California says yes

California says yes

Fathma Rahman

California Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill (SB) 967 on Aug. 28, which establishes an affirmative consent standard for all California universities and colleges receiving state funding. The bill was passed along to California Governor Jerry Brown, who signed SB 967 on Sept. 29, making California the first state to mandate sexual consent guidelines on all campuses.

According to SB 967, affirmative consent is defined as an unambiguous and conscious decision by each party to engage in a mutually agreed-upon sexual activity. Furthermore, the bill specifies that consent must be ongoing and that it can be revoked at any time, making it the responsibility of each person involved to ensure that he or she still has consent.

A common phrase being associated with the bill is “yes means yes,” a change from the past definition of consent which required one party to prove the presence of a no. With the improved consent policy, both sides must actively seek and express consent, making sex a more positive and mutual process.

Prior to the state’s mandate, the University of California (UC) school system had already implemented the affirmative consent rulings on all eight of its campuses. In an effort to emphasize and address the change to all students, UC schools included a mandatory three-hour session during orientation that focused specifically on sexual assault and alcohol consumption.

“The most powerful part [of the session], in my opinion, was the scenario,” UCLA freshman, Weilly Tong ’14 said. “They had two senior student advisers come to the stage and perform a realistic skit. All of us in the audience were given a red and green card. The narrator would stop at certain points and ask us if there was clear consent. It was interesting to see the mixed answers. There were times where people thought consent was given when there wasn’t. [There were] definitely a lot of mixed views [about] clear, verbal consent.”

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) simplifies consent to be permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something. According to their definition, it is more than a yes or a no—rather, a dialogue about desires, needs and level of comfort with various sexual interactions.

“For most people, there is a gap of knowledge and understanding around how to communicate with a potential partner and how to express your wants and needs and desires, and a lot of people lack the skills to effectively communicate consent,” said Laura Palumbo, Prevention Campaign Specialist at NSVRC. “Our society is a challenging environment to approach healthy sexuality because we often hear mixed messages about sex—especially in the media—that it is not often helpful in conversations about empowering people with proper information about sex.”

However, the problem of sexual assault goes far beyond the miscommunications over the definition of consent. Palumbo explained many of underlying factors that go into the nationwide concern, one of which includes the overbearing pressures of societal standards.

“There are a lot of societal and cultural norms about masculinity and femininity that are pretty unhealthy,” Palumbo said. “There is this idea that men are always seeking sex, so women are often placed in the position of being the gatekeeper to sex, and it becomes an unhealthy message about a power dynamic and women being a sexual commodity.”

There’s also a conflict in that people will consume alcohol as a part of being social and meeting sexual partners, Palumbo said. In the issue of campus sexual assault, many times the environment of the campus and the campus’ drinking culture become contributing factors.

“The problem is that people who are intoxicated cannot consent to sex,” Palumbo said. “So now there’s the conflict that our societal norm to drink is not a state in which someone can consent to sex because they may not be making healthy or appropriate decisions about another individual or themselves.”

Prior to the change in consent rules, UCLA students took an online course called AlcoholEdu & Haven, which focuses on alcohol consumption and sexual violence. Tong said that the online class was rigorous and thorough. Despite UC schools’ extensive measures taken to educate students about the conflict, there are still some who feel that most colleges do not teach it properly.

“When [colleges] do talk to students, it’s very much victim-blaming in the sense that they teach women not to walk alone, to carry a rape whistle—holding the victims accountable,” said Annie E. Clark, co-founder of End Rape on Campus (EROC).

EROC is an advocate group that provides free, legal assistance to students who are interested in changing policy or culture on their campuses. Additionally, EROC educates students about their rights under Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, and other related laws. Clark said that there are federal guidelines and policies that should be able to be applied to all campuses and individual issues.

“The burden of proof of release—whether or not someone could prove that they said no or that they communicated no or disinterest about sexual activity or interaction—has a very victim-blaming perspective, forcing people who have been sexually assaulted to prove that this wasn’t something they wanted or were asking for,” Clark said. “In affirmative consent, we are looking for a yes instead of the presence of a no.”

While Tong feels that affirmative consent is a good idea as no one should be forced into doing something that they don’t want to, he is concerned about how successful the policy will be in practice.

“I feel like having that discussion might not be something that they think about because college students are spontaneous,” Tong said. “It can be hard to always communicate that verbal ‘yes’ so I just don’t know how willing two partners are going to be on discussing consent.”

While some doubts remain, Tong believes that it is a great step in the right direction. However, others feel that the doubt surrounding its practicality is a result of the timing for this conversation.

“Personally, I think we need to be having conversations about this way before college,” Clark said. “If the first time you hear about sexual assault and healthy relationships and consent is at college orientation, then that’s definitely way too late.”

In addition to what the bill will do, Clark feels that more people will be talking about consent and what it means even earlier than college. On the other hand, she acknowledges that it will take a while to see visible change as higher educational institutions continue to revisit their definitions of consent and sexual assault policies. Nonetheless, the necessity for addressing sexual consent remains in high demand.

“Culture changes really slowly, and it’s something we can’t legislate, although some policies are helping a lot,” Clark said. “It’s a huge social justice issue, and it needs time, but we’re getting there. Whatever part individuals play to bring that conversation forward is crucial.”

In terms of the community and societal involvement, Palumbo noted that there is more interest now in trying to involve individuals to stand up and say that this is an issue and work towards a community solution. For the issue of campus sexual assault, she feels that change needs to happen on the societal level. In order to pass new policies and legislation, there is a necessity for consistent requirement how campuses respond to survivors and organize prevention efforts. But ultimately, communication on every level is vital to solving this issue that everyone needs to be involved in ending, according to Palumbo.

“We need to involve people as bystanders to make positive and proactive choices when they observe something that concerns them, to get involved in media advocacy and to challenge unhealthy messages in media that promote rape culture,” Palumbo said. “We need to be promoting healthy sexuality and giving individuals the information and skills to have healthy relationships and also to be able to talk about healthy sexuality in school and community environments.”