Jonathan Chait has joined the chorus of critics of the new affirmative consent rule in California for college campuses. Like others, he contends that the new rule effectively criminalizes ordinary sexual activity among college students. For three reasons, I think the claim is not well supported.
First, consent standards probably do not matter. Dan Kahan did the best study on this issue and the results are pretty clear. No matter what you tell people examining a rape case, they end up applying their own notions of consent. To the degree that any instruction of the law matters the effect size is small. I think this finding will hold true in adjudications under the California affirmative consent rule.
Second, stories of the alleged rapist and victim almost never match rendering legal standards as side issues and putting credibility as the central problem of rape cases. There are normally significant discrepancies between the accounts of alleged rapes. For the people willing to intentionally lie (either way), the new rule just indicates the content of their lie must change. For example, instead of saying, “she never objected,” a defendant would say “she said ‘yes.'” Even for those cases where the discrepancies are based upon cognitive biases or other unconscious factors, it is likely, if history is a guide, that the differences will align around the legal rule in place.
Third, the drunken sex cases that the critics are focused on are almost never resolved based upon the consent standard. The cases instead rely on incapacity. Whether a negative or affirmative consent standard applies is simply irrelevant in a case where the victim was too intoxicated to consent. The affirmative consent standard is a red herring in the primary scenario identified for overpunishment on campuses.
Even with all of those reasons to doubt its effectiveness in changing case outcomes, the California rule might simply be innocuous. However, there is a real danger that rule changes like this feed into a very dangerous cultural myth about rape law. Stephen Schulhofer probably said it best in his book Unwanted Sex: “Opponents of rape reform have managed to convince a wide audience that standards of permissible conduct are now dictated by ‘hypersensitive’ young women and by ‘radical’ feminists committed to a highly restrictive, Victorian conception of sexual propriety…. The reality is far different. The claim that legal rules, campus behavior codes, and company policies enshrine radically overprotective, puritanical rules of conduct is a myth.” In roughly half the states in America, having sex with someone who is highly intoxicated, but still conscious, is not rape. Many jurisdictions still apply a resistance or corroboration requirement in charging decisions despite such rules having long since been removed from statutes. The list of problems with the application of modern rape law is extensive. Unfortunately, the backlash against the California affirmative consent rule has already helped spread the myth of radical change. And because the gains of the rule are likely to be minimal, the net effect for rape victims and justice will likely be negative. I hope I’m wrong.