By Jillian Gilchrest, age 34
Until 1974, Connecticut law required corroborating evidence to obtain a sexual assault conviction, the only law to do so. In everyday terms that means that the state had to get someone else to back-up a victim’s claim of sexual violence in order to convict a rapist. A woman’s account just wasn’t enough. Advocates fought for years to repeal ‘corroborating evidence’ laws nationwide, to seek justice for victims and challenge a policy premised on an inherent distrust of victims of sexual assault, the majority of whom are women.
How ironic and sad that today, advocates working to enact affirmative consent laws are once again trying to overcome this same inherent distrust.
In the 80’s and 90’s, the prevailing slogan to combat sexual violence was “no means no,” a message meant to assert a woman’s right to her body and control within sexual activity. Women and men alike who came of age during those decades can recite that message. But for many people, “no means no” didn’t translate into a woman’s authority over her body. Quite the contrary. For many people it translates into men pushing the sexual envelope as far as they can until they get a no. For others, it means being on the defensive, at the ready to say no. In many respects, “no means no” reduced sex to a game of Stratego.
Now, in the year 2016, advocates in Connecticut (including myself) are in year 2 of a campaign to require affirmative consent be the standard used on colleges campuses–in their student codes of conduct, disciplinary proceedings, and education and awareness programming. The title of this post is something I hear often when met with opposition for affirmative consent legislation, “but Jillian, I have sons.” They needn’t say more than that. Those few words speak volumes and are laced in the distrust of women, inherent to the crime of sexual violence.
But you see, I have a son too and I believe women. There are some men who speak with me about their experience growing up learning “no means no,” who are comfortable enough to share how this standard didn’t help them and their self-described, lack of “game”. For them, navigating a sexual relationship was challenging and confusing. When I think of my own son, these are the men I think about. I don’t want my son to grow up in fear of being accused of sexual violence, just as I don’t want my daughter growing up in fear of being raped. I want both of my children to understand consent and what it means to be in a healthy sexual relationship.
Advocates today want to enact affirmative consent legislation for the same reasons those before us sought to overturn ‘corroborating evidence’ laws. We want justice for victims of sexual assault and to challenge old notions of how we view sexual activity and sexual violence. Affirmative consent legislation defines sexual activity as clear, active, and voluntary.
Sex should be consensual, shouldn’t it? If so, then why is this policy so difficult to pass, if not for the vestiges of our past.