In the midst of pushing for her bill that establishes a “Yes means Yes” standard for sexual consent in Connecticut, State Sen. Mae Flexer visited campus yesterday.
Roughly 35 students gathered in the Branford Common Room with the Yale College Democrats and Students against Sexual Violence at Yale to talk about the legislation as well as Yale’s sexual climate. Flexer, a Democrat, along with State Rep. Gregory Haddad, who is also a Democrat, is proposing a bill that would require universities in Connecticut to define appropriate sexual consent as “unambiguous and continuous.” While many universities claim to abide by affirmative consent, Flexer told the News that only two universities — Yale and the University of Connecticut — have policies matching the standards of the legislation she is proposing.
“There are a few key lines in the legislation, which when adopted by universities, will help bring forth safe college campuses across the state,” she said.
The bill states sexual consent must be mutual, ongoing and conscious.
Although Yale already meets the standards laid out by Flexer and Haddad, participants in yesterday’s panel emphasized that conversations about affirmative consent should still take place on campus.
The panel was led by Yale College Democrats President Tyler Blackmon ’16, a columnist for the News, and Head of SASVY Emma Goldberg ’16, a columnist and former opinion editor for the News. They interviewed Flexer, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd and Communication and Consent Educator Vincent Kennedy ’16 about the role of affirmative consent on Yale’s campus, and the potential impact of the bill.
Dems Communications Director Hedy Gutfreund ’18 said affirmative consent is one of four policies the organization chose to focus on this spring. Monday’s panel was intended to give more information and depth on the legislation, Gutfreund said.
Flexer, described by Blackmon as a “rising star of the Democratic party in Connecticut,” said she has been motivated by students at Yale and UConn who have supported the bill.
“[These students] wanted Connecticut to follow California in leading the nation on this issue,” she said.
Flexer said many of her colleagues in the state legislature do not understand the motivations behind affirmative consent. Together with Boyd and Kennedy, she explained how she defines affirmative consent, and she countered arguments against the bill. She explained that affirmative consent aims to create an environment on college campus that promotes positivity in sexual encounters. Kennedy said the CCEs try to further understanding of consent by defining the term according to natural human behavior. He said the CCEs acknowledge that most humans develop a sense of consent when they are young by recognizing gestures and body language. That same concept applies to sexual consent, he said.
“Perpetrators of sexual assault choose to ignore [this body language],” Kennedy said.
One false criticism of the bill is that affirmative consent presumes guilt in an accused, Flexer said. Boyd explained that Yale still begins with a presumption of innocence but simply has shifted the question from “was there a refusal” to “was there agreement.”
While the majority of the attendees of the panel were in favor of the bill, some disagreed with affirmative consent legislation. Eliot Levmore ’18 said that affirmative consent is difficult to enforce and that legislation mandating it does, contrary to Boyd’s remark, contribute to the presumption of guilt in sexual assault investigations. He said Yale’s current infrastructure for handling such claims labels respondents as “oddly criminal.”
Amalia Halikias ’15, who attended the event, said she thinks affirmative consent policies infantilize women by assuming they are incapable of declining unwanted advances. She added that she considers Yale’s definition of sexual assault too liberal because the University accepts complaints of any sexual advance, regardless of whether the law would deem it assault.
While Halikias disagreed with Yale’s definition of sexual assault, Boyd said it is important to recognize that because people have normalized a certain level of disrespect, people do not always recognize low-level forms of sexual misconduct for what they are. But she added that it is important that people recognize these behaviors as part of a continuum of sexual misconduct.
“We can’t [only] take action when something is violent,” she said. “Sexual assault is a capacious category, and people need to be held accountable.”
Flexer said conversations like the one at the panel are continuous, and that the voices of students at the bill’s public hearing will be instrumental in forwarding the bill to the state Senate floor. During the panel, she encouraged students to reach out to their local state senators to stress the importance of the issue. Blackmon told the News that the Dems will follow the bill closely and prepare a statement of support of the bill for the public hearing, which has not been scheduled.
“What people need to understand about this is that affirmative consent is about more than just sexual assault,” Blackmon said. “Ultimately, it makes every sexual encounter so much better.”
Correction: Feb. 17
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article misstated the quote of Vincent Kennedy ’16.
Clarification: Feb. 17
A previous version of this article stated that Eliot Levmore said affirmative consent is hard to define, when in fact he said it is hard to enforce. The article has also been revised to clarify his view on the presumption of innocence or guilt.