If you've spent much time on a college campus in the last couple of years, you may have seen a lush quad and neo-gothic cloister interrupted by fliers screaming "Yes Means Yes!" According to recent research on sexual consent among college students, you wouldn't be wrong to wonder whom the unsubtle slogan really serves.
Part of a campaign to counteract a perceived rape culture, "Yes Means Yes!" stands for an accepted definition of "affirmative consent" to sexual activity. But, in light of findings from San Jose State professor Jason Laker and colleague Erica Boas, it's unclear whether this definition's role in campus policy has any influence on students' attitudes and actions.
The two California scholars interviewed cohorts of California college students since 2012 and found that, despite its heavy-handed promotion, "affirmative consent" remains reportedly absent from students' encounters. In explaining the impetus for the extensive study and its consistent results, Laker told Inside Higher Ed's Jake New
"The idea of affirmative consent has resulted in progressive advancement of college policies," Jason Laker, a professor in San Jose State University's department of counselor education, said. "But just because you make it clearer what we expect in terms of consent from a legal or policy standpoint, that doesn't change the fact that people are limited in their ability to meet those expectations." […] While interviewing that first cohort of freshmen, Laker and Boas discovered that students often had trouble recalling the buildup to any one sexual encounter, even when sober. It just happened. "That's what they said hundreds of times in our first round of interviews," Laker said. "'It just happened.'"
As if to buck our basest nature, administrators at every level addressed the perennial he-said-she-said problem with a legal definition of consent—one which campus tribunals and state legislatures furnished under federal pressure.
The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights issued guidance in 2011 and 2014, and declared that failure to comply with a particular federal interpretation of how to handle claims of sexual assault on campuses could cost colleges much-needed federal funding.
And so, incentivized to the hilt, campuses have worked to keep up with evolving definitions. A great many followed California's lead, legislating that "affirmative consent" is the only kind that counts. (The old standard, "no means no," was no longer enough.) After that state's update in 2014, "Yes Means Yes!" policies swept hundreds of campuses in a wave of activist triumph.
At the time, some criticized the standard as impossible to uphold and, therefore, an impediment to justice. Others looked askance at its infantilizing skew and topsy-turvy attempts to teach 18 year olds how to handle themselves alone together.
As Laker puts it, "[M]any affirmative consent policies treat students as though they have 'just hatched out of an egg,' rather than arriving on a campus with 18 years of socialization about sexuality and consent."
Not so shockingly, Laker and Boas find social science seems to side with common sense: Their research affirms the primacy of instinct in suggesting that "affirmative consent" just isn't how social animals tend to behave.