In 2015 any California college or university that receives state financial aid must begin using a "yes means yes" approach toward sexual assault. That means both parties must give ongoing, affirmative consent during any sexual activity. Rather than using a "no means no" approach, the definition of consent under the new legislation requires "an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision" by each party to engage in sexual activity. Per the legislation: “It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.” Under this law, college disciplinary committees will evaluate whether a sexual assault has taken place. Individuals found to have engaged in sexual assault may be expelled from school.
Advocates for the “Yes means Yes” law say it’s long overdue. According to one 2007 study, 1 in 5 college women have been sexually assaulted. Our current cultural approach to sex undeniably puts the onus on women to say "no." We buy into a sexist double standard that characterizes men as incessantly sex-crazed to the point of nonexistent self-control, forcing women to constantly police their partners and protect their purity. "Yes means yes" legislation re-frames sex so that both partners are held accountable for their actions.
Consent legislation doesn't aim to unnecessarily micro-manage autonomous citizens, but rather the opposite: its purpose is to disrupt a problematic social status quo. We live in a "rape culture," or a culture in which sexual violence is normalized, sex is framed in negative terms (we emphasize that "no means no"), and especially couched in rhetoric of blame (of survivors over perpetrators). Affirmative consent turns rape culture on its head and creates a positive, healthy framework of sexuality.
The Huffington Post puts it well: “This legislation teaches us what we can and should do rather than retroactively addressing transgressions. It's not a restriction of our actions, but the opposite: it provides the structure to realize a whole new world of positive possibilities. At the end of the day, the only real solution to eradicating sexual assault will not be found in punitive measures, but in the construction of a society that is educated about and embraces healthy sexuality: a goal at the heart of this law.”
Critics of the “Yes means Yes” law say it’s an example of extreme overreach and sends universities into murky, unfamiliar legal waters. How will campus triers of fact determine whether an “explicit yes” was repeatedly rendered, satisfying the “ongoing” consent requirement? College disciplinary committees have fewer safeguards than criminal courts: often the accused has no right to a lawyer and no chance to cross-examine witnesses. The committees also tend to determine guilt based on a “preponderance of evidence” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt”. This means that the accused can be found guilty if the panel thinks it slightly more likely than not that he is. And disciplinary action is not trivial: being expelled and labeled a rapist can follow a student for the rest of his life and ruin his reputation forever.
According to Joe Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, “Under this consent standard, if one partner touches his or her partner in a sexual way, and the person says ‘I am not interested tonight,’ that person has already committed sexual assault because he or she didn’t get permission upfront. It’s just not consistent with how adults act.”
Furthermore, sexual violence in America has actually declined sharply since the mid-1990s. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, the gold standard for measuring crimes that are often not reported, the proportion of women subjected to rape or sexual assault fell 64% between 1995 and 2005, and declined slightly further by 2010, to 1.1 per 1,000 women per year. The reason some studies show a much greater prevalence of sexual assault is that their definition of assault is so broad, including, for instance, unwanted touching.
So what do you think? Is “Yes means Yes” a long overdue remedy for the epidemic of sexual assault that plagues our campuses and society at large? Or is it an example of overreach that is unnecessarily intrusive and has the potential to ruin lives?