How affirmative consent is changing college culture

'Yes means Yes' takes pressure off victims, advocates say

Connecticut may order colleges to comply with the "yes means yes" standard for sexual conduct, and a recent state senate hearing provides a window into the idea's increasing popularity, Kathleen Megan writes for the Hartford Courant

As schools continue to grapple with the national controversy around campus sexual assault, many colleges see a solution in "yes means yes" standards, where all parties involved in an encounter provide affirmative consent.

Student voices

At last week's hearing, students testified that affirmative consent policies take pressure off the victim when reporting sexual assaults.

Nathaniel Warner, a Wesleyan University student, argued that affirmative consent leads to healthy attitudes about relationships. "Affirmative consent standards create communities wherein not fighting hard enough does not foreclose your rights to your own body," he told lawmakers at the hearing.

Students are actually less likely to prevent a sexual assault after starting college.

Olivia Paschal, a Yale University student, said her school's affirmative consent policy made it more likely she would report an assault if it ever were to occur. "I heard from my first week on campus that consent—verbal or nonverbal—is vital when engaging in sexual activities," she said. Without such a  policy, she says she would likely still have a "high school" mindset that "I must have been asking for it."

Success in other states

Connecticut lawmakers are debating a law that would mandate an affirmative consent standard for all the state's colleges and universities. California was the first state to mandate a "yes means yes" standard at its public colleges and universities last fall. The State University of New York System did the same in December, but victims' advocates say colleges have been using the policies effectively for far longer.

"What's really new here is mandating it for law," says Elizabeth Conklin, an associate vice president at the University of Connecticut (UConn) who oversees sexual assault investigations. UConn has had an affirmative consent policy since 2002.

Conklin says the policy shifts the focus of sexual assault hearings. Now, they are "more robust than simply asking a question of the person who came forward: Did you say no?" She adds that the new tone "has a very significant impact throughout the course of the investigation." 

Many lawmakers echoed the sentiments of those who testified at the hearing. Democratic Rep. Gregg Haddad, a sponsor of the bill, says affirmative consent will "encourage healthier relationships, fewer misunderstandings, and certainly help protect young men and women on campus from those who would purposely violate the rules." 

A vague standard?

But the comments were not all positive. Some of the witnesses argued that affirmative consent is not a clear standard and schools will have trouble enforcing it.

"Assuming the alleged assault took place in private, it's one person's word against another," observed one student witness.

Also in EAB Daily Briefing: Harvard faculty push back on sexual misconduct policy, but administrators say it's fair

Republican Rep. Tim Legeyt was sensitive to those concerns, saying "One person can feel that affirmative consent was given and another person wouldn't be so sure."

However, Warner told lawmakers affirmative consent encourages students to think more actively about what "yes" means, noting consent was not "contractual." "Parties to a sexual act may and must decide for themselves what a 'yes,' means and for how long it means that," he said (Megan, Hartford Courant, 3/1).

The takeaway: Students told Connecticut lawmakers considering mandating affirmative consent policies at the state's colleges and universities that so-called "yes means yes" laws better protect victims and create a more positive campus culture around sex. However, some critics were concerned it would be too difficult for colleges to determine what counts as consent.

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