Affirmative consent legislation one step away from Senate vote

High school and college students would be taught the same lessons on sexual assault prevention, if passed

By: - February 16, 2023 4:30 am

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The affirmative consent bill that would make “yes means yes” the baseline for teaching consent in schools received unanimous approval from the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

It now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee for review.

This is the third time Rep. Liz Thomson (D-Albuquerque) brought the bill to the Roundhouse, and each time it has drawn strong support from high school students. 

The measure recently passed the House by a 49-12 vote. That debate saw some of the same concerns brought over in the recent Senate committee.

Senate Republicans wondered aloud about punishments if a student commits sexual violence,and if schools had the training and capacity to take on new methods of teaching responses to sexual violence.

Supporters turn out to champion affirmative consent in Roundhouse hearing

The measure would not create any new punishments for school districts in New Mexico to enforce, because local schools already have to follow federal statutes when addressing sexual violence. 

Sen. Gay Kernan (R-Hobbs) said situations involving allegations of assault can cause harm during the investigation process because she fears students may change their mind about consent after the fact.

“You can have two people in a room and they agree ‘I’m fine with all of this,’ and then there could be a regret later,” said Kernan. “How do you account for that? When one of them says, ‘no, I didn’t say that?’ We don’t know because no one was there to witness that…then you’ve got a person that’s kind of in a difficult position because now there’s an accusation that can’t be substantiated either way.”

People who experienced sexual violence said the criticism is a repeated trope that a is harmful and discourages people from coming forward about what happened to them.

Jess Clark, an expert witness for the bill and director of sexual violence prevention for the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, said the bill is trying to stop that before it happens and teaching students that consent should be enthusiastic, even empowering. 

Kernan asked why the contents of the bill should be in statute if some schools are already teaching affirmative consent. Expert witnesses said the measure would create a uniform policy that the public education department could provide for local districts that would teach all students an understanding of consent, instead of it varying from school to school.

Alexandria Taylor, an expert witness and executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault, said her schooling on consent when she grew up in Alamogordo is drastically different from what her own child is learning in Albuquerque.

“For us it’s about really equal access to education that all students in New Mexico have a baseline of what they’re being taught,” Taylor said. “When students are taught affirmative consent prior to entering into post-secondary school, incidents of sexual violence are actually reduced at college and university campuses.”

Sen. William Soules (D-Las Cruces) said the bill could help bring an understanding around consent that would prevent expensive lawsuits and help students understand what their responsibilities are to one another.

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.

“The students appreciate it because as adults, we’re somehow afraid to talk about sexuality as being taboo, which makes it almost more exciting or interesting for the kids,” Soules said. “The more we can talk about it straight up, the better I think all of society is.”

Correction: Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023 1:20 p.m.: A previous version of this article misidentified Alexandria Taylor, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault. The story has been updated to correctly identify her and properly attribute her statements at the Senate Education Committee hearing.

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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.