The basics: Bill shifting consent standard in campus sex assaults wins final passage

The state Senate gave final passage Monday to a bill that establishes an affirmative-consent threshold in cases of sexual assault on all college and university campuses in Connecticut. The bill now heads to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk. If he signs it, Connecticut would be the fourth state to adopt such a standard.

What does the bill do?

When adjudicating complaints of sexual assault among college students, determining whether there was consent is crucial.

basics FeaturedToo often, proponents of the legislation say, victims are asked, “What did you do to say ‘no’?” instead of asking the accused perpetrator, “How do you know the act was consensual?”

Essentially, the burden shifts from the accuser having to prove an assault took place and to the accused having to explain how they knew they had permission for a sexual encounter.

The bill defines “affirmative consent as an active, clear, and voluntary agreement by a person to engage in sexual activity with another person.”

While most public and private colleges already have policies to define affirmative consent and set it as a standard when considering discipline action against students, this legislation requires every school to have such policies. However, it leaves it to school officials to determine how exactly its policies will mirror the definition in the bill.

Sen. Mae Flexer of Killingly – a Democrat whose district includes the University of Connecticut, Eastern Connecticut State University and Quinebaug Community College – said the bill also ensures the policies will be enforced.

“They may have the affirmative consent policy on the books, but it’s sitting n a shelf somewhere not being used,” she said during an interview. “This mandates that it’s used. I know it’s not being done everywhere now.”

What does the bill not do?

Students will not need to sign a consent form before engaging in sexual acts, as some opponents have warned.

Flexer said the legislation is about changing the mentality of college students. “We are teaching college students that you need to ask permission before you have sex with someone,” she said.

Sen. Joe Markley, the lone vote against the bill in the state Senate, said it oversteps.

“I’ve never seen a policy that gets government more in the bedroom,” Markley, R-Southington, said on the Senate floor before the vote.

The consent standard will be limited to discipline on college campuses – such as expulsion or suspension – and will not be the standard for criminal prosecutions.

Why did it come up?

Nationwide, attention has been drawn to the number of sexual assaults taking place on campuses and how university officials respond.

UConn drew attention two years ago when a group of students filed a lawsuit and a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging the university was unresponsive or insufficiently responsive when they came forward after being sexually assaulted or harassed. Protests on campus and public hearings at the state Capitol followed.

The university has since settled that lawsuit for $1.3 million. The complaint was withdrawn but a separate complaint was filed the same day. An investigation by the civil rights office is still underway.

One in 10 female students at the University of Connecticut’s main campus in Storrs surveyed last winter by a national consortium reported that they had been sexually assaulted since enrolling in school. Among male students, one in 70 reported being victims of sexual violence.

Flexer said the problems at UConn were one of the reasons she pushed hard for this legislation.

How they voted

The state House of Representatives approved the bill 138-7. See how legislators voted here.

The state Senate approved the bill 35-1.

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