Wed, Dec 20, 2017 - Page 9 News List

In US sex assault laws, the definition of consent varies widely

The Weinstein scandal has trained the spotlight on sexual consent and advocates are using it to modernize outdated US laws, some of which still rule out marital rape

By Jocelyn Noveck  /  AP

Illustration: Mountain people

For two months now, as accusations of sexual misconduct have piled up against Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced mogul has responded over and over again: “Any allegations of nonconsensual sex are unequivocally denied.”

Consent is a concept central to law on sexual assault and will likely be an issue in potential legal cases against Weinstein, who is under investigation by police in four cities, and others accused in the current so-called “reckoning.”

However, the definition of consent — namely, how it is expressed — is a matter of intense debate: Is it a definite “yes,” or the mere absence of “no”? Can it be revoked? Do power dynamics come into play? Legally, the definition varies widely across the US.

“Half the states don’t even have a definition of consent,” says Erin Murphy, a professor at New York University School of Law who is involved in a project to rewrite a model penal code on sex assault. “One person’s idea of consent is that no one is screaming or crying. Another person’s idea of consent is someone saying: ‘Yes, I want to do this.’ And in between, of course, is an enormous spectrum of behavior, both verbal and nonverbal, that people engage in to communicate desire or lack of desire.”

“It’s pretty telling that the critical thing most people look to understand the nature of a sexual encounter — this idea of consent — is one that we don’t even have a consensus definition of in our society,” Murphy added.

Many victim advocates argue that a power imbalance plays a role. In nearly every instance, the allegations in recent weeks came from accusers who were in far less powerful positions than those they accused — as in, for example, the rape allegations that have surfaced against music mogul Russell Simmons, which he denies.

“You have to look at the power dynamics, the coercion, the manipulation,” said Jeanie Kurka Reimer, a long-time advocate in the area of sexual assault. “The threatening and grooming that perpetrators use to create confusion and compliance and fear in the minds of the victims. Just going along with something does not mean consent.”

Many Weinstein accusers have spoken about that uneven dynamic. For years Weinstein was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, and most of his alleged victims were women in their 20s, looking for their first big break.

A number have indicated that his power — and fear of his retribution, both professional and physical — blunted their ability to resist his advances.

Actress Paz de la Huerta, who has accused Weinstein of rape, said in a TV interview: “I just froze in fear. I guess that would be considered rape, because I didn’t want to do it.”

One woman who did manage to escape Weinstein’s advances in a 2014 hotel room encounter addressed the power imbalance in a recent essay.

The very word “consent,” actress and writer Brit Marling wrote in the Atlantic, “cannot fully capture the complexity of the encounter. Because consent is a function of power. You have to have a modicum of power to give it.”

The anti-sexual violence organization RAINN tracks the various state definitions of consent.

The differences make for a situation that is “confusing as hell,” the group’s vice president of public policy Rebecca O’Connor said.

For many years, “we had this he said-she said mentality, where you went into court and if you couldn’t prove that you didn’t consent, the activity was deemed consensual,” O’Connor said.

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