Yes means yes. No still means no, but that’s no longer the only determining factor as to whether or not sex was consensual. At least in California, which passed a mandate requiring all students at universities give active consent — as in a verbal or nonverbal "yes" — prior to engaging in sexual activity. The bill, which was approved by the California Legislature and will now make its way towards Gov. Jerry Brown’s office, applies to both public universities and private schools that receive state grants.
The law was created as a response to the unfortunate yet real threat of sexual assault on college campuses. For that, at least, it should be applauded. The state had to do something in response to the issue, which has been left unattended for far too long. The statistic claiming one in four college women have survive rape or attempted rape is an embarrassment, especially considering that it has remained relatively unchanged since the 1980s. The previous policy in California also had no distinction for consent, and only criminalized the continuation of sexual activity if a victim said “no.” The switch to a more active requirement of agreement is smart in theory, but it is still far too vague and difficult to enforce for it to have much practical effect.
Campuses are also being instructed to explain the new sexual assault policies, informing incoming students to speak out against offenders. It’s difficult to change a culture, and the crime of sexual assault is a complex one, but this is at least a step in the right direction. According to advocacy group Preventing Sexual Assault on College Campuses (PACT5), 95% of campus sexual assaults are unreported. 90% of women also know the person who committed the act of sexual assault against them. Sexual assault obviously has to be addressed and enforced more strictly.
The new legislation, however, is too vague for it to have any tangible effect on society. Requiring a verbal yes would be ridiculous, so the law takes nonverbal cues into consideration as well. It’s already difficult enough for student or governmental judicial bodies to listen to both sides of an assault’s rehashed story — especially when alcohol was involved, as it is in 50% of cases— and cues for consent could be implied.
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Instead, college campuses are adopting a policy that will do little to govern instances of abuse. The affirmative consent policy is not a new idea, and it’s good to at least set as a standard, but colleges and the state alike should be thinking of more innovative and effective policies to stop abuse from occurring. It’s easier said than done, of course, and at least California is trying to do something.