In California, “No Means No” doesn’t cut it anymore. If you want to have sex with someone, both parties must give a clear and (hopefully) enthusiastic yes. If you’re not sure what I’m referring to, California’s Governor Jerry Brown recently signed Senate Bill 967 into law, also known as the “yes means yes” law. This law is designed to clearly define consent and reduce the number of sexual assaults on college campuses. The bill defines consent as an “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity,” so the absence of a “no” does not mean that sex is consensual. Furthermore, the bill states that a person cannot give consent if drugs or alcohol are in their system.
This affirmative consent bill has the potential to change the way that colleges around the nation view sexual assault and define consent. In California, this law applies to all colleges receiving state financial aid, so this could be a model for other states wishing to provide a solution for the frequent sexual assaults on college campuses. From a legal and educational standpoint, the “yes means yes” law is a good thing; it focuses on the victim, it provides education and outreach so that students can know their rights, and it creates a standard that all university judicial systems can follow. However, there is one question that many college students and others are asking: how will this affect hookup culture?
Last week, The Atlantic Magazine’s Conor Friedersdorf wrote an article examining many different possibilities of how hookups may change in the aftermath of the affirmative consent law. In this examination, Friedersdorf presented various positive scenarios (it will be harder to get away with rape, sex will be hotter and more enjoyable), negative scenarios (sex will be scary and anxiety-inducing, misogyny will increase, sexual assault will become a less serious charge), and several other potential outcomes that fall somewhere between positive and negative. This article is very interesting, and I highly recommend reading it, but one of the most interesting outcomes of this piece was a response from a recent college graduate.
An anonymous graduate wrote a letter to Conor about his experience with affirmative consent, and why he decided to abandon the act. In this letter, the man talks about how he was raised in a feminist family where he learned to highly respect women from a young age. However, when he went to college and started to engage in casual sex, he found that the women he wanted to have sex with were turned off by him asking for consent. He goes on to describe two more sexual encounters that blur the lines of consent, ending with an encounter in which the author engages in sexual intercourse with a woman in a bathroom without either of them speaking to each other. The letter ends with the author saying that “today in California this [bathroom encounter] would be considered rape. I find that very sad. Women are not infantile. They can make their own decisions about sex, and that includes being able to say no―even if they don’t want to have to say yes.”
Although I do not agree with this anonymous person’s view of affirmative consent, I think that his opinion is based on a societal generalization of what women desire sexually. The truth is that every woman is different, and I don’t think it’s fair of the writer to assume anything about the sexual nature of women. If you don’t know a person before engaging in sexual intercourse with them, there is no way for you to know what they want, because we’re all individuals who want different things. After this letter, Friedersdorf inserts several possible responses to this letter from affirmative consent supporters, stating that consent does not need to be verbal, women may have been put off by the writer’s lack of confidence rather than his asking for consent, and that the standard of explicit consent-seeking shouldn’t be abandoned just because it may put off some women.
In my opinion, asking for consent is sexy. It does not have to be two people sitting on a bed fully clothed while one person asks “do I have permission to engage in sexual intercourse with you this evening?” It can simple be one person saying “Is this ok?” or “do you like that?” in the heat of the moment. Plus, wouldn’t you want to have sex with someone who is just as supportive and enthusiastic about it as you are? That being said, I am not engaged in the one-night-stand “hook up culture” that many college students participate in, so I’m not entirely sure how affirmative consent would work in that situation. There is definitely a grey-area surrounding consent and hookups, particularly surrounding the presence of alcohol. However, I think that, despite the grey-area, affirmative consent is a step in the right direction. I would love to know what you think about the “yes means yes” law and how you think it will affect hookup culture. Is it a good or a bad thing?
Note: Conor Friedersdorf has written a third article about the affirmative-consent law and how it will affect college students, featuring more response letters from readers. Like the others, it’s worth the read!