Legislation signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in September requires colleges to uphold affirmative consent standards in their handling of sexual assault cases by redefining what constitutes saying “yes” to sex.
For Cal Poly, Senate bill 967, commonly referred to as “Yes Means Yes,” reinforces existing policy.
“I don’t think the law is really going to change what we’re doing that much, but it is going to give us another vehicle for getting the word out to the campus community,” director of Equal Opportunity and Title IX coordinator Martha Cody said.
The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2015, states that both people involved in a sexual encounter are responsible for ensuring the affirmative consent of the other person to engage in sexual activity.
The law explains that lack of protest, resistance and silence do not constitute consent, and that consent can be revoked at any time. Even two people who are dating or have a history together should never assume automatic consent.
“What it means is you need to really feel comfortable that the other person wants to proceed, and I would hope that everyone would want that,” Cody said.
California State Universities (CSUs) already use this definition of consent. A series of executive orders issued by Chancellor Timothy White in June established affirmative consent standards very similar to SB 967.
“Those executive orders, the language really mirrors what’s in this legislation pretty closely so we are already committed to the whole concept of affirmative consent and making sure all our campus community members are educated about what that means, and providing support services for survivors and fair equitable process for adjudicating any complaints,” Cody explained.
For other colleges who didn’t practice these standards, the law may lead to more visible changes.
“It’s really good for other campuses,” wine and viticulture senior and Safer student assistant Riley Hasche said. “I’m sure you’ve heard about lots of campuses that are under fire for handling sexual assault in a not great way, but for Cal Poly we’ve already been doing a lot of what this legislation is now.”
Though Cal Poly programs such as Safer preach the importance of communication before sex, students don’t necessarily embrace the idea.
“In our presentations, we talk about it comes down to lack of communication in these scenarios,” Hasche said. “In intimate situations, a lot of people avoid communication and when we talk about giving consent everyone’s like, ‘That’s super awkward, I don’t want to do that.’ I think there definitely has to be a cultural shift.”
Many students believe the law requires both parties verbally say “yes” to their partner during a sexual encounter, but that’s not the case.
“It doesn’t have to be specific words,” Cody said. “No one needs to sign an agreement or anything like that. It could be body language; it could be things like that. Whatever language people are comfortable with is what we want them to use.”
Cody believes some students already grasp this concept of affirmative consent, but others might not. Signs displayed on Grand Avenue during Week of Welcome with phrases such as “Drop your daughters off here” serve as an example.
“Its indicative of an attitude that, I think, unfortunately does still exist among some people, and that’s what tells me we still have work to do,” Cody said. “Because I think there is still that old school approach to gender relations where it’s the man’s job to get as much sexually as he can and it’s the women’s job to say no.”
Safer student assistant and Interfraternity Council (IFC) president Alex Horncliff says he and other IFC leaders are working on programs to educate its members on the new legislation.
He plans to incorporate the bill language into IFC’s sexual assault and violence education programs for new and existing members.
“We’re taking accountability for educating our members, and I’m really excited about it,” Horncliff said.
Cal Poly is also working to be held accountable for the services it offers to students.
“No one’s perfect, so we’re not sitting back saying we’re doing exactly everything we need to do,” Cody said. “I think we need to improve and expand our services, but I think relative to other universities, we’re in a pretty good place.”
Improvements on Cal Poly’s practices are in the works after the Chancellor made a list of 24 recommendations regarding sexual assault for all CSUs. The recommendations came after two CSUs and two UCs were evaluated on how they handle sexual assault.
“All the campuses were asked to respond to a survey to say where we are on all of these 24 measurements,” Cody said. “Fortunately Cal Poly either had all of them completed or they’re in progress.”
One recommendation that still needs to be fulfilled is outreach to student groups who are engaged in activities that place students at risk for sexual violence, such as organizations that sponsor overnight travel, Cody said.
“We are working with Student Affairs staff to identify those organizations and schedule presentations with them,” Cody said.
Though Cal Poly is ahead of many universities in its sexual assault practices and policies, Cody said she isn’t resting on her laurels.
“I think we’re definitely going in the right direction,” Cody said. “We’re doing a lot of things right, but as long as people continue to be assaulted, which is unfortunately a reality, we are all going to have work to do.”