Deceiving Your Sex Partner Would Be a Crime Under Bill Backed by New York Democrats


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Obtaining sex through “deception,” “concealment,” or “artifice” could violate consent. A group of New York lawmakers is trying to redefine consent in a way that would make it a crime to be less than fully truthful with sex partners. Under the new proposal, antics now considered merely caddish or immoral—like lying to a prospective sex partner about one’s relationship status, social standing, or future intentions—would count as criminal sexual misconduct.

Now in committee, Assembly Bill A6540—sponsored by Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright (D–New York City) and co-sponsored by three other Democratic lawmakers—would amend New York state’s penal code to define consent as “freely given knowledgeable and informed agreement” that is “obtained without the use of malice such as forcible compulsion, duress, coercion, deception, fraud, concealment or artifice.”

Sex through “forcible compulsion” is already considered rape in the first degree under New York law. The biggest change Seawright’s bill would have is on the state’s law against sexual misconduct.

A person becomes guilty of sexual misconduct if “he or she engages in sexual intercourse with another person without such person’s consent; or he or she engages in oral sexual conduct or anal sexual conduct with another person without such person’s consent.” Thus, if consent is defined as sex obtained without any deception, concealment, or artifice, anyone who lies to or omits information from a prospective sexual partner would be guilty of sexual misconduct (a class A misdemeanor).

This could open the floodgates of criminal prosecution (and civil suits) involving any number of wrong but incredibly common situations among sexual partners. Telling a prospective sex partner that you’re single when you’re actually married or in a relationship would seem to fit the bill. So, too, would trying to get laid by professing more interest in a future relationship than one actually has.

Women could be guilty for lying about contraceptive use or menstrual cycles, and men for lying about having a vasectomy.

Trying to win over a date by saying you have a better job than you actually do, live in a nicer place, or went to a better school could become a crime if that date sleeps with you. Any half-truths—or even omissions—about your social or financial status could possibly count as artifice or “concealment.” So could lying or concealing information about one’s race, ethnicity, religion, etc.

Someone might try to sue or press charges based on the idea that makeup, Botox, boob jobs, and similar measures to enhance one’s appearance should count as illegal artifice that negates consent. It also seems likely that people could attempt to use the law against transgender or gender non-conforming people.

The New York bill isn’t the first time lawmakers have tried something like this; for a while, there’s been a consistent but marginalized attempt to make “rape by deception” or “rape by fraud” crime. For instance, a New Jersey legislator attempted in 2014 to criminalize “an act of sexual penetration to which a person has given consent because the actor has misrepresented the purpose of the act or has represented he is someone he is not.” (The attempt failed.)

But “‘rape-​by-deception’ is almost universally rejected in American criminal law,” as Yale University law professor Jed Rubenfeld noted in the 2013 article “The Riddle of Rape-by-​Deception and the Myth of Sexual Autonomy.”

As UCLA law professor and blogger Eugene Volokh noted back in 2010, it’s only a crime here in very specific circumstances:

Note that under American law, sex for which consent is procured by a lie is generally a crime only (1) when the fraud relates to the nature of the act (i.e., the defendant claimed he was a doctor who was going to medically examine the woman’s genitals, or perhaps even administer a medical cure by having sex with her), or (2) in some states, when the defendant impersonated the woman’s husband. There was a proposal last year in Massachusetts that would have generally criminalized rape by fraud, and I blogged about it here; but to my knowledge it didn’t go anywhere. And while a few American rape statutes might already criminalize sex procured through false statements (or provide as to crimes generally that “assent does not constitute consent if … [i]t is induced by force, duress, or deception”), I know of no cases applying those statutes in the typical lying-to-get-sex case.

Will New York change that?

Seawright apparently hopes so. “The proper definition of consent in New York’s laws will clarify lawful sexual conduct, guide behavior, and make it possible to hold sexual predators accountable,” she said in a statement.

Seawright’s measure is being championed by two women, Tarale Wulff and Dawn Dunning, who testified at Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial last year. “In part of Harvey’s final statement at his sentencing, he commented that he felt confused, and he thinks that most men are confused. So by defining this consent, there will be no more confusion,” Wulff told ABC News. The change would “make sexual assault crimes…easier to prosecute,” Dunning said.

It’s hard to see how adding all sorts of new layers to the definition of consent, and vague new ways to violate it (what exactly is artifice in this context?), will make things less confusing. There’s no doubt, however, that it would make it easier for law enforcement to define people as sex offenders and attempt to prosecute them.

When will people learn that defining a broader and broader category of behavior as sex crimes doesn’t actually help stop sexual assaults or increase justice, it just funnels more people into the criminal justice system and creates new opportunities for law enforcement harassment, discrimination, and abuse?


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