Affirmative Consent Policies and Legislation: “Yes means Yes!” Replacing “No means No!”

Sexual assault can happen to anyone regardless of gender, sex, or sexual orientation. Concerns about what constitutes consent are core issues that have risen with the recent increase in high-profile college sexual assault cases at Steubenville, Vanderbilt, and Stanford . A majority of Americans are familiar with the phrase “No means No” in regards to sexual consent. However, it is apparent that not everyone is able to say “no.” In the cases where a victim does not say no, this indicates a lack of consent.consent

There are of course other factors to be considered. State and federal laws are now addressing those factors by removing the previous “No means No” mantra and replacing it with “Yes means Yes,” along with affirmative consent legislation. California, New York, Illinois, and Connecticut have already enacted affirmative consent laws, and 18 other states are currently drafting legislation. Colleges and universities are creating their own affirmative consent policies as they wait for state and federal action.

Currently, affirmative consent policies or laws require:

  • All individuals be conscious
  • All individuals be in a coherent state of mind (i.e., not incapacitated)
  • All individuals actively and equally participate without hesitation
  • There is an absence of coercion, physical force, or threat of physical force
  • There is an enthusiastic yes, to be verbalized

With more of the public attention focusing on the issue of consent, school policies and state and federal laws are being asked to provide clear definitions for affirmative consent. Policies now acknowledge that previous consensual relations do not constitute consent for future sexual acts. During intimacy, each act is acknowledged as separate, and giving consent for one action does not mean the individual is consenting to everything or anything that follows. Most important, policies now clarify that consent can also be withdrawn at any time.

In the act of changing the mantra we use from “No Means No!” to “Yes Means Yes!” we, as a society, are acknowledging that an absence of “No” does not constitute consent. Instead we are reaffirming that consent must be freely given, free of physical force and coercion, as a conscious decision, and enthusiastically.


Sources: The Affirmative Consent Project (2016), The New York Times, NPR.

Writer: Melanie Emerson is a recent Health Science graduate of Gettysburg College.  While in college she interned at a women’s health center involving issues related to sexual health, assault, and domestic violence. 


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