No matter the cause -- whether it's our lack of comprehensive sex education, an ingrained rape culture, or ignorant institutional policies -- the fact remains: sexual assault is a serious issue on college campuses across the country. The numbers don't lie: One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime and women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience rape at a rate four times higher than the general assault rate of all women. As many as 1 in 5 women will experience attempted or completed rape during their time at college - a statistic indubitably mirrored by the fact that 86 colleges are currently under investigation for Title IX violations. Countless courageous activists are rallying and creatively performing in protest. But should these efforts work, should school administrations and legislators actually listen and pledge to take action, many want to know: what exactly are we asking for? What can truly be done to eradicate assault?
Yesterday, the state of New York offered a potential answer to these questions by enacting a universal "affirmative consent" standard as part of the sexual assault prevention policy required for the state's public university system. California was the first to adopt such measures in September when it implemented affirmative consent legislation that clarifies standards that legally determine sexual assault. The legislation states that neither "lack of protest or resistance" nor "silence" constitutes consent, but that rather consent must be "ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time."
These bills have been met with divided responses. But there are (at least) four reasons why affirmative consent education may prove to be a valuable demand for anti-sexual assault activists to invoke.
1. It questions ridiculous gendered double standards.
Our current cultural approach to sex undeniably put 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 and women's value as equated with their virginity. Rather than 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. This legislation exchanges an imbalanced culture of victim blaming for shared responsibility rooted in equality. And while this dialogue admittedly exists in a heterosexist framework in the mainstream media, it's certainly a principle that can be implemented in a same-sex partnership (and, frankly, in any relationship of any type).
2. It helps both partners know what they're doing is okay.
Opponents frequently claim anti-sexual assault activists inappropriately label too many sexual acts as rape and believe that individuals should approach each sexual encounter assuming they will experience assault. In reality, most people don't (and shouldn't) approach sex in this way and neither does this legislation. "Yes means Yes" legislation doesn't work from an assumption of lack of consent, but rather that one can't enter with any preconceived notions about consent. Consent under this legislation is situationally specific, not culturally assumed: it must be obtained every time you have sex. It would seem that this framework only benefits everyone by clarifying the situation - especially those that (falsely) believe women approach sex from a perpetually accusatory stance.
3. It promotes healthy sexuality on a societal level.
Opponents also seem to take issue with what they see as the government paternalistically interfering in the most intimate acts of individuals' lives. However, 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 (1 in 6 women has survived rape), 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. It argues that "yes means yes" rather than "no means no," that perpetrators are to blame for their own acts and that we should teach them not to rape rather than their targets to prevent them from doing so.
Affirmative consent further encourages a culture of preventing sexual assault -- of education and precautions intended to stop assault before it happens -- rather than our current system that (completely inadequately) addresses assault after the fact. 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.
4. It's a turn on.
Before individuals actually practice enthusiastic consent, they assume it will be a disruptive mood killer. They somehow believe that clearly stating their desire to have sex with their partner is a turn off. To that I'll simply say this: try it. You just might find that having your partner enthusiastically agree that they want to have sex with you, and personally entering the encounter with a fully positive mindset, isn't so bad after all.