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New sex rules for California college students are long overdue

UC Berkeley students Anais LaVoie, left, and Sofie Karasek are among 31 current and former Cal students who have complained to the federal government that the school mishandled sexual assault allegations.
(Justin Kong)

Last Thursday around 10 p.m., 21-year-old Sofie Karasek stood outside a frat house near the UC Berkeley campus, doing her part to prevent rape and sexual assault.

Karasek, a senior who is majoring in political economy, wasn’t haranguing or protesting. She was conducting what she described as a “mini consent workshop.” Before students were allowed to enter the party, which was thrown by campus Democrats, they first had to listen to her spiel.

“Cal Dems is working to create a culture of consent at our party tonight!” she told would-be partiers. “What does consent meant to you?”

“What are some ways to ask for consent?” she pressed. “What do you need consent for?”

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A conversation like that could suck the fun right out of a college party, but Karasek told me it had the opposite effect. Last spring, when someone stopped her outside a student co-op party and asked similar questions, she said, “I felt so much more comfortable once I went inside.”

Karasek was thrilled Monday, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a first-in-the-nation law that requires California colleges and universities to develop new standards for defining and preventing sexual assault. One of the important goals of the new law is to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to giving consent for sex. The old slogan “no means no” has been retired in favor of “yes means yes.”

Translated, it’s fairly simple: You wanna have sex with somebody, you better make sure he or she wants to have sex with you. If that someone does not say “no”, it does not mean he or she said “yes.” Only yes means yes.

I personally find it tragic that students also have to be reminded by their state legislature that a potential partner cannot consent to sex if he or she is asleep, intoxicated or otherwise impaired. Or that silence is not a substitute for affirmative consent.

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Dozens of American colleges and universities are being accused of mishandling or covering up rape and sexual assault. The website Jezebel has reported that the Department of Education is investigating 76 schools for mishandling sexual assault investigations.

College students around the country are taking huge personal risks to make their voices heard. You may have read about Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University senior who was assaulted in her own bed and has vowed to carry her mattress around with her on campus until her assailant is expelled from school. Or about the appalling treatment of Anna, a Hobart and Williams College student who reported being raped by multiple members of the football team and decided to tell her story to the New York Times after the school botched its investigation. (Anna said she was determined to return to her school despite being ostracized by some students, and against her parents’ wishes. “Someone needs to help survivors there,” she said.)

Karasek, too, had a bad experience with administrators after being sexually assaulted by a Berkeley classmate two years ago during an off-campus trip with a student group.

She told me she was victimized while she was sleeping and did not report the incident to local police because she didn’t think it had been “violent enough” for police to consider it a sexual assault.

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A month later, Karasek said, she learned that the same student had assaulted a friend of hers. And then she discovered two other women whom he’d assaulted. Together, Karasek said, the four women reported the assaults in a meeting with three campus administrators from the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, the Gender Equity Resource Center and the Center for Student Conduct.

Two days before her assailant graduated in December 2012, Karasek said, she was told only that he had been found guilty of violating the student code of conduct. She did not learn until a year after he graduated – and after she went public with her story -- that his penalty had been three months of disciplinary probation.

“Which I guess means if he assaulted a fifth person. then maybe he would be held responsible,” said Karasek, whose is a member of End Rape on Campus, a national group.

She also spearheaded a coalition of current and former Berkeley students who have filed federal complaints against the university, alleging that sexual assault and harassment cases have been mishandled. The complaints are still pending.

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UC Berkeley spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said Tuesday in an email that privacy rules prevent officials from discussing individual cases. But she said that Berkeley has taken steps to address the ongoing problem of sexual violence. It has created a one-stop website for victims of sexual assault, added an as-yet-unfilled “survivor advocate” position, and required resident advisors in dorms to undergo training each semester instead of once a year. The school will also block the registration of incoming students who do not participate in a new workshop that addresses sexual violence and harassment, as well as alcohol use and mental health issues. “We know there is more to do and we are dedicated to that effort,” Gilmore said.

Last Thursday, Karasek personally delivered her mini workshop to about 35 people on their way into the Cal Democrats party. She discovered that a lot of students know exactly how to define consent. “They know that consent is affirmative, conscious and unambiguous.”

But when she asked them exactly how that would play out at the moment of intimacy, most could only come up with “Do you want to have sex?” Such a direct question, she said, “made many of them uncomfortable.”

“So I said what about asking, ‘Is this OK?’ And that completely changed the conversation. Several students, both men and women, said ‘Wow, I never thought about that before.’ ”

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Reducing the alchemy of attraction to a series of yes-or-no questions may seem a little mechanical, not to mention difficult to enforce. But if such a policy is what it takes to drive home the point to young adults that healthy sexual expression is based on respect for the other person, then yes, this is more than OK.

Please follow me on Twitter: @robinabcarian


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