The trustees of the State University of New York last Thursday passed a resolution directing all 64 of the system’s campuses to implement an “affirmative consent” standard for use in campus disciplinary proceedings involving sexual assault.
The standard adopted by the trustees declares that consent to sexual contact must be “active, not passive.” Such consent must be “clear, knowing, and voluntary,” independent of prior sexual contact and to consent to other forms of sexual activity.
What does this mean? It means that you won’t be able to claim consent to sexual contact in SUNY unless your partner has indicated that consent in a clear, uncoerced, active way.
What it doesn’t mean, despite the claims of sky-is-falling types, is that such consent must be verbal. There’s no requirement that sexual partners ask permission before engaging in particular acts, and in fact the standard explicitly states that non-verbal communication is appropriate:
“Consent can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions create mutually understandable clear permission regarding willingness to engage in (and the conditions of) sexual activity.”
The concept of affirmative consent has been gaining ground recently, most visibly with the passage of a California law mandating it as the standard to be used in disciplinary proceedings in that state’s public campuses. I’ve been a fan of the approach since I first encountered it in 2010, when I summarized it this way:
“Under an affirmative consent model, consent can never be assumed. It must always be confirmed. Both parties must “opt in” for consent to exist. When you initiate sexual contact, you have an obligation to pay attention as you go to whether your partner is receptive.
“And no, this doesn’t mean you have to get a verbal “yes” in response to each act. It just means that if one person is doing all the initiating, that person needs to be responsive to their partner’s reactions. An overt affirmative response, whether verbal or non-verbal, constitutes an opt-in. In the absence of such a response, you back off or you ask what’s up.
“That’s it. That’s all there is to it. If you don’t know whether your advances are being well received, you don’t keep advancing. Pretty simple.”
I’m excited to see my alma mater take this step, and look forward to its adoption elsewhere.