Image by Kanan Shah/ COURIER
Image by Kanan Shah/ COURIER

Last week, lawmakers closed a 40-year-old legal loophole that permitted sex to continue even after women revoked consent.

North Carolina state Sen. Jeff Jackson has always predicted that when his fellow lawmakers finally got on board to address a gap in the law that made it legally impossible to withdraw consent once a sex act starts, the vote would be unanimous. He was right.

On Oct. 31, every member of the Republican-controlled NC General Assembly voted to approve Senate Bill 199, a package of measures designed to, per the bill, “strengthen and modernize” the state’s sexual assault laws. Some of those changes include revisions to the definition of rape that’s currently on the books. 

Until last week, North Carolina was the only state in the country where a person could legally continue sex even if the other person changes their mind. It was a legal precedent that had been in place since 1979, thanks to a state Supreme Court ruling

SB 199 also closed another loophole that essentially said it wasn’t a crime for a person to have sex with someone who was incapicitated by their own actions, such as drinking alcohol or using drugs. Additionally, the bill allows child sex abuse victims the ability to sue their assailants up until they reach the age of 28, and makes drugging someone else’s drink a felony. 

According to an analysis by nearly a dozen North Carolina media outlets, fewer than 1 in 4 people charged with sexual assault ever receive a conviction. In 38 counties, no convictions were recorded at all during the span of the four-and-a-half year analysis period.

“These reforms send the message to survivors and their families that North Carolina can and will protect them when they are faced with the most traumatic moments of their life,” Skye David, staff attorney for the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told Forbes last week. “North Carolina has work to do with our sexual assault laws, but this legislation gives many the hope they needed that their voices are heard.”

The legislation now heads to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk for his signature.

Sen. Jackson, a Democrat representing District 37, has worked to address the withdrawal of consent loophole since 2015. Year after year, the legislation he filed failed to gain traction. As the current legislative session began winding down, Jackson tacked his bill, SB 563, onto SB 199 as a provision. The move proved successful.

About the years-long effort to close this loophole, Jackson told COURIER: “We have a deeply conservative majority party and this bill dealt explicitly with sex. Initially, I think there was some confusion about how controversial this bill was. Eventually, I think they realized (after hearing from thousands of women) that what was actually controversial was not closing the loophole.”

“If you ever doubt the power of your own voice, just go back and read about how a handful of women in North Carolina spoke up and forced a conservative, male-dominated legislature to finally listen and do the right thing.”

Since first filing this bill, Jackson said he’s probably had more than a thousand conversations about the issue. “The number of stories I heard was overwhelming—and they came from sources I didn’t even expect, like a forensic nurse who told me she had lost count of how many times this had come up in her career in the course of working with women who had been victims of rape,” he said. “Getting this bill passed was a textbook case of a crescendo of voices outside a legislative body demanding to be heard and eventually carrying the day.”

Though North Carolina has finally joined the rest of the country to say that “no” does, in fact, mean “no,” it’s clear we’ve still got a ways to go. The legal definition of rape, the amount of time a victim of a sex crime has to pursue a case, and the laws explaining what constitutes consent all vary state to state. In fact, half of the country doesn’t even have an explicit definition of consent on their books, while only a handful of places call for “affirmative consent.” In states like Wisconsin and California, the standard is “yes” means “yes,” putting the onus on people to obtain freely given consent from their partner instead of relying on a lack of response as permission to move forward with sexual activity. 

“Getting this bill passed was a textbook case of a crescendo of voices outside a legislative body demanding to be heard and eventually carrying the day.”

Jackson insists change can happen through community action. “If you ever doubt the power of your own voice, just go back and read about how a handful of women in North Carolina spoke up and forced a conservative, male-dominated legislature to finally listen and do the right thing,” he said. “It takes way, way too long—but it truly can happen.”