New law defines sexual consent
Sexual assault is an underreported crime on college campuses across the country.
But that may be changing, thanks to a new California law that will redefine when “yes means yes.”
California has become a pioneer in the effort to change the way sexual assault is handled at universities. On Sunday, Sept. 28, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law Senate Bill 967, which will clarify consent on university campuses across the state. The law now requires affirmative consent for sexual activity and mandates that colleges receiving state funds adopt standards for investigating sexual misconduct. The law is the first of its kind.
University of San Diego, which receives state funding through grants and financial aid programs, will be one of the colleges affected by the legislation.
The school is currently in the process of reviewing the law to see how it will impact current policies, according to Dean of Students Donald Godwin, PhD. No changes have been made so far, but Godwin said that administrators would meet in the next week to discuss any necessary revisions.
Senior Daniela Dunham said that a more concrete definition of consent will allow victims to feel more comfortable in reporting assaults.
“I think this is a good thing because it’ll promote people to come forward and talk about their experiences and know that there is a law to back them up,” Dunham said. “If they can 100 percent point to it and say, ‘I did not say yes’, it makes them feel their argument will be taken as more legitimate.”
Kathleen Thomas, a Campus Assault and Resource Education advocate at USD, says that the law is an important progressive step in changing the stigma that is often attached to sexual assault.
“The biggest piece of the consent law is that it’s an intent to change the culture,” Thomas said. “The reality is that sex should never be wasted; it’s one of the biggest gifts you can give another individual. This law is a great step in changing the culture of blaming victims for not explicitly saying ‘no.’”
The law is a change from the ubiquitous “no means no” message of many rape awareness campaigns. Many advocates believe this idea creates a gray area for situations when alcohol and other influences may hinder a victim’s ability to say no, and places the responsibility to avoid assault solely in the hands of the victim.
A report from the Department of Public Safety states that in 2013, there were five forcible sex offenses reported at USD. Four occurred in on-campus residence halls.
Studies show that an estimated one in five women is assaulted during college. Yet just 11 percent of incidents on campuses are reported, a figure that drops to 8 percent when alcohol is a factor.
Thomas attributes these numbers to a fear that victims will face blame or inaction, and hopes that the new law will change that.
“I think it’s a combination of hoping more people will come forward saying ‘Now I feel empowered to make that distinction between thinking [it’s a] violation and knowing,” Thomas said. “And also empowering women and men, all people, to feel like they have the absolute, innate human right and responsibility to not only say ‘yes’ but make sure they’re receiving that ‘yes’ from someone else.”
The director of the Center for Health and Wellness, Melissa Halter, said research shows that the No. 1 reason students choose not to report assault is a fear of not being believed.
“The messages they hear after they have been sexually assaulted or violated has them going, ‘Did this really happen to me? I’m unsure; I don’t want this to be the truth,’” Halter said. “A key piece for us is to do as much as possible to learn tools to support victims so they can move to a place of feeling like, as a survivor, they are going to be heard.”
USD already has an affirmative consent policy in place. The school’s code of conduct defines consent as: “An affirmative decision to engage in mutually acceptable sexual activity given by clear action or words.” This parallels the “yes means yes” definition given by the new legislation.
The law also requires university school boards to create partnerships with on-campus and community organizations that provide assistance services to students. It mandates that universities implement prevention and outreach programs to address sexual assault and dating violence.
In November 2013, USD’s president convened a sexual assault steering committee of many faculty and staff members from across campus to revise the school’s protocols for dealing with sexual assault cases.
Karen Briggs, a co-chair of the committee and USD’s Title IX coordinator, said the committee had three main purposes: reviewing and updating policies in the context of new laws, enhancing educational efforts to prevent assault on campus, and forming a task force to assess and improve the on-campus climate surrounding sexual assault. The committee will continue to meet as a part of the ongoing effort to address sexual misconduct.
One of the recent initiatives started by the committee is a mandatory video training on sexual assault education and prevention. The training is required for all students, faculty and staff.
The dialogue around sexual assault prevention has long focused mainly on women because women make up the majority of victims in reported incidences.
Godwin thinks the new law will help reframe the conversation surrounding sexual assault to include men.
“I think the ‘yes means yes’ change allows us the opportunity to engage men more specifically around this than in the past,” Godwin said. “Men often don’t see sexual assault as a problem in their view, and this gives them more responsibility.”
This California legislation comes at a time when sexual assault has moved into the national spotlight. The White House recently launched its “It’s On Us” campaign, an effort to eliminate assault on college campuses. In May, the U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation on 55 universities for possibly violating federal law in their handling of sexual misconduct cases. USD was not included in the investigation.
The law is meant to encourage universities to take a more proactive approach in combating sexual assault by improving on-campus resources and educating student bodies.
Senior Johnny Rice believes it’s important for students to help address the problem.
“[Sexual assault] is repulsive and more awareness needs to be brought to the issue,” Rice said. “We as a university need to make a community that is safe for everyone.”