A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control found that 1 in 5 American women have been raped in their lifetimes. This news comes at a time when publicity surrounding the pervasive nature of sexual violence on college campuses has reached a crescendo. Today, several student and faculty groups have filed Title IX lawsuits demanding justice for survivors of assault and college administrations recently received an open letter from the White House demanding a reevaluation of school wide policy and immediate action on this issue.
But violence against women, and particularly sexual violence, are not new issues. Women have sought legal remedies to protect themselves from these threats for centuries. Historically, however, such violence has been dismissed as a “private matter” or “grey rape” (referring to non-stranger assaults like acquaintance, or date rape). As such it has been difficult to construct effective policy and a legal apparatus that prevents and punishes such violence. This centuries old challenge to “make the personal political,” means that a recent policy change from the state of California represents a particularly powerful win for feminist activists.
In August, California lawmakers gave their unanimous approval to Bill SB-967 which requires colleges receiving state-financed student aid to alter the definition of consent in their sexual assault policies. This bill replaces the traditional “no means no”— which assumes consent is granted unless the individual (usually a woman) states otherwise – with affirmative consent or “yes means yes.” Thus, the new legislation puts the burden of consent firmly on the student initiating sex instead of the intended partner.
This policy may impact sexual assault on college campuses in at least two ways. First, it will shift the dynamics in the judicial system of universities. Instead of the survivor proving that she did not “ask” for assault, the perpetrator will be required to account for his actions and explain why he thought he had received consent. While this may not be enough to prevent campus assaults, it should increase the likelihood that women who come forward will received the just hearing they deserve.
The second effect is less discussed in policy debates regarding violence against women, but it is undoubtedly critical: the impact of policy feedback. Policy change does not just establish prescribed outcomes; it can also shift social norms and perceptions of citizens’ rights. As changing rape culture is a critical goal of feminists, presenting a new vision of sexual relations is crucial. If California Governor Jerry Brown signs this bill, he will legitimize the importance of affirmative consent among women and men in California universities and set an example for the rest of the states.
Sexual violence on college campuses is widespread and colleges have not responded effectively. A “yes means yes” standard is long overdue and is a step in the right direction.