her to seek a new sexual assault policy. 

“Please note that I am not speaking on behalf of the committee, or even as a member of the committee, but rather as a concerned faculty member to whom students disclose sexual assaults, and have done so each year since I came in 2009. They have done this not only because they trust me, but because there has been a shameful lack of information and clear direction available to them on their options [after a sexual assault]. The primary purpose of the policy is to provide a resource and clear framework that spells out options for the students, who have been underserved for so long.” 

Hurst defends the new definition of sexual violence, writing, “Regarding the argument that the definition of ‘sexual violence’ is too broad/vague: In constructing this policy, we have sought out national and international research and best policy practices related to sexualized violence prevention and definitions and approaches to disclosure, reporting, and community education. All of the definitions we have used and policy conclusions we have reached are drawn from policies that have been enacted at other progressive universities in North America, and in consultation with relevant policies at StFX (notably, the Community Code and the Discrimination and Harassment Policy). Part of the challenge, of course, is that in general it is difficult for some to recognize emotional and psychological violence as ‘real’.”