Consent law offers freedom, not limits

California’s new “yes means yes” bill promotes honesty and open communication. Other states should take note of this.

by Camille Galles

On Aug. 28, the California Senate unanimously approved a bill that defines sexual consent as a clear “yes” rather than the absence of a “no” on the state’s college campuses. This bill supports victims of sexual assault and encourages a powerful culture of consent that promotes honesty throughout all life relationships. 

This bill comes shortly after the U.S. Department of Education released a list of 55 institutions under investigation for possibly violating federal law in how they handled sexual violence and harassment complaints.

If Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown approves the law, as he’s expected to, colleges and universities would be required to adopt affirmative consent standards in order to receive state financial aid funding.

The bill is very clear on what doesn’t qualify as consent: a lack of protest, protracted silence or being too intoxicated to understand what’s happening. However, consent’s actual definition is not as clear — the bill only defines it as “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement[s] to engage in sexual activity.”

That language is a bit ambiguous. What does “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary” actually mean in real life? However, this ambiguity is what makes the bill beautiful — consent isn’t a one-size-fits-all procedure. What’s OK for one person won’t be for another.

This bill requires partners to openly, honestly and expressly communicate about what consent means to them. These stipulations don’t attempt to control or regulate sexual interactions. Rather, affirmative consent culture creates more freedom and space for people to really get what they need to feel safe, respected and positive during sex.

This increases protections for sexual assault victims, too. Under the measure, sexual assault reports won’t be dismissed just because there wasn’t a “no.” The bill also requires schools to implement sexual assault prevention and outreach programs, which will hopefully spark thoughtful conversation about what consent means.

Affirmative consent bills like the one passed by California’s Legislature should be adopted by all states, including Minnesota. These laws don’t allow us to take sex for granted, and that’s a good thing. Encouraging honesty and communication for one of the most intimate, universal and nevertheless least-discussed human activities will have ripple effects far beyond the bedroom.

Emotional and physical honesty improve all relationships, not just sexual ones. People are happy when they get what they want and are comfortable. It’s true for a one-night stand, friendship or workplace interaction.

And if partners can successfully navigate the sometimes-murky territory of sexual consent, they’ll be able to be honest and open about more of life’s situations. “Yes means yes” for sexual consent, as well as for increased positivity and self-awareness for everyone.