Sexual assault remains a high-profile issue at Penn State, and the concept of affirmative consent has found its way into campus discussions. But there’s no agreement on whether implementing the idea would reduce assaults.
“Affirmative consent” is neither written into Pennsylvania law nor defined in Penn State policy.
California first put the concept into law in 2014 with the aim of preventing sexual violence on its campuses. New York soon followed suit. A 2014 Pennsylvania bill, however, failed to reach the Senate floor.
Under California law, the term refers to “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” It’s popularly known as “yes means yes.”
By July 2015, about 1,400 colleges and universities had put a definition of affirmative consent in their sexual assault policies, according to the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management.
So, has “yes means yes” influenced Penn State students’ attitudes toward consent amid a “hookup” culture of casual sexual relationships?
Terry Ford, University Park Undergraduate Association president, said yes — he thinks Penn State students have begun to grasp the “yes means yes” mentality.
“It’s more complicated than just ‘no means no,’ ” Ford said. “When you grow up as a child and in high school, you learn that when you’re told no, that means no. But in college and here at Penn State, we’re taught much more.”
With the help of on-campus efforts such as Stand for State, a bystander intervention initiative, Ford said students are engaging in educational discussions about sexual assault.
Sarah Beechay, president of Triota, Penn State’s women’s studies honor society, saw it differently.
“We clearly have a problem with sexual assault,” Beechay said.
As of Feb. 6, there have been 11 sexual assault reports since the semester began on Jan. 9.
Asked if she thought students understand and use affirmative consent, Beechay said, “Not really.”
“You don’t really talk a lot while it’s happening,” Beechay said, referring to the culture of casual sexual encounters. “You just go with it and hope everything’s cool, which is not necessarily the way it should be.”
It’s easier to speak with a partner “before you get in a position where you need to have that conversation. But it’s rarely the conversation that happens,” said Anne Ard, executive director of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center.
In the context of a one-night stand, that conversation can be even harder to have, she said.
“I think it makes it harder to communicate with somebody that you just barely know,” Ard said. “So I think it does make it harder, and I think it does increase the pressure for people to do things that they may not be comfortable with and that they may rather not do.”
A drinking culture at Penn State plays a role, too, Ford said.
“The affirmative consent mindset — it doesn’t go away because of that culture,” Ford said, “but rather that culture forces some people, unfortunately, to not care about affirmative consent and not care as much about adhering to it.”
Lindsey Faussette, director of outreach and education at CCWRC, questioned “whether those conversations can really be consensual” if two people first meet after a night of drinking.
“That’s why we have to have the conversations much earlier, so that we’re actually trying to change the culture in and of itself,” Faussette said.
Changing the culture surrounding hookups, consent and sexual assault through education and conversation would be more effective than a law like California’s, Ard said.
“I think I would not be opposed to seeing legislation about it and to see that written into the law. I also am not naive enough to think that it’s going to solve every problem,” she said.
Beechay said implementing an affirmative consent standard at Penn State could potentially offer clarity to sexual assault cases.
“I also think it’s a thing that people don’t know that they’ve been sexually assaulted, so that’s kind of where the affirmative consent would come in — is being able to say, ‘Oh, I absolutely never said I wanted to do that,’ ” she said.
Ard echoed that view.
“I think sometimes what victims hear is, ‘Well, you didn’t say no,’ or, ‘You didn’t say no loudly enough or forcefully enough,’ ” Ard said. “So then the responsibility for setting the parameters rests with the victim. When, really, what we need to say is that, ‘Perpetrators, it’s your responsibility to make sure that the person you’re having sex with wants to have sex with you. That’s your responsibility.’ ”
That is the role of affirmative consent, she said.
Sarah Mearhoff is a Penn State journalism student.