On California Campuses, “Yes Means Yes”

Reilly Van Dyke, Staff Writer

While not a new concept, a new law has been put in place by California’s state governor that’s going to affect many college students in the state, and may follow suit around the rest of the country. California Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill on September 28 that stated all schools receiving state funding for financial aid must enforce a policy called affirmative action, otherwise known as “yes means yes”, when it comes to matters of sexual conduct. This means that both participants must give consent at each stage of a sexual encounter, either verbally or through very clear non-verbal cues.

This law was first put into place in the 1990s at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The law was intensely scrutinized and questioned at the time, having been the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit. The law was an effort to counteract sexual violence that was on the rise during the 90s. But even though sexual violence has dramatically decreased since then, this idea for affirmative consent is becoming more common on campuses today.

Colleges are under pressure to take action when it comes to sexual assault and misconduct. This is due to campaigns launched by the Obama administration, activists who claim institutions for higher education can easily become centers for rape culture and the Department of Education, which has been investigating colleges that may have violated the federal anti-discrimination law, Title IX, in recent years. These investigations started in 2011, and focused on schools the Department of Education felt did not take the proper steps in order to prevent or handle instances of sexual assault and violence. These schools were sent a letter from the Department of Education, stating that if they did not take the proper precautions and measures to prevent and handle violations involving sexual misconduct that they would fall short of Title IX. In other words, pushing these incidents under the rug would no longer be an option.  This is often the case with universities that have a great deal of funding. Harvard, Princeton and Berkeley were some of the schools that received the letter, to name a few. However, there were over 70 schools involved in the investigation.

According to an article written for The Economist, “In the past, accusations of sexual assault were typically dealt with privately by schools, usually behind closed doors. Pushed by government and their own students, many institutions are now adopting more stringent standards for dealing with sex on campus. Every member of the Ivy League except Harvard has now adopted the ‘affirmative consent’ standard.”

Suzanne Goldberg, a professor of law at Columbia University, is in support of the bill. She says, “It tells students very clearly that sex without consent is sexual assault.” Those who support the law feel it will help students to better understand what it means to give consent, receive consent and that it is an issue that needs to be taken seriously. However, critics of the law feel that there may be better ways to handle instances of sexual violence.


Joe Cohn, a member of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, feels the law may be a little unrealistic and could use some adjustments. He says, “Under this consent standard, if one partner touches his or her partner in a sexual way, and the person says ‘I am not interested tonight,’ that person has already committed sexual assault because he or she didn’t get permission up front. It’s just not consistent with how adults act.” He believes that it would be better to hand over these events of sexual assault to the police and the authorities, who are more qualified and better trained to examine forensic evidence and deal with these crimes.

With this law now in place for many colleges in the state of California, it’s only a matter of time before other states start bringing the issue of how to handle college rape culture to the forefront as well. While one has to question how this new law will be enforced 100 percent of the time, it’s fairly certain that this is not an issue that will be put to rest anytime soon.

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