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On campus, an absurd overregulation of sexual conduct
BY CATHY YOUNG | 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
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
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?