State legislators have approved a bill dealing with sexual assault, inspired by events that transpired at the University of Connecticut last year.
The bill, accepted by members of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, will move towards a vote on its passage in the near future.
It is being called the “Yes means yes” bill, because it stipulates, in departure from past legislation, that college students must verbalize or suggest consent at each step of a sexual encounter.
The bill attempts to take tangible steps towards combatting rape culture on campus. California, which passed into law a similar bill, necessitates “an affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement,” in order for students to have sex. New York has also implemented a comparable policy for its public universities.
The bill makes clear that current or former relationships are not grounds for consent. It also specifies that consent cannot be given while under the influence of drugs, medication or alcohol.
Passed through the committee with a vote of 14-3 and bipartisan backing, the bill was still subjected to scrutiny. Legislators worried that the wording about consent and sexual activity in the proposal was too ambiguous. Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, called for more explicit diction.
“Is hugging sexual activity?” McCrory questioned. “Is kissing sexual activity? It’s not defined. We have to be a little more specific.”
Rep. Mike Bocchino, R-Greenwich, wondered aloud whether the “Yes means yes” policy will have any effect as long as there are no witnesses.
“No question that sexual assault is a horrific thing,” Bocchino said. “No question that date rape things that happen on college campuses are disgusting…[but] at the end of the day, there are no witnesses…or at least if there are, it’s a really great party.”
Democrats and citizens at the hearing unleashed considerable backlash to Bocchino’s “really great party” comment. A Democratic spokesperson wrote in a statement after the hearing:
“I assume that it was an attempt at humor, but Rep. Bocchino should know better — and his constituents elected him to know better. Campus sexual assault is not a joke. It affects both genders, but up to one in five female students are victims. It’s a serious problem, and I hope Rep. Bocchino publicly apologizes for his distasteful and offensive comment.”
Bocchino offered a statement, though it was not necessarily an apology.
“In a sarcastic remark I referenced a situation where more than two people might be present at an intimate encounter where the point of consent was reached as ‘some kind of party.’ It was an unfortunate phrase to use because it was misconstrued by some who apparently wanted to undermine my support for this important legislation.”
Bocchino was one of the Republicans who voted in favor of the bill, which received unanimous Democratic support.
In response to the criticisms of the bill, State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, argued that positive consent cannot be definitively identified with a catalogue of appropriate actions or words. Flexer and Rep. Gregory Haddad, D-Storrs, co-sponsored the bill.
“We all communicate differently,” Flexer said. “You can tell when somebody wants to engage in a certain kind of activity. You can tell when somebody wants to pull back. It can be given verbally, but it can also be given in non-verbal cues as well.”
Within the bill, consent is described as “active, informed, unambiguous and voluntary agreement by a person to engage in sexual activity with another person that is sustained throughout the sexual activity and may be revoked at any time by any person.”
In her comments supporting the bill, Flexer pointed to accounts and advice from UConn students that argued positive consent, rather than “no means no,” would help the investigative process. According to Flexer, positive consent aids investigators in determining “when someone is perhaps bringing forward a false accusation.”
This coincides with actions taken last year in the Connecticut legislature following attorney Gloria Allred’s high-profile lawsuit from UConn students charging that rape was not handled correctly on campus. The lawsuit was settled for $1.3 million outside of court.
Past legislation has made it law for Connecticut higher education institutions to issue yearly reports regarding instances of stalking, domestic violence and sexual assault. 2014’s Public Act 14-11, An Act Concerning Sexual Assault, Stalking, and Intimate Partner Violence on Campus was a response to the controversy at UConn. It required that public and private universities and colleges give written statements to victims with their rights/options according to institutional guidelines. The bill required higher educational institutions offer more programs and ally themselves with sexual assault crisis service centers.
Christine A. Palm, the Communications Director for the female advocacy group the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, wrote a statement supporting the bill and its enactment into law.
“Although there are certainly times when women are the sexual aggressors, there remains an all-too-prevalent attitude that women’s bodies are, on some level, the legitimate domain of men. By requiring affirmative consent, campus policies will acknowledge that there are discriminatory power dynamics at work that can lead to sexual violence. And it sends an unambiguous message to the entire campus community that sexual intimacy must be a voluntarily shared experience and that no one has the right to presume a sense of entitlement over another person’s body.”
In addition to positive consent, the bill mandates awareness programs to spread the word about “Yes means yes.” These programs must offer prevention, incident reporting and bystander intervention aspects.