Beyond ‘Yes Means Yes’: Facing the Roots of Sexual Assault

This past week, I attended two events that dealt with sexual assault on college campuses—a talk organized by the Pomona Student Union titled ‘Rape Culture’ and a forum at Claremont McKenna College that discussed legal action in light of the new California ‘Yes Means Yes’ law. Unfortunately I left both feeling frustrated, grappling with the still-unanswered questions I had walked in with.

As a woman who has personally dealt with the trauma of
sexual harassment, I feel strongly about this issue. But the more I engage in dialogue on the
subject, the angrier I get. I don’t know if we can formulate policies that do
not inherently discriminate against either the survivor or the accused and that
perturbs me deeply.

One would think that the ‘Yes Means Yes’ law adopted by the
state of California is encouraging more sex-positive dialogue. In my experience
so far, I feel like it’s making it even more ambiguous. Instead of talking about
gender-role socialization and the incredibly powerful and malignant notions of
masculinity that have resulted in an environment that actively perpetuates
sexual violence—not just against women, but men and non-gender-identifying
persons, too—we are left debating intricacies of law.

However, the language the law has introduced to the discourse
and notions it has helped formalize are significant. The law defines consent as follows: “Lack
of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent.
Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be
revoked at any time.”

Seeing this view of consent put into law gives me a greater
sense of power and autonomy. It makes it seem like one does not have to say “no” to not get sexually assaulted, but that you have a choice to say “yes” if
you choose to have sex. It’s comforting to think that in a court of law, the
burden of responsibility will not be on the survivor to prove that they did not
consent but instead on the perpetrator to prove that they did not commit the
act.

However, I worry that the fact that the law that grants me a greater
sense of security may complicate discourse regarding sexual assault even more
by putting the very groups that need to be most engaged and open to this
conversation on the defensive. I fear that instead of helping shape a healthier
approach to sexual expression on college campuses, it may disenfranchise a
large number of people by subjecting them to unreasonable burdens of proof as
survivors have been in the past.

Under these new laws, if sexual assault charges are brought
up against an individual, they can only prove they did not act wrongly by
proving they attained verbal consent for each action that transpired.
Otherwise, under the vocabulary of the law, they are guilty of sexual assault.
That is appallingly similar to making the survivor prove they withdrew consent, and
it’s a very disconcerting realization.

The intersectionality of substance culture and sexual
violence on college campuses further complicates this situation, and the bill
recognizes it in the words:

” … it shall not be a valid excuse to alleged lack of
affirmative consent that the accused believed that the complainant consented to
the sexual activity under either of the following circumstances: (A) The
accused’s belief in affirmative consent arose from the intoxication or recklessness
of the accused … “

This clause is perhaps an effort to counteract the stigma
and victim-blaming that has been a sickening feature of the criminal justice system
historically. But the problem the clause attempts to solve persists despite it
because of how substances operate within campus culture.

Science tells us that alcohol lessens inhibitions and
encourages behavior in which we would otherwise be too self-conscious to engage.
College students will just tell you this: Alcohol makes it easier to let loose
and have a good time. And so it’s unsurprising that most hookups happen at
parties or other large social events, when both or one of the parties are under
the influence.

As a good friend of mine defines it, the consumption of
alcohol results in a ‘diffusion of responsibility.’ You recognize the risks and
dangers involved in any act you might undertake, but you do not assign them the
value you would sober. This essentially means that drunk people are more
comfortable having causal sex. But given how these substances change how people
interact and interpret each other’s actions, it makes for an environment where
it is extremely difficult to adjudicate whether active, affirmative consent as
defined under the law was given or not.

I wonder if, by ignoring this larger phenomenon, we are merely
attempting to deal with the issue from an institutional standpoint and
promising only the illusion of empowerment to survivors.

Maybe we should be making a more concentrated effort to
address the archaic notions of male sexuality and masculine identity and how
they manifest when someone is inebriated, addressing those notions not only
through campaigns that point to patriarchal systems of oppression, but also by deconstructing
the subsystems through which they function in college. I strongly believe that
we can only effectively combat these entrenched forces of socialization and
stop perpetuating the rape culture that permeates our consciousness by doing
this.

Will there ever be a time on college campuses when people
don’t need an external stimulus to engage in behavior so natural to humans,
where both parties walk away feeling satisfied and empowered and where the laws
are not confined by the ‘yes/no’ binary? I really do not know anymore. But I do
know that this new set of laws has helped reorient the legal system to
better support survivors and that we as a campus community now need to approach
sexual violence not only from the view of deterrence, but that of increased
awareness and introspection. 

Aiman Chaudhary is a sophomore at Pomona College.

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