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Blackburn 101: Affirmative Consent

Consent has been a hot topic in the world of campus sexual assault recently, or more specifically, a particular type: affirmative consent. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, affirmative consent may seem daunting. Does this mean that there is some sort of checklist to go through before sex? Does it mean that you have to document or record consent? Affirmative consent doesn’t mean any of that — it simply means we have to change how we view consent. Instead of taking the absence of “no” as a “yes,” affirmative consent simply asks you to make sure that the person that you want to have sex with wants to have sex with you. No longer will silence or passivity be construed as consent — with affirmative consent, nothing should be assumed.

In some states, affirmative consent is already the standard for public schools. California passed a law that requires all state-funded colleges and universities to ensure that affirmative consent is part of their code of conduct. This means that if a student is accused of sexual assault, he must prove that the person actually consented to sexual activity — not just that she or he did not say no.* In New York, all state-run schools are required to have a “yes means yes” standard for consent, and a new bill would mandate that private schools use the same standard. Pennsylvania doesn’t have a law like this — but it is absolutely something that state lawmakers should consider as an important tool in the fight to end sexual violence.

Both in court and in the media, rape cases often turn on whether the victim resisted her rapist enough. Was she forceful in saying no? Did she only whisper no, or did she shout it? Did she say it once or many times? While most states have abandoned the requirement that a victim prove that she or he physically resisted a rape, these cases still often revolve around whether or not a victim said no —and if the victim did not say no, then she was not raped. In practical matters, this means that unless a person specifically says no to sex, she or he is consenting — which makes no sense. We don’t do that for any other crime (or even any other social interaction). It isn’t assumed that unless you tell someone not to punch you, you are okay with them doing it. No one assumes that they can rob your house unless you specifically tell them not to do it. Why exactly would rape be different? Why would we assume that someone has consented to sexual activity unless they say that they haven’t? This is why affirmative consent standards are so necessary — because the absence of no does not equal yes. Only yes means yes.

A new video by poet and activist Staceyann Chin and her daughter Zuri offers an important lesson on consent that is a must-watch. After all, if a 3 year old can understand what consent is, we as adults should be able to get it!

Affirmative consent is a common sense standard that should change the way we think about sex in our society. Just as we don’t assume that someone consents to a physical assault unless they say no, we should not assume that a person consents to sexual activity unless they say no. This standard puts the focus on communication between partners — exactly where it should be — and upends the idea that the absence of a “no” is a “yes.” We believe that affirmative consent should be the norm across the country — not just at colleges and universities. Let us know what you think in the comments section below (or on Facebook) — and join us in the fight against domestic and sexual sexual violence! You can volunteer for or donate to Blackburn Center, take the pledge to end gender violence and register for our signature event, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes. By learning more and working together, we can change our culture — and end domestic and sexual violence!

*Although we are using feminine pronouns for this post to make it more readable, we recognize that anyone — woman or man, adult or child — can be a victim of sexual violence.


Watch this space each month for more of our Blackburn 101 series!

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