One in five college-age women have experienced sexual assault, according to a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll released in June. Five percent of the college-age men polled reported having been sexually assaulted.
These sober statistics spurred state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, to introduce legislation Tuesday that would fundamentally change the way sexual consent is taught in high school sex education programs.
Consent and a lack of understanding of what it means, Hertel and others argue, are at the core of the increasing number of reported incidents of sexual assault on college and university campuses locally and across the country.
“In my time with the East Lansing Police Department, I have seen a scary trend unfold,” Lt. Det. Scott Wrigglesworth said at a press conference at the Hannah Center announcing the measure. “A lot students simply do not know what consent looks and sounds like.”
Indeed that same poll found that 46 percent said it’s unclear whether sexual assault occurs if both people have not given clear agreement. Forty-seven percent called that scenario sexual assault.
In interviews with City Pulse earlier this month, some college students had a general understanding that no meant no when it came to consent, but those distinct lines blurred when the questions became more direct relating to rescinding consent during sexual activity or what if any role drugs or alcohol might play in relation to sexual consent.
“The last thing we should be worried about when our children go to college it that they will be the victim of sexual assault,” Hertel said.His bill is modeled on legislation signed into law last year in California. It requires that schools “teach pupils that in order for consent to be given by both parties to sexual activity it must be affirmative consent and that ‘affirmative consent’ consent means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.”
“It is the re sponsibility of each individual involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in sexual activity; that lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, and that silence does not mean consent; that affirmative consent must be ongoing through out a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time; and that the existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent,” the measure’s language states.
The legislation would also specify that consent cannot be given if one party is drunk, drugged, asleep or unconscious. That is a standard in college investigations under title IX, a federal law which controls how educational programs respond to allegations of sexual harassment, including sexual assault.
But what if the drunk party is not “obviously” drunk or drugged? Or both parties are drunk or drugged together?
“Obviously, someone who doesn’t know someone is drunk or drugged can’t know that that person can’t consent,” Hertel said. “What we’re talking about is giving people the tools to make sure they are getting consent.”
Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he will study the legislation closely, but he does not believe it will get the support of the GOP majority.
“It may be OK, but I think there is much more to teach,” Jones said in a phone interview. He wants schools to teach that there are consequences and that no one under the age of 16 is capable of consenting to sexual activity.
“We need to teach about the seriousness of the consequences if you cross the line,” he said.