The affirmative effect

California’s bill to require affirmative consent is a positive step in combatting sexual assault

The state of California is poised to make “yes means yes” the standard of consent for all its private and public universities. Senate Bill 967, if signed by Governor Jerry Brown, would require universities to determine whether a complainant said yes, instead of whether she said no when investigating sexual assault cases.

We have already argued in favor of an “ask first” consent policy, but given the passage of this California bill, which has the potential to set a precedent and make this proposal into a legal reality, we will take this opportunity to renew our support, address some additional counter-arguments and lay out the measures we believe are necessary to implement an affirmative consent policy.

Some opponents of the bill argue it is too intrusive. The Los Angeles Times, for example, published an editorial arguing the bill is “extraordinarily intrusive” because it attempts to “micromanage sex.” Indeed, sex is a personal and private issue. But this bill is not about government or university officials attempting to meddle in people’s bedrooms. The bill is about changing the way university officials conduct sexual misconduct investigations and adjudications. Perpetrators should not be able to use “I didn’t know” as a defense against their charges. Survivors should not feel afraid to file complaints because they are worried they might face questions like, “why didn’t you fight harder?”

Another critique of the bill is that it would lead to “too many punitive situations” for men, as a spokesman for the San Diego-based National Coalition for Men said. But such an argument holds on to the misconception that anti-rape activists are somehow out to get men, which simply is not true. The bill is not about creating more opportunities for women to trap men into a situation in which they cannot defend their innocence. That is why extensive education must accompany a formal change of policy like this — to make sure students know how to follow it.

Education should ideally begin even before students get to college. A Think Progress article by Tara Culp-Ressler suggests comprehensive sex education in schools, starting at kindergarten and going all the way to 12th grade, can teach young people “that they have ownership over their body” and make them “more likely to speak up when they feel that consent has been violated — and perhaps less likely to violate someone else’s consent.” Much of the contention around sex education involves what methods of birth control should be taught, but sex education should not just be about how to avoid pregnancy and STDs. It should also be about how to avoid sexual violence. In some places in America, there is still an intense taboo attached to sex ed, and too many euphemisms are used to talk about it, which could lead young people to believe asking questions about sex is wrong or embarrassing.

Education at all levels about sex and consent will hopefully break down that barrier and make it easier for people to practice affirmative consent. Of course, universities should also continue such education, perhaps by using resident advisors to explain consent policies in small groups in order to ensure every student is aware of the standards.

Sexual assault on college campuses is a big issue, but solving it will require a multi-faceted approach that extends into the world outside higher education. State governments are effective actors in dealing with this issue, because they can not only set requirements for their universities’ policies, but also influence the curricula of their public school systems. This can serve as a powerful combination for combatting sexual assault, and we hope to see it utilized in the future.

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