We need to change the way we talk about sexual misconduct, specifically in regard to consent. Though recent activism throughout the entertainment industry and college campuses has sparked outcry for such change, policies regarding affirmative consent, as well as societal engagement about consent, still lacks nationwide. We still see consent as something that is nonchalantly given, something obscure, rather than something that is continuously and affirmatively given. Addressing this core problem and misconception about consent will lead us to legislation that specifically addresses explicit and affirmative consent.
California was the first state to pass a “Yes Means Yes” law, SB 967, in 2014, which established a new standard that requires “affirmative consent — affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity — throughout the encounter, removing ambiguity for both parties.” This law attempts to alleviate the blame and weight on survivors that misogynistic and victim-blaming rhetoric such as “no means no” has created. With “Yes Means Yes” policies and laws, pressure or responsibility to resist unwanted sexual encounters is replaced with holding perpetrators accountable for their actions. These policies shift the burden from the survivor and what “proof” they have to support their case and demand of the perpetrator for proof of affirmative and enthusiastic consent throughout the entirety of the encounter. Unfortunately, California is the only state that has passed and enacted statewide college and high school affirmative consent legislation like “Yes Means Yes,” and though many states have legislation regarding campus sexual misconduct, none specifically address affirmative consent in the way California’s law does.
In regard to college campuses, very few universities have affirmative consent policies. Institutions like the University of Indiana distinctly address consent in their conduct policies, starting off with defining consent as “an agreement expressed through affirmative, voluntary words or actions, and mutually understandable to all parties involved, to engage in a specific sexual act at a specific time.” The University of Indiana is joined by several other institutions such as the University of Minnesota, University of Virginia, Texas A&M, and many others in setting the standard for not only collegiate affirmative consent policies, but also sexual misconduct policies as a whole.
The more effort we put into defining and understanding consent, the more this conversation will influence policy change at the collegiate level and state level. With affirmative consent laws, there is less victim-blaming and shaming. Perpetrators are put on the spot for the acknowledgment, understanding, and awareness of affirmative consent. Their actions cannot be dismissed due to claims such as having consent in the beginning of the encounter, or being in a dating or sexual relationship with the survivor previously. These excuses will not work anymore with these laws.
The groundbreaking efforts by the state of California and the several colleges with affirmative consent policies are an example of how to approach consent both on and off college campuses. As we look forward to more of these types of policies and laws to be passed and enacted, we as human beings can do better in how we approach the topic of consent.
We must stop placing the blame on victims and start holding those accountable who break and violate the voluntary, affirmative, and conscious agreement to engage in sexual activity, and we can do this by first acknowledging the necessity of conscious and affirmative consent.