“Yes means yes” and other California laws

TW: Mild discussion of sexual assault

Dear Dad,

California’s laws have been in the news a lot lately (though maybe it’s just because I live here). In addition to Governor Jerry Brown signing a plastic bag ban, a “Yes means yes” law, and a ban on “gay panic” as a defense in court, the state’s 3-feet rule for avoiding cyclists has gone into effect. And let me tell you, this law has been controversial. Columnists and letter-to-the-editor writers alike have been complaining that not only is the law difficult to enforce and inconvenient, but also that cyclists should be better at obeying the rules of the road if they want “respect.”

Now, aside from the fact that everyone deserves basic safety regardless of whether or not we respect them, this bicycle law has got me thinking a lot about the laws we put into effect and how they change our lives.

See, opponents of California’s “Yes means yes” law argue that it’s hard to enforce, will make partners over-think their sexual encounters and will generally take all the fun out of boning. Cathy Young over at Time says that it “implicitly criminalizes most human sexual interaction.”

A circular badge with a Y in the middle. The outer ring reads,

But this law is not about making sexual partners into criminals (never mind that this isn’t a criminal statute, but a law about obtaining state funding for schools). This law is about changing, and hopefully improving, the way people approach sex. Now, the emphasis is placed not on simply going along with a partner, but expressing clear, enthusiastic consent, a willingness and will to engage in sexual activity. How can that be bad? Don’t we all want our partners to desire us? To really want to engage with us? Who wants to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with them? Cathy Young worries that this law will make rapists out of “clueless” guys. But if you do try to have sex with someone who doesn’t really want to, you’re already a rapist. This law doesn’t change that. It just means that if reported, your university has a carrot-stick situation to punish you, instead of trying to sweep it under the rug.

Laws like “Yes means yes” will help defend victims like Emma Sulkowicz, the artist behind “Carry That Weight,” whose alleged rapist remains on campus. It will help educate these guys that Young worries are “clueless” and innocent. And it will help with the feminist effort to change the way we talk about sex. Feminists have been pushing for years to make safe, consensual sex a part of sex education classes. This law elevates that discussion to a national level. And hopefully that discussion will mean that more people see how easily and wonderfully enthusiastic consent can be incorporated into a person’s daily sex life.

But what does this have to do with drivers giving cyclists 3 feet of space on the road? Well, people have been complaining about that too. It’s hard to enforce, they say. It’s inconvenient. Cyclists should learn to stop at every stop sign if they want drivers to give them some safety. Regardless of how you feel about the law, though, I have noticed one thing in the last couple weeks since it went into effect: Cars have been giving cyclists plenty of space. Vehicles have been more aware of alternative forms of transportation on the road. This law is already changing the way we think about driving. And everyone is a little bit safer. And that’s a good thing.

“Yes means yes” can change the way we think about sex. And that’s a good thing, too.




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