Yale students ventured to Hartford this week to testify in favor of a bill that would establish a “yes means yes” standard for sexual consent on the state’s college campuses.
Submitted to the General Assembly by Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, and Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, the bill would mandate that all colleges in the state adopt an “affirmative consent” standard to define sexual assault. Currently, only three colleges in the state use that standard. Yale is one of them, having instituted affirmative consent in 2011. Roughly 10 students from Yale and other Connecticut universities testifying in favor of the bill Tuesday to the General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee said affirmative consent makes college campuses safer, but other citizens raised questions about the bill’s potential impact on students’ constitutional rights.
For Helen Price ’18, the director of Unite Against Sexual Assault Yale, the consequences of not having an affirmative consent standard are clear. Her friends at British universities — most of which have no affirmative consent standard — grapple with a culture of sexual assault, she told the committee.
“Virtually all of my friends [at British universities] have had at least one sexual encounter where they weren’t willing and active participants — because they felt under pressure, they were worried their partner would turn hostile or for one of many other reasons,” Price said. “They did not say no, but they did not say yes either.”
Dasia Moore ’18, legislative coordinator for the Yale College Democrats, sat beside Price as she testified. Despite colleges’ illusion of safety, Moore said to the committee, they are in fact unsafe places where sexual assault occurs all too often.
Students Unite Now activist Hannah Schmitt ’18 described to the committee exactly what that lack of safety looks like on campus. She said that before she and her friends go to parties, they develop signals to indicate if they experience unwanted touching and need a way out.
“[Affirmative consent] really does change campus climate,” Schmitt said. “Because of affirmative consent, I can have conversations where I learn not only how to be a better partner, but also to demand that other people be better partners for me.”
College Democrats of Connecticut Treasurer Nicholas Girard ’19, who also testified, framed the legislation as an “effective, common-sense” measure that would combat victim-blaming on campuses and create a culture more conducive to justice.
Moore noted that students often fail to come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct out of a fear that the university will “mishandle” the case. She said passing the affirmative consent legislation would aid the cause of justice at colleges across the state and go a long way in addressing a culture that often fails to recognize sexual consent.
“Colleges come with many risks, academic and social,” Moore said. “Being assaulted should not be one of them. Being denied justice after experiencing assault should not be one of them.”
But others expressed less positive views about the affirmative consent bill. Wilton, Connecticut resident Shelley Dempsey spoke against the bill after being introduced by her representative, Rep. Gail Lavielle GRD ’81, R-Wilton.
Dempsey, an attorney involved with due-process advocacy group Families Advocating for Campus Equality, said a false accusation of sexual assault against her son, then a Bucknell University student, led to his suspension from the university. He was ultimately reinstated after he was cleared of the charge. She said his situation was only one among many and that the affirmative consent legislation would shift the legal balance away from the accused.
For Dempsey, the bill undermines “innocent before proven guilty,” which she said is the fundamental principal of American justice. Dempsey was not, however, opposed to the idea of affirmative consent on principle: she said affirmative consent can be an effective learning tool and should be taught on campuses like it is taught at Yale, but should not become a judicial standard.
“The language of this bill ensures that wrongful accusations will continue and the accused will be specifically deprived of the protections afforded to them under the U.S. Constitution,” Dempsey said. “What the standard sets up is guilt before proving innocence. That I find disgraceful, as an attorney as well. It upends our system of justice.”
But Flexer disagreed. In a heated exchange with Dempsey, Flexer argued that statistics show one of every five women will be a sexual assault victim on campus. That many of the perpetrators are repeat offenders only increases the need for the affirmative consent bill, she said.
Dempsey, however, called into question the often-cited one-in-five statistic, saying that the figure was based on a flawed 2007 study conducted by a team of researchers for the U.S. Department of Justice. She said the study’s results have recently been pedaled back by the department, which released a 2014 study that showed the rate of sexual assault sat at a rate of 6.1 assaulted students per 1,000 in the period from 1995 to 2013.
Flexer said Dempsey was reframing the debate in a way that was not conducive to solving the urgent problem of college sexual assault.
“It’s frustrating to be debating the criminal justice statistics on this issue when everyone in this room can recognize that there are clearly far too many young women in this state and across the country that are sexually assaulted on our college campuses,” Flexer said.
Flexer added that she had not found evidence of any college student ever having been sent to prison for a rape that had occurred on campus — a fact that she said suggests criminal proceedings are ineffective when it comes to campus rape, making higher standards for university proceedings more urgent.
The Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education Center is located at 55 Lock St.