Opinion: Time to say no to sexual assaults on college campuses

By Valerie Vainieri Huttle The Record

One in five women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime and 42 percent of female victims are sexually assaulted before the age of 25, making a woman's college years critical.

There have been recent allegations of on-campus sexual assault at Ramapo College, left, and William Paterson University.

IN THE 1980's, "Just Say No" became the ubiquitous catchphrase of the anti-drug movement. In the years since, we've learned that merely telling teenagers to refuse drugs and alcohol isn't enough. Despite that, this same "just say no" philosophy is still the advice our society applies to non-consensual sex

In essence, the message seems to be that if a victim doesn't protest adequately, she may not be a victim at all. This line of thinking is antiquated and dangerous. It is time to move beyond "no means no" and teach young women and men that only "yes means yes."

We have to change the culture on college campuses, in particular, to a consent-oriented view. Colleges and law enforcement must look further than whether or not a victim said no.

Sexual assault victims are often targeted because they seem like easy prey: freshmen eager to make friends or party-goers who have had too much to drink. Intoxication and peer pressure may blur the lines, but they don't change the law. Non-consensual sex is still rape, regardless of whether a victim actually said no, and that is the message we ought to be sending to young adults. Silence does not give a free pass to take advantage of a victim who does not even have the capacity to consent.

California recently enacted a law that requires college students to provide affirmative consent to their partners before they engage in sexual activity. New Jersey is considering similar legislation, of which I am a primary sponsor. While this may be an extreme approach, it is worth discussion and debate as we consider a complete overhaul of the way colleges and our society treat on-campus sexual assault.

In the past couple of months, New Jersey has been rocked by allegations of violent rapes at Ramapo College and William Paterson University. Sadly, we know that these are not the only instances of on-campus sexual assault. It happens at every school in every state, and it can happen to anyone.

Just look at the statistics: One in five women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime and 42 percent of female victims are sexually assaulted before the age of 25, making a woman's college years critical.

I applaud Ramapo College for undertaking a thorough review of their sexual assault policies under the leadership of former Attorney General Anne Milgram, and William Paterson University President Kathleen Waldron for taking swift action upon learning of the serious assault alleged on her campus. But campus sexual assault is not the isolated concern of these two schools. It is a public safety, education and human-rights issue that affects every student, woman and man, in every institution of higher education in our state.

New Jersey can and must do better in protecting students from becoming victims of sexual assault and from committing sexual crimes.

To understand how best to improve our laws and policies, I am drafting legislation to create a task force on campus sexual assault. The mission of the task force will be to review the sexual assault procedures of New Jersey's colleges and universities, assess the current laws in place, and issue recommendations based on state and national best practices, federal guidelines and expert input.

Whether we adopt an affirmative consent policy or take a different approach, the primary goal must be to change the culture on campus through education and prevention. No one should be a victim of sexual violence because she was too afraid, too intoxicated or too powerless to yell no.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle is a Democrat representing the 37th legislative district in Bergen County.