California adopts first 'yes means yes' sex assault law. Does it go too far?

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a law making California the first state to adopt an affirmative consent standard for sexual relations, which will apply to all colleges and universities that accept state funding.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
California Gov. Jerry Brown (right) signed the country's first 'yes means yes' law on sexual consent, which will apply to all colleges and universities who receive state funding.

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a law making California the first state in nation to legally spell out that “yes means yes” when it comes to sexual consent – with requirements for colleges to follow when investigating sexual assaults.

The measure – which goes further than the commonly accepted “no means no” – will apply to all colleges and universities that accept state funding.

The new law outlines procedures for giving campus sexual assault victims confidential support and requires comprehensive prevention strategies to address sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking. It also states that consent cannot be given if someone is asleep or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.

“Every student deserves a learning environment that is safe and healthy,” said the bill’s author, state Sen. Kevin de Leon, in a statement. “The state of California will not allow schools to sweep rape cases under the rug. We’ve shifted the conversation regarding sexual assault to one of prevention, justice, and healing.”

The measure is seen as possibly a pivotal moment that could alter how campuses across America deal with the issue of rape and sexual violence. Critics, however, said that the law overreaches itself and that consent will be difficult to prove in court. 

The law comes after institutions of higher learning have come in for severe criticism for their handling of sexual violence on campus. Earlier this year, the Education Department announced that it was investigating 55 colleges and institutions for Title IX violations that stem from their handling of sexual assault cases. And this month, the White House launched a high-profile campaign, “It’s On Us,” aimed at changing attitudes on campus. But no state has gone further than California. 

“This is amazing,” Savannah Badalich, a student at UCLA and founder of the group 7,000 in Solidarity, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s going to educate an entire new generation of students on what consent is and what consent is not … that the absence of a ‘no’ is not a ‘yes.’”

One in 5 US women report being raped, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, with 40 percent of those attacks occurring during college. 

Not everyone is a fan of the new law, however.

The National Coalition For Men said in an editorial on their website that “this campus rape crusade bill presumes the guilt of the accused” and will deny the accused due process.

On the other hand, several women’s advocacy groups say the law doesn’t go far enough, because it does not fully tackle the issue of underage drinking, which is pervasive on campuses. While alcohol or drug use cannot be used as an excuse under “yes mean yes,” that doesn’t mean it will prevent sexual crimes from occurring in the first place. 

“Although the ‘yes means yes’ law was created with good intentions, it will not reduce sexual assault on campus,” says Kathleen Bogle, professor of sociology at La Salle University in Philadelphia and author of “Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus.”

Removing the culture of binge drinking on campuses would require a wholesale cultural change and far more education of American teenagers before they move into a dorm room freshman year.

“This idea that bad judgment is why sexual assault occurs is not true,” says Laura Dunn, a campus rape survivor and legal advocate through the group SurvJustice. “We need to be asking the question: How should laws be addressing the issue of alcohol, rather than allowing it to be a cause. Whether we like it or not, alcohol is part of college campus. In Europe, kids grow up with wine drinking as part of life in the home. In America, we send them off to school when they are 17-18 and say, 'See ya later, hope you can understand what drinking is all about…' ”

But other experts say that lingering questions regarding substance abuse on campus should not overshadow the purpose of California's new law.

“Underage drinking is a small part of this puzzle, but it has overshadowed the basic idea that this new law is trying to address that 'yes means yes,' ” says Michelle Dempsey, professor of law and associate dean for faculty research at the Villanova School of Law. “So the debate about underage drinking plays into the blurred lines that our society has now allowed to occur.”

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