Will "Yes Means Yes" Consent Laws Work?

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Critical examination of the way we treat sexual assault cases on college campuses is finally going mainstream. This past weekend, California governor Jerry Brown signed a "yes means yes" definition of consent into law.
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As campus sexual assault cases continue to show up in the news, a firm definition of consent is absolutely crucial. Recent statistics from the CDC indicate that almost one in five women will be raped in her lifetime, with 80% of first incidents happening before the victim is 24. The stats for men are similarly striking: In one study, one in five male high school and college students who had experienced sexual coercion said it lead to having sex against his will.
The new law, pushed by democratic L.A. senator Kevin de Leon, defines consent on college campuses as "an affirmative, unambiguous, and conscious decision" made by each person involved. And, that consent "must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time." With this change, any college taking the state's financial-aid funding will have to agree to the new definition. This means that "no" still means "no" — but also that colleges and their students can no longer assume a lack of protest counts as consent.
With this definition, we can hopefully move forward in finding more effective ways of preventing sexual assault. Although telling young women to protect themselves seems like a practical solution on the surface, it places responsibility on the potential victim rather than the potential perpetrator. In the long term, that doesn't really solve anything.
Thankfully, one online training program has been proven effective at improving male students' understanding of true consent. After going through the program's RealConsent training, students were more likely to empathize with rape victims and less likely to believe myths surrounding rape.
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In another effort to address these issues, Sandton Technologies released the Good2Go consent app last week. The app asks involved parties for their intoxication level and their consent to move forward. Although having to use an app seems a little unwieldy (and its security issues aren't exactly reassuring), the fact that it's now an option indicates that we're starting to rethink our ideas about what constitutes consent, who gives it, and how we can make asking for it as easy and normal as possible — without undercutting its importance.
However, as Time points out, consent is often inferred through nonverbal cues, and having the big ol' government dictate how those should play out can seem invasive. And, while the new law isn't quite as extreme, it does brings reminders of the unsexy Antioch College rules of the '90s, which required sexual partners to ask for consent at every single step of the interaction, every single time. Still, unambiguous consent is clearly becoming increasingly needed, and it's easiest to clear up ambiguity by speaking your intentions aloud.
So, the change from "no means no" to "yes means yes" feels necessary. Not just because it clarifies these previously-gray areas of consent, but also because it signals a more positive, emerging change in the way we view young women's sexual experiences. We are beginning to understand that sex isn't something that just happens to women; they are (at least, they should be) active participants in the experience. Which means they should be both empowered enough to make their own decisions — whatever those may be — and safe enough to know those decisions will be respected. All of that starts with understanding and acknowledging that only "yes" means "yes."
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