Consent: Legislation, Education, Conversations

What is consent?

“A clear, mutual and respectful setting of boundaries, an ongoing communication between partners. It’s the presence of a yes – not the absence of a no." – Raul Esparza 

Affirmative consent laws—also called “yes means yes” laws—are starting to crop up in legislatures across the country, establishing this principle. 

New York House Senate Bill No. 2965, signed into law on July 7, 2015:

"Affirmative consent is a knowing, voluntary and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions create clear permission regarding willingness to engage in the sexual activity. Silence or lack of resistance, in and of itself, does not demonstrate consent. The definition of consent does not vary based upon a participant's sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression."

California Senate Bill No. 967, approved by the governor on September 28, 2014:

"Affirmative consent means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. 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. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent."

While these laws are important for criminalizing behavior that for too long we have brushed aside or excused, their underlying principle establishing that consent must be freely given and communicated is important progress.

Because the reality is that many survivors stay silent about their assaults for fear of not being believed, or taken seriously, or even because they themselves have come to believe that what happened is their fault. Estimates are that 68 percent have never reported their assaults to the police. And although stories of false reports of rape get headlines, the actual rate of false reports is between 2 and 8 percent—similar to nearly all other crimes.

The small minority of people who do commit sexual assault may not grasp that what they are doing is a crime. 

And those who could otherwise bear witness to someone’s story or be supportive of their healing journey may never know the weight that that someone in their life may be carrying alone. 

For too long, we have not talked about or addressed violence. As we come to demand meaningful reforms from our legislatures, we must also demand it in our schools and in our own homes. Our laws are a reflection of society—our values, our priorities, our culture—and we must priortize support, healing and justice for survivors in our homes, schools and local communities too. 

Change begins at home. Three out of four parents have never had a conversation with their children about sexual assault or domestic violence. 

Among our peer groups and in our everyday conversations, we have to revise the language we use. Sexual engagements are regularly described as conquests. Conversations about sex that take place in sports metaphors ("scoring," or “I got to third base …”—like a game to be won) or meaningless euphemisms (“we hooked up”) shrouds what is actually happening—consensual or not—in mystery and confusion. 

And as the ubiquity of the Internet grows, so too grows the influence of pornography, where too many young men get their first education in sex—too often one that glamorizes submission, male power, and a total lack of conversation and establishment of boundaries.

It also needs to happen in school, and earlier. Although 33 states and the District of Columbia mandate that students in public schools receive HIV/AIDS education, only 13 have laws addressing that mandate teen dating violence education. There is no comprehensive list of state laws on consent education in public schools (that I could find), and these laws don’t affect the 4.9 million students enrolled in private school.

In recent years, a landslide of programs and workshops have been developed to teach students about consent and sexual assault in college. They are so important—not only as an educational tool, but to reinforce a culture where sexual assault is taken seriously. But it’s already too late if that’s the first time students hear these messages. And that’s to say nothing about those that don’t attend college or of those who attend institutions where no such program exists. 45% of women who have been raped were first assaulted before they turned 18.

We are failing everyone when we don’t have this conversation in a real, deliberate way. So let’s have it. 

If you’re a parent, have it with your children. 

Our girls hear about how they have to protect themselves from sexual assault too often, but what about our boys? Too often, we don’t have that conversation with them about what respect, healthy relationships and consent looks like. Here’s a starting place.

Read up some more. 

There are some powerful books and articles on the very topic of consent and early education. Here are just a few:

Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape

By Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti

Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—And What We Can Do About It

By Kate Harding

High School Sex Education and Why We Should Teach It

By Lane Florsheim (The New Republic)

Waiting Until College to Teach about Affirmative Consent Is Too Late

By Paul R. Abramson and Leif Dautch (The Los Angeles Times)

Track what’s happening in your state around affirmative consent… 

There is a helpful interactive map here

…And advocate for education about consent and healthy relationships in your school district. has templates to contact your officials or school board.

And if someone does share with you that they’ve been assaulted, or they’re uncomfortable with something that happened, be there to support them. 

Listen, without judgment. Your response can have an enormous impact on that person’s healing journey.  Remember, the community we seek to build—one without sexual assault, domestic violence or child abuse—begins with each of us.

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