Survivors deserve help in ending sexual assault

Kirk Watson

Sexual assault is shockingly common on college campuses.

According to a recent survey from the University of Texas System, 15 percent of female undergraduate students reported being raped since enrolling at UT-Austin. That frightening finding is consistent with national research on the prevalence of sexual assault, which illustrates that this crisis is affecting all our institutions of higher education.

To stop sexual assault on campus, it’s clear we need to take concrete steps to change the culture. We need to better educate all students about consent and respecting sexual intimacy, while protecting survivors and empowering them to come forward.

This session, I filed several bills in the Texas Senate that tackle all these different facets of the sexual assault crisis.

Two of my bills — Senate Bill 969 and Senate Bill 968 — remove barriers to reporting sexual assault.

Senate Bill 969 encourages sexual assault survivors and witnesses to report without fear of campus authorities penalizing them for minor alcohol related offenses or student conduct code violations that may have occurred ancillary to the incident. 

Senate Bill 968 requires institutions to provide an electronic option for students and employees to report an incident of sexual assault, dating violence, sexual harassment or stalking. The electronic option must include the opportunity to report anonymously.

Both of those bills flew out of the Senate and are now awaiting a committee hearing in the House of Representatives.

A third bill, Senate Bill 970, proved to be much more controversial. As filed, the legislation required that all institutions of higher education in Texas — both public and private — adopt an affirmative consent standard. Affirmative consent establishes that yes means yes, but the absence of no does not mean yes.

Affirmative consent policies are extremely important in cases where the survivor was unconscious, incapacitated or drugged — such as in the case involving the Stanford swimmer that made national headlines last summer — and are essential to ensuring that survivors can hold perpetrators accountable.

Many institutions across Texas have already adopted affirmative consent principles, which establish that consent is given through “words or actions that clearly demonstrate a knowing and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” 

When my bills were heard in committee, a number of incredibly brave survivors of campus sexual assault came to tell their stories and support my legislation, testifying that the affirmative consent standard would protect others.

But I was forced to drop the affirmative consent provision because committee members wouldn’t accept it. I’ll keep working to help my colleagues understand the importance of affirmative consent.

Even so, there are good things left in SB 970, including a requirement that private institutions develop a sexual assault policy just as public institutions must do. All schools must create a public awareness campaign to ensure the campus community knows about the sexual assault policy.

If we’re going to change the culture on campus, we should start with changing state law to respect and protect survivors. With these bills, I’m hopeful that we’re opening some eyes and minds.  

Watson represents Austin in the Texas Senate.