What is consent? Moving the ACT from 'no means no' to an affirmative 'yes means yes'

What is consent? Moving the ACT from 'no means no' to an affirmative 'yes means yes'

It's been an incredible year for talking bravely about consent. When I posted #MeToo, only one of my female Facebook friends said it didn't apply to her. It's a worldwide movement, from the United States to Afghanistan to China. "What consent means" has become a dinner conversation across Australia.

After the Australian Human Rights Commission released a damning report on sexual harassment and assault on campuses, universities are rolling out training for students about respectful relationships. The Australian National University is offering online consent training to students in residential colleges in a bid to stamp out sexual harassment and sexist behaviour.

The Greens believe it's important that we all understand what consent means. Under ACT criminal law, consent is defined by when it is taken away, rather than when it is given. Consent is taken away under circumstances including coercion, intoxication and abuse of power. At best, this is confusing and doesn't help young people learn about how to relate to (potential) sexual partners.

Every Australian jurisdiction except the ACT has a statutory definition of consent based on the idea of free and voluntary agreement. A clear, unequivocal and freely given "yes" should be communicated between partners before sexual activity begins. Consent should not only be implied or inferred. The Greens believe that if it's not a clear yes, it's a no.

'Tackling issues around sexual consent needs cultural change as well as legislative change.'

'Tackling issues around sexual consent needs cultural change as well as legislative change.'Credit:AP

In the ACT, we can transform the many conversations about consent into meaningful action by updating our legal definition. An updated, affirmative definition of consent will better align with community expectations – a shift the Greens have been calling in recent years.

This week, I will release a discussion paper and draft laws for community feedback. I look forward to meeting interested people over the next month. The legislation would insert into the Crimes Act a clearer, stronger definition of consent more in line with community standards. We hope to achieve this by saying consent is a "free and voluntary agreement" – and go further, to create an affirmative, communicative model for consent here in the ACT.

An affirmative definition of consent would simplify and strengthen our criminal justice system. It would help juries reach more just decisions. It will cater fairly to the needs and rights of the victim and the accused.

Clarity in our legislation will help our community clearly understand what consent means and engage in respectful and consensual sexual relationships. Our aim is to move the understanding of consent to an affirmative "yes means yes".

Last year, the Greens led the conversation in the ACT Legislative Assembly to protect people from non-consensual sharing of intimate photos. During our consultation, submissions from community groups, advocates and women's services overwhelmingly supported the need for an affirmative definition of consent.

So that's exactly what we're doing now. I encourage Canberrans to get involved. Take a look at my draft legislation and discussion paper, provide feedback and work with us to ensure consent is clear in law.

Of course, tackling issues around sexual consent needs more than legislative change – it needs cultural change. Plenty of research says educational campaigns about gender, sex, consent and respectful relationships are far more effective at preventing sexual assault than the criminal justice system. So we will work with the government and community to ensure that the education campaigns that Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay committed to last year are rolled out. As part of this, it's crucial that respectful relationships education in schools includes discussions about what consent is and is not.

Caroline Le Couteur is the ACT Greens' spokeswoman for women. Read her discussion paper above and her draft legislation here, and submit feedback to her office before March 23.

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