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Campuses Consider Following New York's Lead On 'Yes Means Yes' Policy


In New York this week there's a new measure to combat campus sexual assault. New York has become one of two states that now requires what's called affirmative consent. That replaces the old standard of "'no' means 'no'" with a new rule that says "only 'yes' means 'yes'". NPR's Tovia Smith has this report.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The idea is a simple one. As one advocate put it, you wouldn't just take your neighbor's lawn mower without asking first. So for sure anyone initiating sexual activity should have explicit permission.


ANDREW CUOMO: The other person has to say yes. It's yes on both sides.

SMITH: When Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the law yesterday New York became second to California where colleges and universities have had to require affirmative consent since January. The law says it's not enough that a person didn't say no or didn't fight. Sophie Karasek from the group End Rape On Campus says it's already making it easier for survivors there to hold assailants accountable.

SOPHIE KARASEK: When you have a survivor who was asleep for portions of the sexual assault, that perpetrator is more likely to be held accountable now.

SMITH: There's not yet any real data on the impact of the law, but advocates say it is helping to shift attitudes. Universities are nudging that along with new orientation programs that instruct students on the nitty-gritty of what counts as consent, even drilling them on different scenarios, like what if she unbuttons her shirt or just nods?

KEVIN DE LEON: This was not the norm.

SMITH: California Senate President Kevin de Leon, who helped pass the bill, is now pushing legislation that would require affirmative consent policies in high schools.

DE LEON: This type of culture is sort of somewhat pervasive where we've objectified and sexualized young women. It starts all the way in high school, even probably in middle school. So let us try to get them as early as possible.

SMITH: But others say the affirmative consent rules don't make it any easier for school administrators to adjudicate a he-said-she-said dispute on whether sex was consensual. The only thing it's doing, says Samantha Harris from the group Fire, is shifting the burden of proof. So now accused students have to prove they're innocent.

SAMANTHA HARRIS: It's certainly going to make it easier to find people guilty, but if people are not guilty that's not necessarily a good thing, right? I mean, you know, I think that it really undermines the due process rights of accused students.

SMITH: Back in New York, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, lead sponsor at the affirmative consent law, concedes it's no silver bullet. But she adds it's already successful in that it's prompting more conversation.

DEBORAH GLICK: Frequently in legislation you address the edges of a problem. You can't solve problems that are about human behavior (laughter). I mean, we don't stop murder by having severe penalties for that, but you don't not try.

SMITH: A recent survey shows how much the conversation is needed. Students were exactly evenly split on whether actions or gestures are enough to count as consent. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.