Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz carries her mattress, a symbol of her rape in 2012 by a fellow student, from class to class, hunched under its weight. Four North Carolina State University students, Tyler Confrey-Maloney, Stephen Gray, Ankesh Madan and Tasso Von Windheim, engineer and release new, ‘anti-rape’ nail polish. Anonymous Hobart and William Smith Colleges student collaborates with The New York Times to share how her college mishandled her rape.
All of these students recently have taken the media by storm by addressing the problem of sexual assault on college campuses.
Even the state of California itself contributed to the ongoing conversation. California’s Yes Means Yes Law could change our conception of consent and sexual assault not only from a cultural standpoint, but also in the legal realm. The bill defines consent as “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement” and clarifies that “lack of resistance or silence cannot be interpreted as a yes.” If signed into law, the bill would affect all California colleges receiving state funding. The state senate approved the bill, which now lies in the hands of Gov. Jerry Brown, who has to make the final decision before Sept. 30.
It sounds like a simple rewording of the commonly used phrase “no means no,” but the law could mean so much more than that.
Yes Means Yes means business. It would flip the entire legal coin, which currently puts the burden of proof on victims to show that they were assaulted. This bill would instead make the perpetrators responsible for proving that they received consent. “No means no” puts the responsibility of saying no and resisting in the hands of the potential victim, while Yes Means Yes puts the responsibility of obtaining consent in both partners’ hands.
By stating explicitly what counts as consent, it makes it a whole lot more clear what doesn’t count. If your partner is drunk, there is no consent. If your partner is silent, there is no consent. If your partner says no, there most definitely is no consent. By completely demolishing any possible confusion over what constitutes consent, we could avoid the murkiness of “no means no” and the painful situations that can arise out of it. There is nothing ambiguous about Yes Means Yes, and nothing ambiguous about those who violate it. We could rid ourselves of the incompetent ‘student gets suspended’ culture and transform it into ‘student committed a crime and needs to go to jail.’
The White House Council on Women and Girl’s 2014 report, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” states, “College students are particularly vulnerable: 1 in 5 women has been sexually assaulted while in college.” It continues, “The dynamics of college life appear to fuel the problem, as many survivors are victims of what’s called ‘incapacitated assault’: they are sexually abused while drunk, under the influence of drugs, passed out, or otherwise incapacitated. Perpetrators often prey on incapacitated women, and sometimes surreptitiously provide their victims with drugs or alcohol. Perpetrators who drink prior to an assault are more likely to believe that alcohol increases their sex drive – and are also more likely to think that a woman’s drinking itself signals that she’s interested in sex.”
Lehigh has a reputation for its parties and hookup culture, but how many of those hookups are consensual? In Lehigh’s 2014 “Annual Security Report & Safety Escort Map,” it reported two forcible rapes and two sexual offenses during the year of 2013. While these statistics may seem low, it is important to recognize that many victims do not report their sexual assault, and others may not even fully recognize that they were sexually assaulted.
Even though Yes Means Yes would only immediately affect California colleges, we want to promote Yes Means Yes at Lehigh. Everyone should be on an equal playing field about consent and accept that it’s the standard that needs to be upheld. Yes Means Yes removes any lingering gender-bias or judgment and focuses on consensual sex in a positive light. It is more a way of thinking than necessarily a law, although it should be both. Consensual sex should be the norm, not the goal to strive for.
Communication of expectations is important in any sexual encounter, including hookups as well as relations with a significant other, and something nobody should ever feel embarrassed about. Lehigh students boast about our hookup culture, yet if sex is really that casual of a topic, why is it so hard for students to talk before engaging in sexual acts? “Yes” is an empowering word – Shout it, moan it, whisper it, but don’t ever rely on indications that can be misinterpreted.