Sex, Gender and Informed Consent

yes-means-yes-ca

A shorter (and much pithier) version of this essay was published today in the Washington Post.

California’s SB967 – better known as the “yes means yes” law – clarifies the contours of sexual consent. For universities to receive state funds, they must now employ an “affirmative consent standard.” That means that both parties must actively, consciously and voluntarily agree to engage in sexual activity.

“Yes means yes” addresses both the high rate and the particular nature of sexual assaults on college campuses. According to studies one in five college women have been sexually assaulted. College victims are especially likely to be raped by someone they know and / or while incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. And they are less likely than women in the general population to define their experience of sexual assault as “rape” or to report assaults to law enforcement authorities. Because most campus rapes are not carried out by self-conscious criminals who set out to commit sexual assaults, SB967 makes use of the opportunities offered by a college setting to reduce sexual violence through education rather than solely through punitive actions.

Critics have argued that this measure will be impossible to implement on the grounds that “consent” is too difficult to gauge, that it constitutes government intrusions into the privacy of one’s bedroom, that it unconstitutionally presumes guilt, and (I assume mockingly) that it will require all men to tape video cameras to their genitals in order to prove that women continue to consent throughout the entire sexual encounter.

Concerns regarding the nature and feasibility of consent are not new, and fortunately for California and other states considering similar laws, these concerns have been thoroughly and successfully addressed in other settings. As the former Chair of the Institutional Review Board (the body that reviews the ethics of research involving human subjects) at Suffolk University, I have seen how well-developed, refined and extensively evaluated protocols for informed consent in human subjects research contain real protections for vulnerable populations as well as the flexibility to allow research to thrive.

Clearly, there are differences between research and party settings in terms of the business-like atmosphere of research interactions versus the recreational atmosphere of college interactions, the clarity with which the roles of researcher and subject versus the roles of college class mates are defined, and the amount of planning that goes into research versus a party.

But there are significant similarities as well. In both settings everyone involved may assume that all parties to the interaction have everyone’s best interests at heart and that there are no or minimal risks to participation. It is these kinds of assumptions — both by researchers and by subjects — that led to tragedies such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in which rural African American men were given free meals (and burials) for participating in the study, but were neither told that they were infected with nor were they treated for syphilis and to the need for subsequent restrictions on human subjects’ research.

Protocols for protecting human subjects recognize the power differentials inherent in the relationship between researchers (in possession of knowledge, institutional backing, monetary resources and access to goods and services such as new medical treatments) and human subjects. Gendered interactions similarly are inherently unequal given the greater incomes, financial assets, political power, physical size and strength of men, as well as the far greater likelihood that women (nearly one in five) have been raped at some time in their lives.

If regulations, whether for human subjects’ research or for sexual consent, at times seem tedious, we acknowledge that past injustices and current inequalities legitimately demand heightened scrupulousness in ensuring true, informed consent. Informed consent does not mean reading off a list of bureaucratic legalese. To the contrary, it entails authentic conversation regarding the roles of all participants.

How would this play out in a college setting?

Just as a researcher cannot acquire informed consent from a comatose or cognitively impaired subject, “yes means yes” requires that all parties to a sexual encounter are conscious and sufficiently sober to give meaningful consent. Consent does not necessarily need to be verbal – it can be indicated by a vigorous nod of the head or by moving in closer to the partner to the interaction. But it can never be assumed simply by the absence of aggressive resistance.

Along the same lines, it is the responsibility of the researcher to share with potential subjects all information needed to make an informed decision, and to clarify that the subject heard and understood that information. In terms of “yes means yes,” this principle translates into the responsibility of potential sexual partners to disclose information such as HIV status, the existence of other committed relationships, or actual motivations behind the encounter (for instance, whether the encounter is part of a fraternity initiation ritual).

Researchers are required to present potential subjects with a real choice regarding participation; we are not permitted to offer substantial monetary incentives and we are not allowed to withhold access to services or resources for those who do not wish to participate. The responsibility of researchers to refrain from badgering, tricking, or threatening subjects or potential subjects directly translates to the college setting where potential sexual partners should be trained to avoid pressure such as “If you don’t have sex with me I’ll tell people you’re a frigid bitch and you’ll never be invited to another party” or trickery such as inviting a first year student to a “cool” frat party with the intention of plying her with alcohol and manipulating her into a sexual encounter.

Particularly relevant to colleges, researchers are required to inform and remind human subjects that they may leave the study – with no negative repercussions and no need to justify or explain their decision – whenever they wish. In terms of SB967, a kiss really can just be a kiss and both parties to the kiss can walk away without threatening or humiliating accusations of “leading me on.”

In human subjects’ research, as in sexual encounters, no law will change the behavior of those few individuals truly intent on hurting others. While the initial push for human subject’s research regulation came about in response to the horrific Nazi medical experimentation on powerless victims, I don’t believe that the best ethics board in the world could have stopped Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

Along the same lines, I do not believe that SB967 will stop a perpetrator who consciously sets out to assault a fellow college student. It will, however, educate the many men who do not wish to be abusers on how to assess their own behavior and interactions. It will empower the many women who are not sure whether they really can say “no,” or if the unwanted sexual encounter really was “rape” to report and confront harmful actions and policies. And it will obligate colleges to provide compulsory and meaningful training in gender equity to women and men.

In human subjects’ research the bottom line is that we educate researchers to make honest and intelligent efforts not to exploit or cause harm to others, and we acknowledge that in the heat of the moment (yes, researchers do get passionate) we might be tempted to use our status or power to coercively. As a community of well-intentioned scholars, we welcome the guidance on how to minimize the risk of doing so. In that light, it’s hard to see why there has been so much opposition to “yes means yes.”

Read more here on why “yes means yes” is good for women and men.

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