On Thursday, the California Legislature passed a bill requiring state universities to adopt a "yes means yes" affirmative consent policy, aimed at curbing campus sexual assaults. The new law promotes the novel idea that having sex with someone who is unconscious or otherwise unresponsive is not consensual -- a notion that has yet to be codified into law elsewhere, but which could spur a culture change across college campuses, according to the Associated Press:
Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, said his bill would begin a paradigm shift in how California campuses prevent and investigate sexual assault. Rather than using the refrain "no means no," the definition of consent under the bill requires "an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity." Earlier versions of the bill had similar language.
"With this measure, we will lead the nation in bringing standards and protocols across the board so we can create an environment that's healthy, that's conducive for all students, not just for women, but for young men as well too, so young men can develop healthy patterns and boundaries as they age with the opposite sex," de Leon said before the vote.
But California hasn't stopped at its efforts to address sexual violence at its universities. Last week, state insurance officials also ruled to overturn a policy that allowed two religious universities to drop abortion coverage from their employee healthcare policies. Instead, California now mandates that all employee health plans provide abortion coverage, and that employers recognize reproductive services -- including electively terminating pregnancies -- to be "medically necessary."
"Abortion is a basic health care service," California Department of Managed Health Care director Michelle Rouillard said in a statement. "All health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally."
The combination of measures is unique to California. It shouldn't be. Both affirmative consent laws and statewide abortion coverage mandates are examples of policies that can not only help maintain public safety and public health, but that can be enforced elsewhere. California should not be an exception, but an example. And it should be, with good reason: Public officials have been outraged over the affirmative consent law, which simply aims to prevent sexual assaults by overturning the problematic idea that only "no means no" and a lack of response means "OK, sure why not." Should this need to be outlined so clearly by the law? No, because it should be generally understood. Is it generally understood? No, and so it must be outlined by the law.
The same goes for abortion coverage, as the procedure is still not understood universally as medically necessary (and/or legal, for that matter). These misconceptions about the necessity of women's healthcare and protection from sexual violence are cultural issues that require cultural change. But that change rarely comes without making legislative changes first -- legislative changes like California's.