New York's state university system has adopted a new definition of sexual consent that requires a clear, affirmative agreement between partners, part of a larger effort to reduce sexual violence on college campuses.
The SUNY Board of Trustees announced Tuesday that it formally approved the new policy, which will apply to more than 463,000 students on all 64 state campuses. Under the new "yes means yes" standard, silence cannot be interpreted as permission to engage in sexual contact, and consent may be withdrawn at any time.
"Today, SUNY is taking a critical step toward combating the epidemic of sexual violence and misconduct on our college campuses," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
The new definition says: "Affirmative consent is a clear, unambiguous, knowing, informed, and voluntary agreement between all participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent is active, not passive."
The standard goes on to say that a prior sexual relationship does not confer consent to future sexual activity.
In September, California became the first state in the nation to put in place a similar consent standard for both public and private colleges. Cuomo supports legislation that would extend the policies to private colleges in New York as well.
Critics of the policy question its usefulness, arguing that rapists are unlikely to be swayed by a new standard of consent.
"The world hasn't changed," said Mike Long, chairman of the New York Conservative Party. "Before long, they'll be asking for written consent. Why don't they just print forms and have people sign them? This new directive is not going to stop anybody who is going to rape somebody."
But supporters like Marybeth Seitz-Brown said the "yes means yes" standard — if properly relayed to students and law enforcement — is a powerful tool that can reduce rape. Seitz-Brown is a spokeswoman for Students Active For Ending Rape, an organization founded by Columbia University students to change sexual assault policies on college campuses.
"This started as a conversation on college campuses and now it's in our vernacular," she said. "'Yes means yes' challenges the idea that consent is assumed, the idea that some people have that other people's bodies are theirs for the taking unless they fight back."
Other initiatives adopted by the SUNY Board include better training for law enforcement and a bill of rights for sexual violence victims that informs them of their right to report sexual assault to campus police or the local police department.
To encourage the reporting of sexual violence, students will be given immunity for any drug or alcohol violations. All SUNY schools will adopt a uniform policy on victim confidentiality and the reporting of sex crimes.
"SUNY's top priority is to protect our students and foster safe learning environments on our college and university campuses," SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher said. "These new SUNY policies are sound, consensus-driven, and comprehensive."