Nick Malherbe
Nick Malherbe

Yes means yes, lessons from affirmed consent

Freshmen (first-year university students) across the US are in the middle of what is known as “the red zone” — a period of time in which an especially high number of incidences of sexual violence are reported on college campuses. It is during this period that US universities typically engage in numerous awareness campaigns that attempt to address the pervasiveness of this kind of violence.

A little over a year ago, a number of American states began implementing Senate Bill No. 967, a law necessitating that all investigations into cases of sexual violence on university campuses adopt standards of affirmative consent. In short, affirmative consent requires that students are absolutely explicit in verbally consenting to any sexual activity.

With continuous societal disregard toward survivors of sexual violence, legislation around affirmative consent has arrived at a crucial, albeit delayed, moment. The law seems to widen the definition of sexual violence to include particular cases that are often ignored in both legal proceedings and public discourse. Such cases may include rape between long-term romantic partners, or consenting to some sexual acts but not others. The simple “yes means yes” underpinning of SB No.967 serves as an important reminder that sexual violence takes on a number of forms, and is in fact not inappropriate behaviour. It is violent behaviour.

Although no red zone has been outlined, sexual violence within South African universities is rife. The anonymous entries posted to one especially revealing blog highlights that the pervasiveness of such violence on campuses is tolerated at both institutional and social levels. Indeed, universities may serve as a microcosm for broader South African society, where the acceptance of sexual violence has been institutionalised. Numerous public discourses and understandings work to render secondary survivors of sexual violence by normalising or disbelieving their experience of this kind of violence.

In the year since its implementation, the affirmed consent law has done little to drastically diminish instances of sexual violence at American universities. One may therefore argue that there is little reason to strive for such ineffective legislation in South Africa. But this kind of argument diminishes the important societal contributions inherent within affirmative consent.

Laws like SB No.967 act to raise awareness as well as make clear that which constitutes sexual violence; an incredibly simple definition which is constantly renegotiated and reconstructed within patriarchal societies. Although this legislation has yet to significantly reduce instances of sexual violence, it arms us in deconstructing the culture — or what associate professor Pumla Gqola calls the “language” — of rape, in which these instances of violence are embedded.

SB No.967 presses those on campus and beyond to actively disrupt attempts to define sexual consent in any way other than “yes means yes”. Although the notion of affirmed consent will not cease perpetuations of rape culture, its legislation serves as an important and an explicit reminder that all discourse which acts to excuse, justify or ignore sexual violence cannot be tolerated.

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