Sexual Assault Will Become a Sometimes Less Serious Charge
That isn't to say that all sexual assaults would be treated less seriously in this scenario. Some sex crimes will always strike people as maximally abhorrent and awful. But if a person can technically run afoul of sexual-assault rules by, say, misreading the vibe on a first date, leaning over during the movie, and initiating an unwanted kiss, there will be scenarios on the margin—perhaps not that one exactly, but you get the idea—where observers agree affirmative consent was violated and that some sanction is warranted, but nevertheless feel the incident is different in degree or kind than their bygone notion of what the crime "sexual assault" is.
There are two spins to put on this. On one hand, perhaps it is salutary to maintain undiminished taboos around all rape and sexual assault, preserving clarity about its awfulness, avoiding ignorant tropes like the canard that date rape isn't "as bad" as stranger rape, and conferring maximal opprobrium on those who act sexually without consent. Or perhaps a spectrum of opprobrium would be salutary, as in cases where the victim regards himself or herself as having been wronged, but eschews taking any action because he or she doesn't believe it was sexual assault, or want to be subjected to—or subject someone else to—a sexual-assault case. In some ways, this is similar to the tension between wanting racism to carry a powerful taboo and seeing situations where that very taboo makes it harder to call out and remedy conduct that is mildly racially offensive.
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Though some of the foregoing scenarios are of my own creation, I don't have any idea how affirmative-consent laws will actually play out on California's college campuses, how variable the effect will be on different college campuses, or whether the overall change in sexual culture will be salutary, negative, or negligible. By temperament, I tend to worry about unintended consequences more than most, but the legislature has spoken and early results will be in soon enough. I hope to report on campuses and find out how they're working.
It is nevertheless worth thinking through scenarios like the ones above, for the law is very likely to have a mishmash of positive and negative consequences coexisting with one another—and perhaps anticipating potential pitfalls as well as opportunities for worthwhile change can help college students and administrators to steer things in a slightly better direction than they'd float on their own.
With that in mind, I hope current college students (or recent grads) who've made it through the musings of out-of-touch oldsters like me will reflect on their observations and experiences, and then send email articulating how they think affirmative-consent laws will play out (or have played out) on campus. What are commentators who haven't themselves been college students for years or decades missing, or misunderstanding, about sexual culture on campus today or how it will change? Insightful email sent to email@example.com will published as reader letters.