Supporters turn out to champion affirmative consent in Roundhouse hearing

Measure would change institutional response to assault cases and how sex ed is taught

By: - January 26, 2023 5:05 am
Elena Gonzales, 17, reads a poem about her experience with sexual assault to a group of high school students supporting affirmative consent legislation.

A year ago, students rallied at the Roundhouse for an affirmative consent bill that lawmakers in committee voted was beyond the scope of the 30-day, budget-focused legislative session. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

Legislation making its way through the session would transform how sexual assault cases are handled by public schools and New Mexico colleges that take state money. And it would make what’s known as “affirmative consent” a part of sex ed in high school health classes.

In a room full of educators, students, survivors of sexual assault and advocates, the House Education Committee on Wednesday approved the measure on an 8-2 vote. Representatives Brian Baca (R-Los Lunas) and Candy Spence Ezzell (R-Roswell) dissented. 

HB 43 would mandate a “yes means yes” approach to consent in schools both in how assault cases are handled and how students are educated. Rep. Liz Thomson, the measure’s sponsor, said the bill intends to teach students in their health classes that “not saying no doesn’t mean yes. Being passed out doesn’t mean yes. Being unable to speak doesn’t mean yes. Only yes means yes.”

She noted that the year the bill made it to the House floor, it passed overwhelmingly.

This is the third time Thomson (D-Albuquerque) introduced the measure. In 2022, it failed in committee based on procedural concerns during the budget-focused, 30-day session.

Supporters of the legislation said students are often unaware of what affirmative consent means and can’t be expected to understand how to conduct themselves if that information is not taught to them.

“There seems to be a lot of confusion among many students about what is acceptable and what is not,” said Karen Canaday, a lobbyist with the New Mexico chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “I think it’s really important to look at this bill and provide the education that is necessary so they are well aware of what is acceptable and what is not, and that people have the right to be free of sexual abuse and harassment.”

If passed, New Mexico would join states like California and New York by incorporating affirmative consent into their curricula.

In 2015, New York passed its “Enough is Enough” law requiring colleges to set a standard definition of affirmative consent as “knowing, voluntary and mutual decision” between sexual partners. California passed a more stringent law one year before that requires “yes means yes” to be the standard when teaching consent in California. The law included high schools as well as colleges.

Thomson’s bill is more expansive, because with regard to how schools handle cases of assault, domestic violence, dating violence, harassment or stalking, it is not limited to high schools and colleges. Affirmative consent would underscore policy in all public schools.

The measure requires a trauma-informed response protocol. That means there would be an acknowledgement that trauma is a common experience that affects how people think and act, and responders would attempt to not worsen the person’s trauma. Such a response also considers factors like race, gender and disabilities.

Supporters said the affirmative consent approach is “life changing” because it does not only react to assaults that have already happened but strives for prevention. Critiques of the “no means no” concept point out that it places a burden on the victim to say no — as opposed to the perpetrator for not confirming consent.

Jess Clark, director of sexual violence prevention for the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, said he spent 10 years teaching affirmative consent in northern New Mexico schools and saw a need for those programs.

“The No. 1 comment I got from teachers who were present during our sessions was that they wish that they would’ve had this education when they were young,” he said. “That it would’ve saved them years of confusion and sometimes extraordinary pain. HB 43 will help us ensure that 10 years from now, today’s students won’t have to say the same.”

Students march to the Roundhouse to demand affirmative consent bill is heard

Reports of sexual violence in schools has been increasing since 2018 following the rise of the #MeToo movement that empowered survivors of sexual assault to share their stories. Settlements and penalties for sexual assault in schools also spiked to $8.4 million in the 2018-19 school year, according to the New Mexico Public Schools Insurance Authority. That’s more than three times the amount from the 2017-18 school year.

In 2021, nearly 10% of high school students in New Mexico reported being coerced into having sex, according to legislative analysts.

New Mexico students have shown strong support for the bill. Student demonstrators marched to the Roundhouse last year to demand the bill be heard. Students again marched in support of the bill on Jan. 20.

“What we’re about is that there is not a space within our school structure to talk about sexual assault, and there is not a space within our school structure to talk about it without feeling like we’re treated with apathy or being questioned — unless it’s an open investigation,” Elena Gonzales, a high school student in New Mexico, told Source NM last year.

Lila Quezada, a high-school senior in Santa Fe with Girls Inc. of Santa Fe, said this week at the House Education Committee meeting that she’s been working on bringing affirmative consent to schools for three years. She said teaching it would be “a small step toward giving everyone a common understanding of consent,” she said. “It will normalize understanding of consent and start the process of change for the next generation.”

The bill still needs to be heard by the House Judiciary Committee before it heads to the House floor for a vote. To make it to the governor’s desk for signature, it would also have to pass Senate-side.


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Megan Taros
Megan Taros

Megan Taros is a freelance reporter for Source NM. She is born and raised in the harbor area of Los Angeles where she began her career covering higher education and local government. She previously launched the South Phoenix beat at the Arizona Republic where she covered race and equity in one of the largest communities of color in the state. She also launched the Latino affairs beat at the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she covered racial and economic inequality in Queens, New York.