If you’re a college student, you’ve most likely heard that “no means no”. Universities around the United States have taken multiple approaches to the sexual assault epidemic affecting our campuses, offering mandatory orientations, campus advocates and social media campaigns, all under the premise that if you’re uncomfortable with something, speak up. But many fail to recognize that the problem with this logic is that it blames sexual assault on the victim for not clearly saying no. For all intents and purposes, ambivalence and silence under “no means no” are the same as tacit consent. In light of 55 universities being federally investigated for their handling of sexual assault cases, California lawmakers unanimously passed SB-967, or “Yes Means Yes”, providing a new definition of consent that challenges the outdated and victim-blaming status quo. Current university systems shame survivors and sweep allegations under the rug, but under “Yes Means Yes” the burden of proof will be shifted from the victim to the partner advancing sexual activity as consensual sex is only when both parties clearly state their consent. This is a much-needed challenge to the pervasive rape culture of the United States, and will encourage universities to stop blaming survivors of sexual assault, and instead prosecute their aggressors.
SB-967, recently signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, affects all California universities that are state funded or receive state money for financial aid. It requires “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity,” and allows universities to take a proactive approach against aggressors. This is a groundbreaking development, as survivors generally must convince skeptical officials that they were indeed assaulted, and face non-confidential reporting along with accusations that they should have behaved differently. Protracted legal processes and victim shaming decrease chances of victims even reporting their cases, leaving the aggressor unpunished and with the idea that not only can he/she get away with future assault but that their actions did not even constitute sexual assault. This compounds to a larger problem as a 2007 US Department of Justice study reports that 1 in 5 women become victims of sexual assault in college. In redefining consensual sex and sexual assault, SB-967 will hopefully prevent sexual assault and give victims the confidence to report their cases. It successfully shifts the burden of proof to the perpetrator because unlike current laws, it makes aggressors prove that they asked for and received consent, rather than subjecting victims to interrogation about why they didn’t say no.
The “Yes Means Yes” bill has its supporters as well as its opponents. Opponents claim that the government is overstepping its boundaries into territory that is already confusing, that the bill will unfairly target men, and that the law is vague. For example, legislators have defined consent in various ways. some claiming that explicit verbal consent is necessary, others offering that nonverbal consent through body language is a possibility. Cathy Young, a writer for Reason Magazine, stated that the bill “sounds like a prescription for overthinking” because “both partners have to pay more attention to whether they’re feeling enthusiastic.” But this “overthinking” is exactly what should happen – to argue that one should not pay attention to their partner’s wishes or consider their own actions is irresponsible, and part of America’s ever-present rape culture. Young also finds issues with affirmative consent advocates rely on “guilt-tripping” strategies. Those who have committed sexual assault absolutely should feel guilty. And the only way to prevent future assaults is to make those who are not yet assailants understand why their actions would have consequences, and how they affect countless students. Those who feel as though the bill targets men seem to forget the victims of campus assault cases.
This is not the first time a bill like “Yes Means Yes” has been presented and ridiculed. In 1993, Antioch College received national attention for passing a similar policy, which outlined that consent must be verbal, mutual, and reiterated. It also suggested that sexual assault not only affects the victim, but the entire campus community. This spurred national controversy, and was even ridiculed in a Saturday Night Live sketch called “Is It Date Rape?”. But Antioch had it right – the way to ensure that rape cases are reported is to instill confidence in the community that action will be taken against the aggressors. The universal passing of “Yes Means Yes” is a revolutionary moment. We constantly hear horrendous stories like that of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee fraternity, which created a color-coded date rape drug system to use at parties. Even if women follow the “monitor your drinks and stay close to a friend” advice, that won’t change the mindset of those who feel entitled to sex. The only thing that will fight college rape culture is a promise of action against the perpetrators. And though this may be the “guilt-tripping” that Young refers to, preventing more students from being assaulted is worth it.
This bill is common sense, and is a concrete solution that allows university officials to take action in sexual assault cases. It is a monumental step forward and a breath of fresh air in a culture that often asks the victims, not the aggressors, what they did wrong. While the education initiatives that many schools have started are necessary parts of the equation to preventing assault, SB-967’s new definition of consent creates guidelines that will help create a culture that no longer blames the victim.