Last month, Michigan became the latest state legislature to introduce a “Yes Means Yes” law, mandating the teaching of affirmative consent as a sexual standard. In the past year, affirmative consent has become the mandated standard on college campuses in New York and California and is being voluntarily adopted by a growing number universities beyond those two states. The idea is simple: In matters of sex, silence or indifference aren’t consent. Only a freely given “yes” counts. And if you can’t tell, you have to ask.
Every time one of these bills is introduced, a certain subset of adults freaks out. Earlier this year, as the spring semester got underway and these new policies took hold on some campuses, Robert Carle, writing for libertarian outlet Reason, shrieked that “[a]ffirmative consent laws turn normal human interactions into sexual offenses,” as if there’s anything “normal” about a disinterest in whether or not the person you’re having sex with is a willing participant. In the New York Times, Judith Shulevitz dismissed the new standard because “[m]ost people just aren’t very talkative during the delicate tango that precedes sex, and the re-education required to make them more forthcoming would be a very big project,” an assertion for which she provides no evidence. But if students aren’t yet used to practicing affirmative consent, that’s no argument against it. Marital rape used to be both popular and legal, and we didn’t wait until everyone had stopped committing it to institute new laws. And in the Boston Globe, Wendy Kaminer protests that “in practice [affirmative consent standards] aim to protect women from the predations of men,” even though, as even she acknowledges, the standard is gender neutral. (More on that in a moment.)
All the grownup scaremongering is drowning out one important fact: Young people are embracing affirmative consent.
As an expert on sexual health and sexual violence prevention, I spend a lot of time visiting college campuses and talking with students about sex and expectations. And nothing I teach them seems to give them more clarity and comfort than explaining the basics of affirmative consent.
Yes Means Yes provides answers for so many of the private anxieties students scrawl on the index cards they pass to me anonymously during Q&A sessions, or wait in line to whisper to me after talks. Oftentimes, I’m the first adult they’ve encountered who talk with them directly about sex in a way that affirms that sex can and should be pleasurable and that they’re the ones who get to decide when and how it works for them. The questions are urgent and a little heartbreaking: How do I say “no” when it makes me feel guilty? How can I have fun hooking up without getting accused of sexual assault? How can I make my friends stop judging me about wanting too much sex, or not enough, or wanting the “wrong” things?
Affirmative consent isn’t the answer to every student’s sexual anxiety, but it’s a core part of my response to many of them. Yes Means Yes tells students who have trouble setting boundaries that a good partner wants to know what your limits are; that if you tell someone what you don’t want and they respond badly, they’re not someone you want to have sex with.
By emphasizing that you can’t make assumptions about what a sex partner might want, Yes Means Yes reminds everyone that there is no universal “right” answer to what any of us should want to do in bed. Instead, practicing affirmative consent encourages young people to get to know their own needs and desires and boundaries. It helps them realize that knowing what they want (and don’t) from sex makes them stronger, and the most important sexual relationship they’ll ever have is the one they have with themselves.
Yes Means Yes is also immensely reassuring to many of the young men I meet. Kaminer’s gender assumptions are no anomaly — critics of affirmative consent almost universally assume that the standard is intended to punish men and protect women. Not only does that erase sexual assaults in which the perpetrator isn’t male, it also ignores the reality that men are more likely to be raped than they are to be targeted by an (exceedingly rare) false allegation. That’s one reason affirmative consent is, in reality, a gender-free standard: It tells young men that their needs and desires and boundaries matter, too, and that it’s just as important when someone violates them as it would be if they were a woman. And it teaches people of all genders that it’s easy to make sure you’re not hurting anyone during sex: Just show up and pay attention to your partner; listen to what they’re telling you; and if you can’t tell, you have to ask. That’s especially helpful for young men, many of whom are worried that they’ll accidentally violate their sex partners, somehow, just by way of being male.
Of course, asking isn’t so simple when you’ve been raised in a culture that seems to say that talking about sex with your sex partner is some kind of a buzzkill. (It’s not, of course — if it were, phone sex wouldn’t be such a lucrative business.) That’s why the new affirmative consent laws are also a great opportunity to teach the kind of sexual communication that makes sex both better and safer for everyone.
There is plenty of evidence that these policies can be effective, and not just in the e-mails I receive from grateful students. (I hear both from students who tell me that practicing Yes Means Yes has given them the best sex of their lives, as well as from students who don’t want to be sexually active who thank me for teaching that their choice is valid and good.) A recent poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that overwhelming majorities of both young men and women understood that the absence of a “no” does not equal consent and that consenting to some sexual activity, like kissing or touching, doesn’t indicate consent to other sexual activity. Fully 96 percent of students understood that a very drunk or unconscious person can’t consent. While it’s hard to find historical examples that map exactly to these poll questions, those numbers sure seem to signify a big shift from the 1998 study conducted by the Sexual Assault & Trauma Resource Center of Rhode Island, which found a quarter of adolescents believing that “a man on a date has the right to sexual intercourse without the woman’s consent if she is drunk.” It’s yet another piece of evidence that once you explain affirmative consent to young people, they embrace it.
Yes Means Yes is being adopted to increase accountability for campus sexual assault, and not a moment too soon. Just last week, the Association of American Universities revealed a comprehensive study showing that nearly 1 in 4 young women and 1 in 20 young men on U.S. campuses are sexually violated in some way while undergraduates. But it’s also a thrilling opportunity to shift the way we teach sex in high school and college, one that shifts our framework away from guys who “get some” and girls who may or may not “give it up,” to reimagine sex as a creative collaboration between two equal people, regardless of gender. Far from criminalizing sexuality, affirmative consent humanizes it. Young people are smart enough to know a great opportunity when they see it. It’s time for the adults to catch up.