California College Student Sexual Consent Law, the Nation’s First, Elicits Mixed Response

Thursday, October 02, 2014
(graphic: Steve Straehley)

College campuses across California will soon have to adopt “yes means yes” policies to thwart sexual assaults, under a new law signed by Governor Jerry Brown. But some are uncertain the legislation will be effective.


Jane Stapleton, co-director of the Prevention Innovations program at the University of New Hampshire who also advises colleges on sexual assault policies, told The New York Times that campuses have tried many ways of reducing rape among students without properly assessing their outcomes. “In a lot of places, there is little to no evidence behind the measures being taken,” Stapleton said. “That doesn’t mean they won’t work. It means we don’t know.”


The new law mandates that universities create policies requiring “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” In other words, a student must say “yes” to intercourse, instead of not saying “no.” The new law applies to all colleges in the state. If a school fails to develop a sexual consent policy, the state will withhold financial aid.


Some schools that have embraced an affirmative consent policy claim the approach has produced positive results. Jane Bost, associate director of the University of Texas at Austin Counseling and Mental Health Center, told the Times they’ve seen “a big uptick in the number of students who are reporting sexual assault and relationship violence” since their new plan went into effect. “Culture change is generally slow, but we have made some headway,” she added.


“I think the disciplinary panels find it easier to find a student responsible” for sexual assault, Pam Thomason, the UCLA official who oversees compliance with Title IX, a federal anti-discrimination law, told the Times. “They can ask, ‘What happened that made you think consent was affirmative, unambiguous and conscious?’ ” The University of California and California State University systems adopted sexual consent policies earlier this year.


The new policy also demands that bystanders who witness unwanted sexual encounters to become more involved in stopping them. But the jury is still out on whether bystander involvement can make a significant difference in stopping sexual assaults.


Bonnie Sue Fisher, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati, and an author of national studies of campus sexual assault, told the newspaper there are “a limited number of evaluations of bystander intervention training that show promising results.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

California Law on Sexual Consent Pleases Many but Leaves Some Doubters (by Richard Perez-Pena and Ian Lovett, New York Times)

New Sex Rules for California College Students are Long Overdue (by Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times)

California Adopts First ‘Yes Means Yes’ Sex Assault Law. Does It Go Too Far? (by Daniel Wood, Christian Science Monitor)

Education Dept. Proposes Requiring Colleges to Release Statistics on Sexual Assaults and Hate Crimes (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Four California Colleges among 55 Investigated by Feds for Handling of Sexual Abuse Complaints (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)


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