It seemed funny 20 years ago when Antioch College unveiled a sexual offense prevention policy so prescriptive that students weren’t allowed to kiss without receiving explicit permission.
The small Ohio campus became the butt of national jokes, including a parody on “Saturday Night Live” mocking the question-and-answer process that student trysts required.
The code’s premise was simple: Every sexual encounter, from first kiss to post-coitus snuggle, must be agreed upon by both parties.
“Silence is not consent,” the policy decreed. Also: “Body movements and … moans are not consent,” and “Grinding on the dance floor is not consent.”
The person initiating the sexual activity had to ask for consent. The person asked was required to respond verbally. Each new level of intimacy called for another verbal agreement.
It’s easy to dismiss that checklist approach as rigid or naive. But it did deliver the sort of clarity that we are lacking now, as activists, politicians and students weigh in on the charged topic of sexual violence on campus.
The Antioch code provided an explicit primer on sexual consent. It focused not just on punishment, but on preventing misconduct. It required both parties to consider and declare their intentions, promoting a deliberative approach to an often impulsive act.
In hindsight, all of that was actually pretty smart.
In the two decades since then, the needle hasn’t budged much. But a surge of complaints by students has led federal officials to investigate 55 colleges, including four in California, for possibly violating the law in their handling of sexual violence and harassment allegations. The White House has even taken up the cause, with its Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.
That task force’s report, released last week, says universities need to do a better job of investigating and reporting assaults, supporting victims, disciplining students found guilty of sexual misconduct, and conducting prevention campaigns that enlist male students to intervene when a female classmate is in a threatening situation.
That’s all good, but not quite enough. There are social norms in play that colleges can’t avoid and the task force shouldn’t ignore. Rampant binge-drinking, a hookup culture and a lack of clear standards and support have allowed some men to feel entitled to sex and left some women uncertain about protecting themselves.
We’re not talking about strangers jumping out of bushes. The majority of campus sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, and involve overuse of alcohol or drugs.
Acknowledging that isn’t blaming the victim or sanctioning rape. In fact, addressing that reality may be a necessary first step toward making a dent in a problem that is broader than assault reports suggest.
It seems that young men aren’t the only ones with a problem distinguishing between rape and sex.
In a survey of college students by the National Institute of Justice, 14% of women said someone had sexual contact with them when they were passed out or too drunk to be able to stop or provide consent.
But three-quarters of those women did not consider that rape or assault. Even when penetration was involved, only 37% of the women the study classified as rape victims believed that what happened to them was rape.
Tulane University professor Sally Kenney isn’t surprised by that. “Nobody likes to claim the term ‘victim.’ There’s a stigma to that,” she said. “But it is alarming, the way a large number of students, both men and women, have trouble understanding forced sex as problematic.”
Kenney worked with the White House task force and heads Tulane’s Newcomb College Institute, a leadership program for women. She recalled asking students to write personal reflections about court cases involving violence. Their stories revealed that every woman in that class had been sexually assaulted — even if they didn’t call it that, she said.
That attitude may reflect wobbly college norms. “Is it OK to force somebody to have sex if you spent a lot of money on a date? Can someone retract consent once they’ve started messing around, if they decide they don’t want it to continue?” Those are questions Kenney said students ponder as they try to calibrate their personal boundaries.
The professor thinks I do the movement a disservice by linking drinking and sexual assault. Instead of warning women not to get blackout drunk, Kenney said, we need to educate men that it’s not OK to have sex with someone who isn’t sober enough to consent.
I think we can and should do both: Highlight the hazards of binge-drinking, which makes a hash of self control. And make it clear that sex with an incapacitated partner is a moral and legal violation that can send a student to jail.
That’s an education that needs to start before college, because studies show that freshmen and sophomores are more likely than older students to be involved in what researchers call “sexually coercive experiences.”
The federal task force was right to promote “bystander intervention” campaigns that let women know they’re not alone. As Kenney put it, “We need to empower the 90-plus percent of men who do not want to rape anybody to stop the men who do.”
We also need to encourage those young women who’ve been willing to shed their privacy and talk about being sexually assaulted.
“That’s what’s so important about this moment,” Kenney said. “Students are organizing themselves. Social media is allowing them to share their stories: ‘This is what happened to me at this bar on this street at homecoming.’ So people can’t keep saying it only happens somewhere else.”
Those student voices have built momentum for a movement that can make college campuses healthier for everyone. Their courage makes a lie of the notion that any woman should feel ashamed because someone violated her.