CTNJ file photo

State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, said there is bipartisan confusion within the Higher Education and Employment Committee about a bill she introduced to help shift the way society thinks about sexual assault.

While state Rep. Mike Bocchino, R-Greenwich, was openly criticized by the Connecticut Democratic Party for comments he made during discussion of the bill at a recent meeting, Flexer said he was just one of several people from both parties to make “unfortunate comments.”

The proposed legislation, which was forwarded to the Senate by a 14-3 vote, would move the burden of proof in sexual assault cases on college campuses from the victim to the alleged perpetrator, Flexer said. Currently, the victim must convince investigators that she said “no,” while this bill would put the onus on the accused to prove she said “yes.”

Bocchino’s remark was made in the context of his concerns about ambiguity in the bill’s definition of “affirmative consent.”

“We have an obligation to make certain that this bill, this legislation that we will finally pass, is true and just and cannot be interpreted in any other way,” Bocchino said at the committee meeting, voicing concern for those who might be wrongfully accused while demonstrating less sensitivity toward the victims of sexual assault: “Because at the end of the day, there are no witnesses —  at least if there are, it’s a really great party.”

After the Democrats called on Bocchino to apologize for joking about such a serious matter, he responded with a statement that his words were “taken completely out of context and used in a negative way.”

Bocchino said his sarcastic remark linking an intimate encounter to a “party” with people watching was unfortunate — “because it was misconstrued by some who apparently wanted to undermine my support for this important legislation.”

“To twist my comments and present them in such a way is disturbing,” he said. “I am genuinely concerned for the safety and welfare of our children and students and I want to make certain that this piece of legislation is the best that we can put forward. In no way was I trying to make light of any of this and I am sorry that some may have taken my comments that way.”

Flexer said in an interview Thursday that it would’ve been nice if he had apologized for what he said instead of for how other people may have perceived it. Still, she said she’s grateful the legislation made it out of committee with such strong support, including Bocchino’s — and added that his comments and many others underscore the need for conversation about sexual assault and a greater understanding of what consent means in a sexual encounter.

She said confusion was evident in comments from state Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, who asked if hugging and kissing constitutes sexual activity and if a smile and a wink constitutes consent.

The remarks that bothered Flexer came when McCrory cited a hypothetical situation in which non-verbal consent for a sexual encounter is given but later, when the relationship ends, one person makes an assault accusation in retaliation for the break up. What happens if the accuser then says no consent was given, McCrory asked.

“A smile and a wink is not a smile and a wink anymore,” he said. “I don’t know what affirmative consent is actually saying, what we’re saying here.”

Flexer said the comment left her frustrated by the lack of understanding about sexual assault. “A wink and a smile has never been consent,” she said.

She was similarly disturbed by a line of questioning from state Sen. Kevin D. Witkos, R-Canton, about language in the bill that says the existence of a dating relationship or past sexual relationship does not constitute consent.

“We debated whether or not you could rape your wife in this country 30-40 years ago,” she said.

Permanent Commission on the Status of Women Executive Director Carolyn Treiss released a statement Thursday afternoon outlining similar concerns.

“While not wishing to cast any doubt on the sincerity of our elected officials in crafting public policy for the good of all, the PCSW believes that the tone of this publically broadcast committee meeting indicates we need a better framework for discussing sexual violence against women, an issue which has direct, severe, and long-term implications for our educational, social and public safety climates,” Treiss wrote.

Like Flexer, Treiss said she does not see the issue as a partisan one, and said “it would be foolhardy to single out any one individual or political party.”

Treiss called on the leadership of the four caucuses to meet with the commission to address the issue as soon as possible.

Flexer described the importance of the bill by echoing what she said was an eloquent summation by the proposal’s co-sponsor, Rep. Gregory Haddad, D-Storrs, at Tuesday’s meeting: “This (bill) is about a shift in entitlement and men no longer thinking they’re entitled to a woman’s body.”

“And some of the comments at that meeting demonstrated that this shift hasn’t entirely happened,” she said.