On campus, an absurd overregulation of sexual conduct

May 22, 2006

IN THE EARLY 1990s, in the midst of a national debate about feminism, sexual relationships, and sexual violence, the media discovered an unusual sexual conduct policy at Antioch College, a small liberal arts school in Ohio. The policy, adopted in response to complaints from a group called Womyn of Antioch about not enough being done to stop date rape on campus, mandated explicit verbal consent every step of the way in a sexual encounter — from undoing a button to sexual intercourse. At the time, it elicited a lot of mockery. But while the debate has gone away, the mindset that inspired the Antioch policy has not.

Over the years, a number of colleges and universities have adopted less extreme versions of this policy, requiring explicit verbal consent to sex though not quite in so much detail. But now, Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania seems to have outdone Antioch: Under that school’s policy, a verbally unsanctioned hug could be treated as a sexual assault.

Gettysburg’s policy, publicized by the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, defines sexual misconduct as ”a threat of a sexual nature or deliberate physical contact of a sexual nature without the other person’s consent,” and goes on to state that the physical contact covered by the policy includes nonconsensual ”brushing, touching, grabbing, pinching, patting, hugging, and kissing,” as well as ”coerced sexual activities, including rape.”

”Each individual,” the policy goes on to state, ”has a responsibility to obtain consent before engaging in sexual interaction. Consent is defined as the act of willingly and verbally agreeing (for example, by stating ‘yes’) to engage in specific sexual conduct. If either person at any point in a sexual encounter does not give continuing and active consent, all sexual contact must cease, even if consent was given earlier.”

One hopes this does not mean that both people in a sexual encounter must constantly reaffirm their willingness to continue what they’re doing. But who knows? The foundation points out that because it is impossible to enforce such a policy consistently, it will inevitably be enforced in arbitrary ways. If everyone violates the rules at one time or another, anyone is a potential target for punishment.

Policies such as Gettysburg’s and Antioch’s stem from a noble concern with sexual violence. There has been much debate about the statistics on campus sexual assault. Some researchers claim that as many as one in four college women will be a victim of attempted or completed rape by graduation; critics charge that these figures are vastly overstated and include many instances of miscommunication, not assault. Still, whatever the scope of the problem, it is real and troubling.

Feminists have argued that the traditional romantic script of male aggression and female coyness often contributes to date rape: A man may think that he is sweeping the woman off her feet when he is actually overpowering her with force. There is some substance to this critique: It is difficult not to cringe while reading or watching some aggressive seduction/borderline rape scenes in old books and movies. ”No means no” is generally a good principle, even if sometimes it may be taken too far. (Some antirape activists argue that once the woman has said no, any attempt by the man to change her mind should be regarded as coercion.)

But the requirement of ensuring an explicit ”yes” takes the campaign against sexual assault to a new and absurd level. For one thing, it infantilizes women (while the policies may be gender-neutral on their face, they generally presume men to be the initiators in heterosexual encounters). Are women so weak that they can’t even say ”no,” or otherwise indicate their lack of consent, unless the man takes the initiative of asking?

Such policies also absurdly overregulate sexual relations — particularly since they often require verbal consent to each act even in an ongoing relationship. Forget spontaneity, passion, the thrill of discovery. Forget letting go. At the time of the Antioch policy debate, one sexual assault counselor primly condemned ”the blind give-and-take of sexual negotiations,” arguing that it should be replaced by clear communication. The worthy goal of rape prevention has been twisted into a utopian attempt to remake human sexuality — in an image that is not particularly attractive.

The little-known 1987 movie ”Cherry 2000″ portrayed a futuristic society in which every date was preceded by a sit-down with lawyers and a written contract about the specific activities to which both parties agreed — and in which a lot of men sought the company of female androids programmed not only for sex but for old-fashioned romance. Is that where the Gettysburg policy is taking us?

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Schools: Gettysburg College Cases: Gettysburg College: Unjust Sexual Misconduct Policy