"Yes" is sexy; Bill 967 redefines sexual assault assault on campus

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Emily Sulkowicz was raped in her dorm room at the start of her junior year. Now, Sulkowicz is the girl carrying her mattress around Columbia University; a visible presence in the news as of late. When Sulkowicz reported her violent assault to administrators, they responded incredulously, repeatedly asking her to re-live her experience in greater and greater detail. For her senior visual arts thesis, she is toting the mattress everywhere she goes so long as her rapist remains on Columbia’s campus.

Columbia’s administration must be exceptionally, abhorrently incompetent, right? Not exactly. Sexual assault cases across college campuses nationwide are handled just as negligently and end with astonishingly similar verdicts.

In Sen. Claire McCaskill’s recent survey of sexual violence on college campuses, researchers found that more than 20% of U.S. institutions provide no sexual assault response training at all for members of their faculty and staff, and more than 20% of the nation’s largest private institutions conducted fewer investigations than the number of incidents they reported. The need for a drastic nationwide upheaval, in policy as well as culture, is irrefutable.

Recently-passed California Senate Bill 967, otherwise known as “Yes Means Yes,” promises just that. The bill redefines consent as “yes” rather than the absence of “no”— the standard up to this point. One must obtain an affirmative statement from his or her partner to proceed with sexual contact; the absence of a forceful “no” does not indicate consent.

Resting on the absence of “no” to signify consent authorizes a massive gray area, composed of many loopholes colleges can use to evade responsibility and protect their alumni support, endowments and reputations. Though this bill is undoubtedly the necessary, logical next step in reversing college rape culture, it still somehow manages to enrage opponents of women’s equality. A recent article by Cathy Young for Time exemplified this senseless anger.

“Its effect will be to codify vague and capricious rules governing student conduct, to shift the burden of proof to (usually male) students accused of sexual offenses, and to create a disturbing precedent for government regulation of consensual sex,” Young wrote.

In reality, codifying “vague and capricious rules governing student conduct” will implement actual consequences for sexual assault where previously there were none.

If we didn’t have young women like Sulkowicz suffering from the trauma of both rape and sickeningly incompetent administrations, if the police didn’t call rape victims liars when they can’t remember the color of the eyes of their attackers, “yes means yes” would surely be an invasive micromanagement of our personal lives and intimate relationships. But we cannot pull the bill out of its context and then try to critique it. A clear, prevalent and dangerous epidemic prompted lawmakers to draft, and pass, “yes means yes,” not their compulsive needs to commandeer sex lives.

The purpose of this new legislation is to protect victims of sexual assault, to eliminate any confusion as to what exactly sexual assault is specifically, to teach young adults a clear definition of rape, so that they never find themselves in a position where they sexually assault unknowingly and to change the culture of sex on college campuses.

“Yes” should be sexy. Who wouldn’t rather have enthusiastic sex? Excited sex is good sex. The bill doesn’t require a signed contract, just “an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision by each participant to engage in mutually agreed-upon sexual activity.”

The article in Time raises the possibility of a sexual encounter in which a partner could start feeling equivocal about it after the fact and reinterpret the situation as coerced. Unfortunately, such a circumstance is plausible. But if the sex is enthusiastic, healthy and fun, chances are your partner won’t feel the need to report it.

There is one more thing we can do to help avoid such events, and to work toward a day when we won’t need the government to teach us what good sex is: We need to stop teaching our daughters to be afraid of sex. Let’s stop teaching them that sex is masculine; that their vaginas are sacred and define their morals. It’s 2014, your virginity doesn’t determine your worth; you can’t build credit on your v-card.

And we’ve got to stop teaching our sons that sex is something they must cleverly and painstakingly work out of a woman; that sex with women is the same thing as a quest for territory; that once they get into her pants, they’ve won, they’ve conquered her.

We need to teach our sons and daughters that sex is fun. “Yes means yes” is undoubtedly a critical next step in the fight against rape culture, as we must do more to protect victims of assault. However if we simultaneously shift the focus of the conversation onto the deeper, historical, psychological causes of rape culture how men and women are raised to treat sex and each other we won’t need legislation to prevent it in the first place.