A new “affirmative consent” law for sexual assault prevention in California is making waves in Atlantic Canada and prompting discussion about attitudes toward the concept of consent.
On Sept. 28, Californian governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 976 into law, creating the “affirmative consent” or “yes means yes” law, which stipulates that in all sexual encounters, there must be explicit and ongoing consent by all parties.
The law goes so far as to require that post-secondary institutions enforce it in order to receive student financial assistance funding.
The influence of this law has not been confined to California. Two weeks ago, two cartoons were published in the Université de Moncton’s student paper, Le Front, which portrayed the law as a way for women to control men. One focused on the affirmative consent law.
A translation of the cartoon reads, “United States (California): A new law for women. Women can feel reassured! The new Californian law, which stipulates the need for the explicit consent of both partners, will make [women] happy … or not.”
Over these words is a picture of a male character asking a woman to sign a contract and the woman thinking to herself, “Tsk … Thanks to the law, guys will never be like they used to be …”
The cartoon caused a lot of controversy among the students of the Université de Moncton. Madeleine Arseneau is one of these students. She filed a complaint about the cartoon to Le Front and her school’s student union.
“I was disappointed a lot by my student newspaper and their work. There were two different cartoons; one was explicitly showing that women complicate the situation for a man to have a sexual relation with them when they act in favour to reduce rapes,” Arseneau said.
“I shared the picture on Facebook and encouraged my Facebook friends to [submit] a complaint too. I think that when the cartoon went on Facebook, people realized that it was really bad and a lot of people reacted about it on social media,” she said.
Meghan Keating, the Voices Against Sexual Aggression co-ordinator at UNB, has a similar take on the cartoon.
“The cartoon in Le Front is an example of misogyny and a fundamental misunderstanding of feminism and the women’s rights movement. It perpetuates the attitude that women are seeking rights or power at the expense of men,” she said.
While the Californian law does not affect Canadians directly, the affirmative consent law is not unlike section 273.2B in Canada’s criminal code.
“In Canada, consent is the voluntary agreement, expressed through words or positive conduct. Consent cannot be given if a person is incapacitated or unconscious and often applies to intoxicated persons,” said Keating.
“Nor is the lack of ‘no’ considered consent. Consent is also ongoing — if a person says ‘yes’ initially, but then says ‘no’ or wants to stop, they have revoked consent.”
At UNB, there are initiatives in place to keep students safe that go beyond simply following the criminal code.
“The university is supportive of initiatives to prevent and handle sexual assault. Recently, the university has developed and will be implementing C-SART (Campus Sexual Assault Response Team) which aims to provide students with immediate on-campus assistance in the event of sexual assault,” Keating said.
There is also the Voices against Sexual Aggression program which is run through the UNB Sexuality Centre and Student Affairs.
“[It] advocates for the prevention of sexual and dating violence, but also promote and educate healthy relationships,” said Keating.
Keating said that it is this type of education that addresses the issue of sexual assault more than the law.
“Affirmative consent means that students might think about their actions before or during sex. The bill itself isn’t likely to affect any change unless there is education about healthy and consensual sex that goes along with it. Part of the problem is not knowing what counts as sexual assault,” she said.
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