A bill introduced in California on Monday would enshrine “affirmative consent” into state law — essentially, requiring college students to obtain explicit consent before engaging in sexual activity. State Sen. Kevin de León (D), the primary sponsor of the legislation, believes that updating the definition of consent for on-campus rape cases will help remove some of the current burden that’s placed on victims.
The criminal approach to rape cases typically requires the victim to prove that they said “no.” Affirmative consent, however, is the central tactic in a cultural shift that requires both sexual partners to say “yes” in order for their following encounter to be considered consensual. Instead of requiring a woman to constantly police her boundaries, this approach requires her partner to simply ask first instead of assuming that it’s okay to keep going.
“The measure will change the equation so the system is not stacked against the survivors,” de León explained in a press conference this week. “There’s nothing that’s vague, there’s nothing that’s ambiguous to this equation right here.”
The proposed legislation would prevent alleged rapists from citing drunkenness or drug use as a defense for not realizing that the sexual encounter wasn’t consensual. It also strengthens victims’ rights to remain anonymous after they report a sexual crime on campus, and requires California universities to maintain relationships with rape crisis centers that can be available to assist victims.
So far this year, California lawmakers have been particularly focused on policy solutions to address colleges’ inadequate sexual assault policies, following headlines about Occidental College’s failures in this area. Last month, a lawmaker in the state’s General Assembly introduced a different bill that would crack down on colleges that fail to report rape cases in an attempt to avoid bad publicity.
This isn’t an issue specific to California; across the country, student activists have been rallying to demand better sexual assault policies on campus. Just 12 percent of Americans think that higher education institutions are doing a good job responding to rape cases. At the end of January, President Obama announced the creation of a new federal task force that will be responsible for recommending a better way forward on this issue.
Rape prevention advocates agree that tackling the issue of sexual assault among students requires proactive strategies to educate students about how to negotiate consent. Many student groups have taken it upon themselves to hold events and run campaigns that emphasize consent, but the issue also needs backing from college administrations. That doesn’t necessarily require a lot of effort on the university’s end. For instance, Yale recently garnered praise for sending out a memo that clarified the school’s definition of consent and offered specific examples of the correct way to obtain consent for students’ reference.