Why you should practice affirmative consent: It’s healthy (and sexy)

A few weeks ago, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that compels California universities to use an “affirmative consent” standard when investigating campus sexual assaults. As Amanda Hess from Slate explains,

This means that during an investigation of an alleged sexual assault, university disciplinary committees will have to ask if the sexual encounter met a standard where both parties were consenting, with consent defined as “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” Notice that the words “verbal” or “stone sober” are not included in that definition. The drafters understand, as most of us do when we’re actually having sex, that sometimes sexual consent is nonverbal and that there’s a difference between drunk, consensual sex and someone pushing himself on a woman who is too drunk to resist.

Predictably, there was some concern about whether the state should be involved in the sex lives of college students. There was concern that the law will encourage false reports (of which there are only between 2-8 percent), and that false claims will skyrocket. As Gloria Steinem and Michael Kimmel pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, a similar law was enacted in Canada in 1992, and “yet the reporting of sexual assault has not skyrocketed with this higher standard.”

This law is a small step toward sexual violence prevention, and a giant leap in providing victims with protection they deserve.

Primary prevention of sexual violence – that is, preventing the violence before it is perpetrated – includes shifting unhealthy sexual and gender norms. It also puts the burden on everyone to prevent violence, not just a potential victim and/or a potential perpetrator. Primary prevention includes healthy sexuality.

Healthy sexuality is having the knowledge and power to express one’s sexuality in ways that enrich one’s life. It includes approaching sexual interactions and relationships from a consensual, respectful and informed perspective. Healthy sexuality is free from coercion and violence, which is precisely what this law seeks to promote.

Unfortunately in our culture, people aren’t automatically tuned into what it means to be a sexually healthy person. It’s something we all have to work on, given how bombarded we are with societal messages that tell us otherwise. We are taught that women and girls are sexual gatekeepers who should “pretend” to not want to have sex (when they actually do want it) — or to pretend to want it when they don’t — and men and boys should be aggressors who push to have sex no matter what their partner says.

Is it any wonder that sexual violence is such an issue?

And yet, healthy sexuality does exist and it is possible to be a sexually healthy person — and to have a sexually healthy culture. To have a law that promotes a standard of “yes means yes” instead of “no means no” is a great way to help establish healthy sexuality norms. People need to know that sex isn’t sexy without the presence (verbal or otherwise) of an enthusiastic yes, and if it takes a law to compel university officials to use that standard in investigations, then so be it.

As anyone who has ever enjoyed consensual sex will tell you, it’s pretty clear when the other person is into it. Not sure? Ask. It seems simple, and yet many fear that in practice it will be awkward. But as we all learn to be sexually healthier people, practice makes perfect.

So start practicing. It’s (healthy) sexy (sexuality).

This post is cross-posted from a post Cara wrote for Maine Family Planning’s blog, On the Front Lines.

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