8 Important Questions About California’s New Sexual Assault Bill

Right now, investigators can ask sexual assault survivors if they resisted their attacker or denied them consent. A California lawmaker wants to change that.

Robert Galbraith / Reuters

The University of California, Berkeley.

2. 1. How is California trying to change the way colleges deal with sexual assault?


Lawmakers in California are currently considering Senate Bill 967, which would require any school that gets state funds to adopt an array of sexual assault policies. The bill is the brainchild of California State Senator Kevin de Leon, who told BuzzFeed in a recent interview, “There’s a rape culture that’s pervasive on many college campuses.” De Leon wants to change the culture and believes his bill is a step in that direction. The bill deals only with the way colleges handle sexual assault and does not change law enforcement policy. It also leaves it up to schools to determine who will conduct investigations, and survivors would get to decide if any police should be involved.

The specific policy mandates of the bill are fairly straightforward. Schools would have to provide sexual assault-related orientation, crisis centers, counseling, and other services. However, one aspect has captured more attention than anything else: “affirmative consent.”

3. 2. So California schools would have to adopt “affirmative consent” policies. What does that mean?


The idea is that two people must clearly give consent before having sex, and the bill’s language makes clear that both people participating in an intimate encounter are responsible for obtaining that consent:

It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity.

That may sound obvious — lack of consent equals rape, right? — but it’s actually a significant shift away from the idea of “no means no,” where at least some of the responsibility fell on those who ended up as victims. Under De Leon’s law, no means no, but so does not somehow saying yes. The law also makes clear that a person who is drunk or asleep, among other things, can’t consent to sex. “We’re changing the status quo,” De Leon said to BuzzFeed.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

State Sen. Kevin de Leon on June 4, 2014.

5. 3. Would students have to get written contracts if they want to have sex?


No. While the bill has been lampooned by some in the media who claimed it would led to students needing “written consent,” it would not actually require paperwork before becoming intimate. De Leon expressed frustration when he spoke with BuzzFeed about what he described as a mischaracterization of the law, and he called the idea of written consent “ridiculous.” As of Thursday, the amended version of the bill defined consent merely as an agreement:

“Affirmative consent” means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.

[…]

Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.

According to De Leon, the misreporting on and media pile-up against the proposed law may represent an unwillingness to take the topic of sexual assault as seriously as it needs to be taken.

The University of Southern California is one of 55 schools under investigation for its handling of sexual assault complaints.

7. 4. Why would this law even be necessary?


Among other things, De Leon pointed to the ongoing federal probe into 55 schools — several of which are in California — and said that in some cases women are more likely to be assaulted on a college campus than they are in the rougher parts of his Los Angeles district. “You can’t have a college where you have Nobel Prize winners as guest lecturers and just a thousand yards down the campus someone is being raped at a raging kegger,” De Leon said.

Sofie Karasek, a student at Berkeley and a complainant in the Title IX case that launched the federal probe, said colleges have been sweeping sexual assaults under the rug for too long. According to Karasek, survivors of sexual assault often face an array of obstacles that prevent them from coming forward about their abuse. She believes the bill would help clear some of those obstacles.

Meghan Warner, also a student at Berkeley who is involved in the Title IX case, said more education and a better understanding of consent, among other things, would reduce the amount of sexual violence on college campuses. She recalled talking to men on campus and telling them that having sex with a woman who is “blacked-out drunk” is actually rape. “Their jaw dropped,” she said. “They had no clue.”

9. 5. Who opposes it?


During the latest review, the only registered opposition to the bill came from the National Coalition for Men. Coalition spokesman Steven Svoboda told BuzzFeed his organization supports “stopping violence against everyone, and we want to get to a better place and we don’t see this legislation as getting us there.”

Svoboda had numerous criticisms of the bill. He said that while it’s technically gender neutral, he believes it effectively targets men. Svoboda also said the bill would be difficult to enforce and that “every time you make the first move you’re potentially putting yourself at the risk of it being misinterpreted.”

“What it will do is create a lot of paranoid men,” he added.

Some media outlets have come out against it as well. In May, the Los Angeles Times editorialized against it. From there, coverage of the bill snowballed, with others also mentioning “written consent” or going so far as to say the law would “redefine sex as rape.”

10. 6. Couldn’t explicitly getting consent to have sex be kind of a bummer?


One of the criticisms of the law is that people won’t stop, or won’t want to stop, mid-encounter to make sure they have permission to proceed. Svoboda had that concern, and the Los Angeles Times called the bill “intrusive” and micromanaging.

Warner, however, disagreed. “If you can’t ask someone, ‘Do you want to have sex with me?’ you aren’t mature enough to engage in sexual acts with someone,” she said. “Pleasure is not more important than someone’s safety and autonomy over their body.”

Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times / MCT

Occidental College, in Los Angeles, is another of several California schools under investigation for its handling of sexual abuse cases.

12. 7. How many schools would this actually affect?


A lot. The law would impact the California State and University of California systems, which between them have more than 30 campuses and hundreds of thousands of students. The bill would also include scores of community colleges and other schools that receive state funding.

This is one reason the bill could have a major impact; California’s school system is massive, and its graduates are spread out all over the place.

The University of California system has already adopted affirmative consent as part of its sexual violence policies, spokeswoman Brooke Converse told BuzzFeed. However, the policy only went into effect in February — and it’s still too early to know what sort of impact it is having on the system’s campuses. De Leon said that his bill would provide uniformity by requiring other state-funded schools to adopt the same policy. De Leon said he hopes the bill brings uniformity to the sexual assault policies at California’s schools.

13. 8. Will it pass?


Quite possibly. The bill has already been approved by the California Senate and is moving toward the Assembly. It has received bipartisan support at each stage, and a spokesperson for De Leon told BuzzFeed Thursday support for the bill moving forward is looking good.

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