Over 20 years ago, Antioch College was pilloried nationally for its "Ask First" sexual consent policy that it adopted in 1991. In response to two campus rapes that year, it was the first college that required ongoing verbal affirmation at every step of the encounter for it to be considered consensual. Most colleges at the time (and now) still looks for evidence in protestations. And because of this negotiation, that would require students to have a conversation around the parameters of sex, the drafters of this policy were widely mocked as naive and their actions were evidence of political correctness run amok.
The policy read in part as such.
1. For the purpose of this policy, "consent" shall be defined as follows: the act of willingly and verbally agreeing to engage in specific sexual contact or conduct.
2. If sexual contact and/or conduct is not mutually and simultaneously initiated, then the person who initiates sexual contact/conduct is responsible for getting the verbal consent of the other individual(s) involved.
3. Obtaining consent is an on-going process in any sexual interaction. Verbal consent should be obtained with each new level of physical and/or sexual contact/conduct in any given interaction, regardless of who initiates it. Asking "Do you want to have sex with me?" is not enough. The request for consent must be specific to each act.
4. The person with whom sexual contact/conduct is initiated is responsible to express verbally and/or physically her/his willingness or lack of willingness when reasonably possible.
5. If someone has initially consented but then stops consenting during a sexual interaction, she/he should communicate withdrawal verbally and/or through physical resistance. The other individual(s) must stop immediately.
6. To knowingly take advantage of someone who is under the influence of alcohol, drugs and/or prescribed medication is not acceptable behavior in the Antioch community.
7. If someone verbally agrees to engage in specific contact or conduct, but it is not of her/his own free will due to any of the circumstances stated in (a) through (d) below, then the person initiating shall be considered in violation of this policy if:
a) the person submitting is under the influence of alcohol or other substances supplied to her/him by the person initiating;
b) the person submitting is incapacitated by alcohol, drugs, and/or prescribed medication;
c) the person submitting is asleep or unconscious;
d) the person initiating has forced, threatened, coerced, or intimidated the other individual(s) into engaging in sexual contact and/or sexual conduct.
I was a student at a very liberal college at the time and I have memories of friends and classmates being raped and otherwise sexually assaulted. The school's response was almost invariably to ignore the problem. Usually the official response was to give the rapist a suspension that would last a semester; the people that were raped often dropped out, rather than to deal with the ongoing trauma of seeing their assailant on campus. And by no means would they be encouraged to go to the police. Keeping the official sexual assault statistics low was the priority. From what I've heard, not much has changed on campuses across our country.
I remember hearing this law and thinking that it seemed obvious. Why not have a conversation about sexual intercourse? Why not encourage this to be an ongoing discussion? Why don't we stop pretending that silence means "yes"?
But even at our college, we were not immune from constantly hearing accusations of students being overly "politically correct." I remember first hearing that in the lunch room when I was a freshman in 1989, whispers about how protesting oppression and discrimination was just the anger of hothouse flowers. I found the fears around political correctness stifling, as if people were afraid of their own burgeoning liberalism. And accusing someone of political correctness was an easy way of shutting down difficult conversations.
It was no surprise then that Antioch's policies were dismissed in such a fashion from many quarters, including the New York Times:
That's too bad, because it's a serious, if touchingly earnest, attempt to deal with a real problem. Date rape is no joke, but in trying to stop it, Antioch, along with scores of other colleges across the country, sets out to codify the sexual behavior of adolescents. That's not a bad goal, but it's awfully tricky, and inherently almost impossible to implement.
To people used to associating sex with romance and romance with mystery, these guidelines look stifling. Each and every time?
You can see what the good folks at Antioch are trying to do: eliminate the sort of boorishness that expresses itself as "Well, we did it once, so it must be O.K. to do it again," or "You kissed me, so of course you want me to pull all your clothes off."
Some Antioch students, interviewed by The Times, said the rules weren't so bad in practice. You could obtain permission to do something without being clunky about it. Others weren't happy. If permission must be sought for a kiss, and if previous permission isn't to be taken as permission in the future, a student could risk serious consequences with a spontaneous smooch delivered to a longtime lover who happened to be in a bad mood.
Touchingly earnest. Stifling. Easily abused. Naive. Killing romance. This is how it was widely viewed. In this editorial, the author did touch on one salient point—even verbal affirmation does not necessarily prevent coercion but still, it strengthens the idea of mutual affirmative consent, which is a step in the right direction. Overall, the policy was ridiculed without any nuanced critique, including famously on SNL as it was seen as legalistic and out of touch with the wild sexual urges of adolescents (and it's no small coincidence that Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia was all the rave at the time).
Male Date Rape Player #2: I sure had a nice time at that ragin' kegger. May I kiss you on the mouth.
Female Date Rape Player #2: Yes. Kissing me on the mouth.. is sometihng I feel.. com-fort-a-ble with. [ they kiss on the mouth ] Mmmm.. that.. was nice!
Male Date Rape Player #2: Would you mind if we had sexual intercourse?
Female Date Rape Player #2: No..
[ Ariel buzzes in ]
Dean Frederick Whitcomb: Helpern-Strauss?
Ariel Helpern-Strauss: Date Rape! No always means no
The sexual assault policy recast as an overly legalistic game show. If you win, you get a trip to Acapulco! Oh those crazy kids at Antioch.
In 2008, during the temporary closure of Antioch in the midst of dwindling enrollment, in some quarters, this policy blamed for what went wrong at the school:
In 1993, it suddenly became national news that Antioch required anyone engaging in sexual activity on campus to ask for and grant permission throughout every step of the encounter. Conceived by a group called Womyn of Antioch, the policy stipulated that consent could not be granted through body movements, nonverbal responses or silence. Furthermore, it stated that "consent is required each and every time there is sexual activity" and that "each new level of sexual activity requires consent." Translation: dorm room make-out sessions were being punctuated by steamy questions like, "May I kiss you now?", "May I remove your (Che Guevara) T-shirt now?" and "May I … " (you get the idea).
Admittedly, this was the early '90s, a time when many liberal arts campuses were so awash in the hysteria of political correctness that it seemed entirely possible a lamppost could commit date rape. But the attention to the Antioch policy, which got as far as a "Saturday Night Live" sketch, not only came to symbolize the infantilizing dogma of the new left, it turned an already obscure college into a laughingstock.
Part of my job used to be talking to teenage boys about sexual consent and if nothing else, you have to emphasize the power of communication. Emphasizing overt mutual consent embedded within a context of ongoing communication can be framed as empowering—it's raising their expectations. Calling this radical or ridiculous just shows how low the bar is set around human behavior in some quarters.
The adoption of California's Law around sexual consent, in response to recent media focus on campus rapes and sexual assaults might cast Antioch's policy in a new light, as a prescient and a courageous stance. Perhaps in the future, as well, more states and campuses will revisit this idea of requiring verbal consent.
pic of Antioch College from here.