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Yes Means Yes’: Can Teaching Good Sex Prevent Rape on Campus?

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Caroline Hurwitz, a student facilitator from Cleveland, Ohio, leads a small group discussion during the session at a Yes Means Yes seminar at Colgate University. The student-led Yes Means Yes seminar at Colgate University meets and discusses topics relating to consent in sexual encounters. for NBC News

HAMILTON, N.Y. — It seemed like any other Wednesday night college class: 35 students, a tangle of leggings and sneakers and water bottles, sitting together in small groups in a nondescript conference room. But one snippet of the conversation in Colgate University’s student-led seminar, “Yes Means Yes,” made clear it was something else.

Rugby players, theater kids, frat brothers, and hipsters—of all races, sexual orientations, and genders—were calmly discussing what sex acts they’d like to try: a threesome, a bathroom quickie, sex on the kitchen counter. And what they found most attractive in a person of their own gender: tans, collarbones, confidence, big butts. The exercise’s conversations veered from the highly specific (a woman recalling a sexy camping trip) to the philosophical (an athlete wondering if he was secretly drawn to Platonic ideals of himself).

'Consent is Sexy': Students Learn the Power of Yes 2:05

After the icebreakers, the group turned to the issue of “affirmative consent,” the idea that both partners need to enthusiastically agree to every step of a sexual encounter. And even though they were technically discussing sexual assault, the message was far broader: consent wasn’t only the law, but the bare-minimum requirement for pleasurable sex.

Colgate’s seminar name is taken from a 2008 anthology called Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. But the phrase has been in the news since the California legislature passed SB 967—the “yes means yes” law—which requires all schools that receive state funding to adopt that standard in their sexual assault policies, defined here as an "affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity” by all parties involved.

The bill, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown two weeks ago, is a response to the increasingly visible problem of sexual assault on campus. An estimated one in five women are sexually assaulted in college, and 85 schools are currently under federal investigation for whether their handling of sexual violence cases violated Title IX. The legislation comes in the midst of a multipronged national effort by campus activists to shift the onus away from the individual female student to fend off potential rapists, and onto the institution she’s paying to protect her.

The notion that an absence of “no” doesn’t mean a “yes” is far from a new idea. Saturday Night Live famously lambasted Antioch College in the early nineties for defining consent as “verbally asking and verbally giving or denying consent for all levels of sexual behavior.” (SB 967 allows for body language, too.) Colleges like Duke, Yale, and the University of Iowa already have an affirmative consent policy on the books. Still, California is the first state to legislate “yes means yes” on their campuses. Some are skeptical as to whether this law is reasonable or enforceable; others are worried that sex will now require a checklist. One lawyer even claimed that SB 967 redefined most sex as rape. But advocates of a “yes means yes” policy say the law isn’t about legislating individual bedroom behavior, but rather challenging traditional sexual dynamics.

“Some people are invested in this old model of sexuality where men are supposed to convince women to have sex,” said Jessica Valenti, Guardian columnist and co-editor of the Yes Means Yes anthology. “Our feeling is, no, you should not want to have sex with someone who you just spent half an hour badgering about it…what could be more clear-cut than having sex with people who actually want to have sex with you?”

Supporters say the California law is only one part of a move toward expanding the definition of consent; the larger culture needs to shift, too. Colgate’s Yes Means Yes class provides a glimpse of what this sea change might look like in practice. The student-run, six-week course sprang out of Colgate alum Jaclyn Berger’s senior project in 2009 as a response to what she perceived as a toxic hook-up culture on campus. The program has been growing ever since, and last year, another student created a facilitation guide to make it easier to pass the ideas along. Nowadays, it’s the hot ticket around campus: 140 students vied for 70 spots this year. Perhaps because the seminar now counts as a Physical Education credit, the makeup of the class has become far more diverse. Around one-third of the students in Wednesday’s class were men.

Emily Hawkins, the facilitator for one of the two Yes Means Yes sections, says it puts a “positive spin” on the “very scary” sexual assault conversation.

“[Yes Means Yes] is intrinsically tied to sexual assault prevention, because if you’re talking about what you want, then you’re lowering your risk of being on different pages,” said Hawkins. But “we also talk about how to have positive sexual experiences.”

Jake Lightman, a junior economics major who’s also in a fraternity, recalled a session about rape during freshman orientation that was “presented in terms of what you could get in trouble for.” Before he took Yes Means Yes, he said, “I hadn’t thought of [consent] beyond ‘is this okay?’…Now it’s like, you should be disappointed if all you got from your sex partner is consent.”

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Groups meet on the floor often during the class to discuss topics more intimately whether it be readings or their ideas of consent or what they find attractive in others. The student-led Yes Means Yes seminar at Colgate University meets and discusses topics relating to consent in sexual encounters. Brett Carlsen / for NBC News

Because the first six weeks of school are when freshmen women are most likely to be raped or experience attempted rape—a period called the “red zone”—it’s important to have these conversations as soon as possible. Hawkins didn’t take the course until her sophomore year, but it “completely dictated my sexual experiences afterward…I don’t think I was ever actively saying no, but I wasn’t actively looking for pleasure, either.” Apart from sexual assault, “I think people have less-than-proud moments, sex they wish they wouldn’t have had. That’s the kind of sex we’re trying to prevent, too.”

Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of Yes Means Yes and a frequent speaker on college campuses, said that “yes means yes” isn’t so much to educate rapists out of raping, but to create a baseline for good sex, which only makes sexual assault all the more obvious.

“Misunderstandings are the exception and not the rule,” said Friedman. “The vast majority of rapists are not confused as to whether or not they had consent. Yes Means Yes stops making excuses for those guys. It changes the culture so that anyone engaging in sex should be genuinely into it.”

Colgate’s Yes Means Yes facilitators, along with other campus campaigns, have argued that “consent is sexy”; Friedman calls Yes Means Yes “one of the few things you can do to make your campuses safer and improve your sex life.” But some, including several students in Hawkins’ seminar, worry that talking too much will ruin the mood. The Los Angeles Times’ editorial board wondered whether the new law would add an “artificial element to sex.”

Hawkins said she’s “hardened to that argument.” If you feel too awkward to have that honest conversation, she said, “maybe you shouldn’t be having sex with that person.”

Besides, she added, if our culture was more open about sex, perhaps these conversations wouldn’t be so uncomfortable. Part of the seminar’s point is to get people used to talking about their own sexual desires. A sophomore whose Catholic school taught abstinence-only education said this was the first time she’s ever thought about what consent really means. Another student, a bisexual sophomore from Trinidad, said it was a relief to talk about sex here since he wasn’t allowed to back home.

Most students, regardless of upbringing, admitted it’s also just fun. As students detailed their preferences and fantasies that Wednesday night, the room was thick with sexual tension. Hawkins said people constantly tell her all they want to do afterwards is go home and have sex.

“And they don’t want to just have sex,” she said. “They want to have good sex.”

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