New York says 'yes' to yes

New statewide sexual assault policy rightly accentuates importance of consent and empowers victims

In an encouraging legislative move, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered the SUNY system to revamp its sexual assault policy, revealing that sexual assault remains on the forefront of lawmakers’ minds.

It appears that, finally, this issue is being taken seriously even after it fades from headlines (though this new development has brought the topic back to the front page), and lawmakers are generating long-term, permanent solutions that allow for greater optimism than ever before.

The new, statewide policy requires that New York’s public universities include an affirmative consent rule on all campuses. The new policy, similar to California’s recently instituted “yes means yes” law requires that consent be an affirmative, unambiguous and mutual act.

The new SUNY rule will read that “Consent is clear, knowing and voluntary ... Consent is active, not passive.”

This increasing emphasis on the nature of consent as unambiguous and outright removes the problematic “gray area” from cases of sexual assault. The laws specify that silence does not count as consent, and that agreeing to one form of sexual activity does not automatically provide consent for anything else.

Such concrete rules not only make it much simpler to recognize when consent has not been given, but also make it clear to students that this issue matters enough to generate specific and pointed legislation.

These new policies are impressive in their relevance to the context of universities and situations that arise when alcohol is involved – the law details that individuals are not capable of giving consent if they are “physically helpless, mentally incapacitated or asleep,” as described by the New York Times.

The change to the definition of consent is the most striking aspect of the legislation, but it’s also important that this new policy unifies all 64 SUNY campuses in their procedures addressing sexual assault. Previously, each school had developed their own policies, leading to inconsistency and varying effectiveness.

Cuomo’s request ensures that SUNY provides a united and aggressive front on this issue, and gives New York the opportunity to lead the charge against a problem that the nation has woken up to at last.

The additional elements of the proposed policies indicate a similar awareness of the issues that plague sexual assault – including that crimes often go unreported. New rules guarantee immunity for students who report sexual assault even if they were breaking laws or violating campus policies. The fear of being punished for underage drinking, for example, should no longer prevent students from reporting a crime.

The introduction of a Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of rights, which informs students that they can go to campus security or the police to report a crime and which will be widely distributed on campuses also indicates the increased sensitivity to the plight of victims of sexual assault on college campuses.

Hopefully the institution of new laws, the increased pressure on campuses to tale prevention and prosecution seriously and a growing awareness of this issue’s prevalence will ultimately reduce the number of sexual assault victims drastically. But until then, ensuring they at least are assured their rights is an encouraging step forward.