Health

The First College To Use Affirmative Consent Was A Laughingstock. Now, The Tide Is Turning.

CREDIT: Antioch College via Flickr Creative Commons

When Antioch College implemented the first affirmative consent policy in the country, “we became laughingstocks,” one of the former students involved in the effort admitted in a essay published this month in New York Magazine. Despite the ridicule, officials at the college haven’t backed down since 1991 — and now, they see the rest of the country slowly starting to change its tune.

In the 1990s, once it unveiled its Sexual Offense Prevention Policy (SOPP), the small Ohio school became transformed into the ultimate symbol of overzealous liberalism. An infamous Saturday Night Live skit mocked the new policy for classifying normal sexual interactions as date rape, depicting college students’ robotic requests to “elevate the level of sexual intimacy by feeling your buttocks” to suggest that was the only way to avoid breaking the rules.

More than two decades later, some of those dynamics persist in a renewed national conversation about sexual consent. As states like California and New York have asked colleges to update their policies to include an affirmative consent standard — which requires sexual partners to obtain explicit consent before proceeding, rather than assuming it’s okay unless the other person says “no” — critics are using some of the same arguments to make their points about why the policy is ridiculous.

But something about the current landscape is also very different. With national attention focused on the campus rape crisis, and colleges struggling to figure out how to update their sexual assault policies to avoid even more bad press, affirmative consent is gaining momentum. People are looking to Antioch as an example instead of as a joke.

“I came to Antioch from two other institutions that were in the process of wrestling with their Title IX policies,” Luis Rosa, the dean of community life at Antioch and the administrator who’s tasked with investigating potential sexual assault cases, said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “I can safely say that both of those schools are now working in the direction of creating policies that resemble ours.”

Rosa is new to the school this year, but he said that Antioch’s reputation precedes it. At orientation this fall, parents and students told him that the affirmative consent standard factored into their decision to enroll. They said they liked the fact that Antioch has been on the front line of this particular issue.

“The policy is fairly embedded into the culture,” Rosa said. “I think if you were to survey students, you’d be surprised to learn how many of them know of the SOPP program, how many of them are proud of it, and how many of them use the language of affirmative consent. Very few would speak negatively about it.”

Speaking with NPR earlier this month, an Antioch alumna who was on campus during the 1990s echoed that sentiment.

“It really, at least for me personally, became part of who I am,” Kristine Herman, one of the students who helped draft the SOPP policy, said. “Media attention didn’t even really explode until 1993, which, of course, was already two years into us living with policy where it wasn’t that controversial, because there were already two incoming classes of students who sort of thought this was normal and status quo.”

Rosa predicted that at some point within the next 10 years, affirmative consent policies will be a “given” at most college campuses across the country. “I think Antioch has become somewhat of an example and a role model for this notion that consent can become something that students translate to their own language and even something they use to enhance their sexual experience in a healthy fashion,” he said.

In fact, according to the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, more than 800 colleges and universities already use some kind of affirmative consent definition in their sexual assault policies. This data point has gotten somewhat lost in the concern over California’s new law. But what was once seen as an outlier at Antioch is increasingly becoming best practice in the higher education community.

“There’s quite a surge in support of a ‘Yes means yes’ formula,” Ada Meloy, the general counsel for the American Council on Education, recently told Insider Higher Education. “It’s certainly an ongoing movement, and is likely to be a generally positive thing.”

That current movement owes a lot to Antioch’s initial activism, and the community there is proud of that. “My sense is that this effort that Antioch has made, and continues to make, on this issue has made this probably the safest campus I’ve worked on for women and men when it comes to sexual assault,” Rosa said.