California lawmakers are a step closer to making the state’s high school students the first in the nation to have mandatory education in the “yes means yes” sexual consent standard that it recently adopted on college campuses.
State senators this week unanimously passed SB 695, which would require high schools that have a health education requirement for graduation to include training on affirmative consent.
“This bill represents the next step in the fight to change behavior towards women, particularly young women,” said the acting Senate president, Kevin de Leon, co-author of the bill, before the vote. “California must continue to lead the nation in educating our young people, both woman as well as young men, about the importance of respect and maintaining healthy peer and dating relationships.”
California last September became the first US state to require that all state colleges receiving public funds use a “yes means yes” standard when investigating sexual assaults. The definition of consensual is “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity”.
It also specifies that “lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent”. Consent can be verbal or non-verbal but being under the influence of drugs or alcohol can negate a person’s ability to give consent.
De Leon pointed out during his remarks that sexual activity “does not start in college. This starts in high school or sometimes even before that,” he said, adding that young adults’ first exposure to the new standard needed to happen before they started college. He said that between 1995 and 2013 girls aged 18 to 24 were most likely to be victims of sexual assault.
Women not enrolled in college were 1.2 times as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted compared with those in higher education, according to a US justice department study, adding to the need to reach young adults before they leave the public school system. That study also found that about 80% of assault victims said they knew their attacker.
California’s “yes means yes” standard is spreading to college campuses nationwide. New York has already followed suit for its public campuses and states including Maryland, New Hampshire and Colorado are considering it.
However affirmative consent has caused some controversy, with critics fearing that it imposes a difficult standard to navigate.
Emilie Mitchell, a professor of human sexuality at American River College in Sacramento, part of the largest community college system in California, said the controversy would likely subside as students became familiar with the concept.
She compared “yes means yes” to the advent of sexual harassment workplace laws, when critics feared common actions such as complimenting a co-worker could be deemed illegal. She will be teaching “yes means yes” to students for the first time next semester and said the focus was on “mutual responsibility.”
“It used to be ‘Did you say no? Did you explicitly say no?’” she said.
Her course will teach that both participants are equally responsible for consent. “Affirmative consent is really obvious. If someone says ‘Yeah, that feels great, let’s keep doing it,’ that’s affirmative consent,” she said. “Sex is a mutually negotiated agreement, not ‘If you don’t like it you’d better speak up.’”
The bill next moves to the California state assembly for debate.
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