‘Yes Means Yes’ Changes Conversation About Sex

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You’re both in the bedroom. Alone. There are two piles of clothes on the floor. Well — you’ve made it this far. Congratulations. Now what? You know what you want but you’re not sure what your partner wants, so you’re both in a kind of limbo. You begin to make a move and your partner seems fairly receptive. So far so good. You want to pick up the pace but you’re not sure what your partner is okay with. You wish you could just ask them but you don’t want to kill the mood and you just wish there was something you could do.

These are confusing moments when communication between sexual partners is pivotal. You want to ensure all participants have agency in their sexual relationships. This is the direction California plans to go in by enacting “Yes Means Yes,” the nation’s first affirmative consent law.

Not only is “Yes Means Yes” a huge step forward in the ongoing question of how colleges should handle rape and sexual assault cases — it is also a more sex-positive way of looking at sexual relations between students. The law reaffirms that it’s okay to say “yes” to sex, and when you do say “yes,” you should do so loudly.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law on Sept. 28, making “yes” an important phrase at all colleges in the state. Formally known as Senate Bill 967, the law states that to receive state funding, colleges must implement policies that require sexual partners to seek explicit consent from each other — defined by the college as “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity and in addition a lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent.”

“Yes Means Yes” applies to every college in California that receives public funding — making state universities and UC campuses subject to the new rule — but also all private schools that receive some type of grant from the state. If a college fails to implement the policies outlined in the bill, it will no longer receive state funding for student financial assistance.

A college’s role in the sexual relations of its students was contested by many who argued that the passing of the law forces the college to encroach on the personal decisions of its students. Moreover, it has been argued that the requirement gives colleges a power to which they are not entitled. The job of the colleges, however, also entails keeping students safe. According to a Clery Act Report, the number of reported sexual assault cases increased from an average of 12 incidents to 20 at the top 25 universities in the U.S. from 2011 to 2013. At UCLA, the 23 cases reported in 2011 jumped to 37 in 2013— a 61 percent increase in just two years.

The growing number of sexual assaults on college campuses points to a lack of conversation, education and accountability. “Yes Means Yes” requires colleges to step up and facilitate an open discussion surrounding sex, helping guarantee that students will have access to a safe discussion where they feel free to participate. Universities are uniquely qualified to provide education and assistance that is more accessible to their students. Now state-funded colleges in California are the first to take steps toward being responsible for the future well-being of their students.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to victim-blame in the discussion of sexual assault on college campuses, but “Yes Means Yes” relinquishes the victims from being the sole persons accountable for fighting off their attackers and makes conscientious sex a responsibility to share between partners.

Rather than asking victims how forcefully they said no and fought back against their perpetrators, universities must now ask if both parties had affirmative consent, adding that “lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent.”

Rather than allowing the discussion of college students and sex to continue down a dark path of accusations and dissent, “Yes Means Yes” reminds us that sex is not something to be afraid of, but something to be enjoyed. By encouraging young people to be more expressive and outright with their partners about what they are and are not willing to do when it comes to sex, the law advocates for sexual freedom and fights against nonconsensual sex along the way.