How 'Yes Means Yes' Already Works on One Campus

September 29, 2014

When Tyler Anderson spoke to first-year students at Grinnell College this fall about the institution’s policy on sexual consent, he acknowledged that asking for a partner’s approval during sex may seem unnatural.

Grinnell’s two-year-old policy, which is similar to the hotly debated one just adopted in California, requires students to gain "affirmative consent" from partners in all sexual interactions. The goal is to stop sexual assault and create a common understanding of what constitutes consensual sexual contact.

"The common misconception of affirmative consent is that you are stopping before you do something and looking at your partner, and they will have a placard saying, ‘Yes, keep going,’ or ‘No, don’t,’" Mr. Anderson, a junior, says he told students during freshman orientation. "But that’s really not how it works."

How it works is usually more subtle, says Mr. Anderson, who is a catcher on the college’s baseball team and a member of a new college task force aimed at preventing sexual misconduct and substance abuse. It can include gauging a partner’s enthusiasm by making eye contact and gaining a nod—as opposed to an uncomfortable pause or an ambivalent "I guess so"—when you ask someone if he or she would like to engage in a certain sexual behavior.

"We say, If you are worried about this, you may want to practice," says Mr. Anderson. At orientation, he suggested that freshmen pair up with a friend and role-play situations in which they asked for, and gave, affirmative consent. Or, he advised, they could talk to themselves in front of a mirror. "Going over common phrases you might use," he says, "can help you be more comfortable."

Teaching students how to make sure they and their partners are on the same page during sex so that encounters don’t lead to charges of assault is sensitive and tricky. Students, like most people, aren’t used to being told so explicitly what to do in the privacy of their own bedrooms. But guiding them is a role colleges find themselves playing as they are responsible for both preventing sexual assault and for handling reports of sexual misconduct.

At Grinnell, most students seem to accept the college’s involvement in what many consider a very personal matter.

Defining Sexual Consent

"The general consensus is enthusiasm for the policy," says Mr. Anderson, who was a freshman in 2012, when the college’s Student Government Association voted to approve it.

Raynard S. Kington, Grinnell’s president, says encouraging students to be more responsible in sexual encounters is a natural part of the college’s mission. "This is no different from a lot of ways we try to generate an environment that allows change to occur, so students become more responsible, critical thinkers," says Mr. Kington. "It’s one of the things a residential, liberal-arts college can do."

Yes Means Yes

Policies like Grinnell’s and California’s are gaining attention as colleges struggle to find ways to prevent sexual assault. Under Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972, colleges must respond fairly to reports of sexual misconduct and penalize perpetrators, whether or not victims also report assaults to the police. Campuses are coming under increasing pressure from the White House, Congress, and victims’ rights advocates to find ways to reduce assaults.

Colleges routinely tell students they must have consent from their partners during sexual encounters and say that if those partners are too intoxicated to consent it is not OK to proceed. In many cases students who are accused of assault say they believe they did have consent, but students who report assaults say they never gave it or were too drunk to remember.

If a college finds that a student who reports an assault was incapacitated by alcohol during a sexual encounter, the college often determines that student was incapable of consenting—even if the student had said yes—and finds the accused student responsible, a determination that can lead to expulsion.

Consent can be highly ambiguous in a sexual encounter, and, as colleges consider cases of sexual assault, it has often proved difficult for them to determine what constitutes consent. Does the absence of an objection qualify as consent? Can someone consent if they are drunk but not necessarily incapacitated? And if a student consents to some sexual activities, does that mean the student is consenting to others?

Strict requirements, like Grinnell’s, that stipulate students must gain affirmative consent in sexual interactions are not the rule in higher education, although several other campuses have adopted such policies. They are designed to try to clear up the ambiguity surrounding consent and to change the norm when it comes to sex, moving it from an emphasis on no means no to yes means yes.

"Consent to engage in sexual activity must exist from the beginning to end of each instance of sexual activity," says Grinnell’s policy. "Consent is demonstrated through mutually understandable words and/or clear, unambiguous actions that indicate a willingness to engage freely in sexual activity." It adds: "Consent to one form of sexual activity does not constitute consent to engage in all forms of sexual activity."

Of course, even with a requirement of affirmative consent it is still possible that some people accused of assault will say they believe they obtained consent, while the partners will deny they gave it. It also isn’t clear yet in Grinnell’s case whether the policy has had any effect on the number of assaults.

"There is no rigorous data that’s going to tell you whether changing the policy had a demonstrable effect," says Mr. Kington. "There remains a huge amount of uncertainty. But that didn’t stop us from doing the right thing."

In fact, reports of sexual assault at Grinnell have increased nearly tenfold since 2010, going from two that year to 18 in 2012, the year the policy was adopted. Statistics for the two years since the policy was put in place are not yet available, although figures for 2013 are expected to be released on October 1. Administrators believe that the rise in reports of forcible sexual offenses is a result not necessarily of more assaults but of greater reporting, since attention to assault has been heightened over the last several years.

"The increase in the number of reported sexual assaults is a frequently seen result when a college improves its reporting and works to make students feel safer coming forward," says Lisa Lacher, a Grinnell spokeswoman.

Many students going to college haven’t had much experience with sex, says Miriam Clayton, a Grinnell senior who is an advocate for victims of sexual assault on the campus. Grinnell’s affirmative-consent policy "raises the standard for how much you’re communicating during sexual activity," she says, and "gives people permission to have the conversations they want to have and are not sure whether it’s socially acceptable to have" about sex.

Dan Davis, a junior majoring in mathematics, says he has put the affirmative-consent policy into practice with his partners and it hasn’t felt odd. "This doesn’t seem like something that would be done in real-life sexual situations, since sex is thought of as spur-of-the-moment and passionate," he says. "But I will say stuff such as, Do you want to go any further? Or little things like, Is this all right with you? By not asking these questions, your passion and excitement is more of an entitlement, and you are just assuming that the other person is there for your pleasure."