The California Consent Law passed in late September of this year was a landmark piece of legislation in the movement surrounding sexual assault, especially on college campuses. The sexual assault awareness movement has gained a lot of national attention in recent years, enough for President Obama to establish a task force to address the widespread issue. Bernstein’s research on movements can be helpful for looking at the sexual assault awareness movement in terms of this legislation as a success. The success of the sexual assault awareness movement in California and nationwide in changing policy, prompting discussion, and raising awareness supports Bernstein’s model of strategically using identity for critique to mobilize and achieve movement goals.

According to the website for SAAM (Sexual Assault Awareness Month), the sexual assault awareness movement began as early as the 1970s, with “Take Back the Night” marches where women protested in response to the violence that occurs against women (and men) at night. Since then, the movement has expanded to include raising awareness around sexual violence against men, and educating on men’s role in preventing sexual violence. The movement and all its actors have worked continually for the goals of protecting and expanding rights of sexual assault survivors.

On September 28, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill No. 967, otherwise known as the California Consent Law. California is first to adopt legislation that involves the regulation of university policy on sexual assault at the state level. The legislation withholds funding for state schools until they provide evidence of counseling, services, and confidential reporting for students, in addition to providing trauma-based training for campus officials. Many organizations were thrilled to hear about the new “Yes Means Yes” law, because it was a tangible result of their many efforts as a movement. The movement was successful in part through the application of Bernstein’s idea of identity for critique in order to mobilize and achieve movement goals.

The movement for sexual assault awareness pursues actions that help accomplish concrete goals, such as legislation creation, policy changes, increased training opportunities and counseling resources. The movement also has more less tangible goals that concern cultural norms, such as raising awareness or changing the stigma of sexual assault.

For example, sexual assault survivors share their powerful experiences while attending various universities (such as Harvard, Columbia, and Amherst) and use their voice as action to aid the movement’s goal of changing outdated or unfair university policies. Simultaneously, organizations like SAFER (Students Active for Ending Rape), Know Your IX, NoMore, and AAUW (American Association for University Women) use their voices and resources to provide tools, information, and advocacy for the movement in grassroots and at the legal level.

There is a possible issue with this case because the movement seems to lack a specific identity. In this sense, it may be difficult to see how this movement relates to Bernstein. The sexual assault awareness movement seeks to share the stories of many people: young and old, men, women, and other gender and sexual identities. It seeks to implement policies that protect all of these individuals and not one homogeneous group. An argument could be made that the identity of this movement is the common factor of being sexually assaulted, however, that is more of an issue instead of an identifier like gender or sexual orientation. Therefore, Bernstein’s analysis on identity for this movement may need to be altered to include or account for the diversity and complexities in identities within this movement.

For argument’s sake, this movement’s identity is best captured in Bernstein’s definition for identity for critique, where the movement “confronts the values, categories, and practices of the dominant culture,” (Bernstein, 538). This is distinctly different from identity for education, which avoids problematizing the norms and morality of dominant culture – something that the sexual assault awareness movement is distinctly not doing.

Bernstein analyzes how the gay and lesbian movement has deployed identity for critique as well. Activists share their stories of discrimination and bullying – similar to the shared stories of sexual assault victims – and allow their identities to be critiqued in terms of the movement. The gay and lesbian movement chose to use their stories as subjects of conflict, rather than raising issues that are generally appealing.

The sexual assault movement has done this as well, when survivors speak out publicly, as they have at Harvard, Amherst, and Columbia, they put their experiences and trauma up for debate. However, because the experience of sexual assault is not limited to one specific gender or person, and because the problem is so widespread, these stories do have “universal appeal,” to a large number of people outside the movement (Bernstein, 542).

This movement was successful, at least in the case of California, (and also in general about raising awareness) in part because of collective action in extensive networking by national and student organizations and continuous advocacy and lobbying to elected officials and lawmakers (AAUW project). Bernstein’s look at identity in movements can help account for another part of this movement’s success.

Bernstein argues that identity for critique can challenge cultural values, establish communities, and generate change. Movement leaders using the mobilization strategy of identity for critique hope that “deploying critical identities based on perceived cultural differences would be a crucial step,” toward goals (Bernstein, 557). For the sexual assault awareness movement, this action has been successful as evidenced in the California Consent Law, and the various changes in sexual assault policies in college campuses nationwide. This success supports Bernstein’s argument that identity can be strategically used to mobilize and achieve instrumental movement goals.

1. Bernstein, M. (1997). Celebration and Suppression: The Strategic Uses of Identity by the Lesbian and Gay Movement. American Journal of Sociology, 103(3), 531-565.

2. “Senate Bill No. 967.” California Legislative Information. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

3. March, Mary Tyler. “Affirmative Consent as State Law in California.” The Daily Tar Heel ::. N.p., 6 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

4. Marcotte, Amanda. “Do Not Fear California’s New Affirmative Consent Law.” Slate Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

5. Chappell, Bill. “California Enacts ‘Yes Means Yes’ Law, Defining Sexual Consent.” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

6. “Sexual Assault Awareness Month – Home.” National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) |. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

7. “Not Alone.” Resources. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

8. “Know Your IX.” Know Your IX. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

9. NoMore. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

10. Epifano, Angie. “An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College | The Amherst Student.” An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College | The Amherst Student. The Amherst Student, 17 Oct. 2012. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

11. “Dear Harvard: You Win | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson.” Dear Harvard: You Win | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson. N.p., 31 Mar. 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

12. Sulkowicz, Emma. “‘My Rapist Is Still on Campus'” Time. Time, 15 May 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.


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