Yes Means Yes: A New Law to Help Protect Women and Men from Sexual Assault

Photo by klublub / 123RF

The first “Religion and the Media” class I taught in the United Kingdom’s state-maintained schools was in 2004. Students in the religious studies classes are taught how to be critical consumers of media as they examine how media portrays religious life, in addition to how it reports on ethical issues in contemporary society. Having lived abroad for nearly fifteen years now, I have seen ethical issues portrayed in local and international media groups. However, the lessons I used to teach my former students have always stayed in my mind, no matter where I traveled.

This past month, media responses towards issues that affect women have been less-than-amicable, to put it mildly. On-air comments that have been made by news commentators might be outward manifestations of attitudes and opinions that are secretly held. AHA Grassroots Coordinator Rachael Berman wrote a commentary on September 16 regarding an NFL player’s physical assault of his fiancée (later his wife), which reminded me of the earlier inappropriate comment made by Fox & Friends’ Brian Kilmeade that drew worldwide attention.

On September 24, Tyler Kingdade reported that Forbes magazine dismissed a columnist who wrote that “Drunk Female Guests Are the Greatest Threat to Fraternities.” The September 25 response from some commentators on Outnumbered was to try and seek a middle-ground discussion to the issue at hand, while others made glib comparisons such as “this kind of reminds of when white, straight rich men say ‘We’re being attacked’.” Is it possible for this “news” to report the issues without attempting to haze over or lampoon them?

Having recognized the need for concrete action to address cases of sexual assault on university campuses, California entered history books on September 28 when Gov. Jerry Brown announced a new law known as “Yes Means Yes.” This law requires partners to have “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” Other commentators such as Cal Thomas employed reminiscent language to describe an era in his memory when “culture has robbed women of what we used to call modesty and men of their obligation to respect, even protect, women.” Whether or not such a golden era existed, is not the issue. The issue is, rather, that if the freedom to choose responsible behavior is abused, then laws will be created to protect and direct the behaviors and choices that are regarded as responsible.

Ashley Jordan of the Feminist Caucus echoed similar support for the “Yes Means Yes” enactment: “In a system which does not listen to the voices of those it oppresses, you can say no a hundred thousand times and have each and every one of them devalued and ignored. ‘Did you say no?’ ‘Did you say no loud enough?’ ‘Did you say no like you meant it?’ ‘Could your rapist have thought no meant yes?’ The ‘Yes Means Yes’ bill gives power to the consent of the victims, and not to the ‘misunderstanding’ or lack of physical violence from the rapists like ‘no means no’ has done for so long.”

Of course, not everyone, especially those at Fox News, agrees with the new law. In an on-air discussion about the new law, instead of focusing on the seriousness of sexual violence toward women, comments were made such as “In my pockets, I have some documents and a breathalyzer,” and “They’re switching the standard that this country is founded on from innocent until proven guilty to guilty until proven innocent.” Jordan also responded to this by saying, “If the men objecting to the enforcement of this law are so concerned with false sexual assault reports, perhaps they should do what they often seem to recommend women and non-binary people do when we try to improve things for ourselves: Put their energy into improving the lives of male victims of sexual assault, whom this law will also help.”

Fox News’ Kimberly Guilfoyle did raise one valid point: more education and outreach should be required in order to help individuals make more appropriate choices of behavior in light of the law. A key issue for the work of the American Humanist Association is to “temper violence against women both in the household and in public.” We recognize progress is being made to counter this violence, but more is needed. In some legal systems, such as the UK’s Sexual Offences Act 2003 or New Zealand’s Crimes Act 1961, laws provide clearer guidelines and definitions to the questions that have been raised by both sides of this issue. They demonstrate equality for how the law is defined and applied—especially sexual activity under duress or impairment—both in and out of a marital relationship.

Reflecting on the importance of this particular issue, I am reminded of a speech that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered at Chapman University in 1961: “Now it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that is pretty important also. So that maybe the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. And this is what we seek to do through legislation in many instances.”

Laws support our moral and ethical belief that our bodies belong to us, are unique and individual, and that we are responsible for the actions that we commit with them in relationships with women and men.