Why did affirmative consent become a part of the culture at Antioch so long before it did anywhere else? Does it really change the way young people at the school have sex? This seemed like a good moment to pick up the story and find out.
The first-of-its-kind affirmative consent policy was written by students in 1990 as a response to campus rape. But the first thing anyone who was at Antioch in the ’90s wanted to talk to me about was the media mayhem. When The Associated Press ran an article on the policy with the headline “No huggy, no kissy without a ‘yes’ at Antioch College,” it ignited a cultural firestorm.
Articles about the college’s policy were printed in hundreds of newspapers around the world, including The New York Times. (Scott Sanders, Antioch’s on-campus historian, has the clippings meticulously cataloged in hand-labeled manila folders, which he let me spend an afternoon sifting through.) The story was featured on “Good Morning America” and “Eye to Eye With Connie Chung,” among other programs. Charlie Rose and Dr. Ruth talked about it. Amy Thomson, who was a first-year student when the news media descended, told me she remembered photographers pulling open dorm room doors and snapping pictures, trying to catch unsuspecting students in sexual acts. As Christelle Evans, an architect of the policy who is featured in the video, put it, “This went viral before viral was even a thing.”
When I read the pun-filled headlines, watched the joking attitude of the TV news coverage (reporter: “How do you have sex at Antioch College? Very carefully”) and tracked down a “Saturday Night Live” skit in which the characters are Antioch students on a game show called “Is It Date Rape?” I felt like I was looking at relics from another age — particularly in light of the serious stories of sexual harassment and assault that have been reported by the news media in recent months.
I was expecting the women who wrote the policy to talk about vindication (“people are finally seeing it my way!”) at a moment when the thoughts they expressed more than 25 years ago around sex seem prescient. But the story they told me — of trying to change the world as young people and being laughed at, of the humiliation and shame some of them still hold onto from that experience — was much more complicated.
On a basic level, what the women in the video were trying to do at Antioch and what people are still trying to do at Antioch is set up the expectation that everyone in the community will talk about sex — before and during — so that everyone involved wants what is happening to be happening. It’s also about being prompted to think enough about what you want sexually to be able to communicate it.
Let’s be real: Asking someone for consent at every stage of sexual activity sounds awkward and embarrassing. But from what I observed at Antioch, curbing that embarrassment has become a community effort.
All the current students I followed up with for the video told me that being sexual with an Antioch student is different from being sexual with someone else. They spoke of a common language everyone is taught beginning at orientation, so that when one student starts asking questions of another student in the midst of sexual activity, it doesn’t seem so out there.
But what is it like to be an 18-year-old and have the expectation set that you will talk during sex? I, for one, have never been part of a community with that expectation. Spending time at Antioch’s orientation, I thought about how that might change your sexual interactions for the rest of your life.
My co-producer Kassie Bracken and I broached this question with Bethany Saltman, one of the architects of the policy who is featured in the video, and we ended up having a conversation not about what it means to ask “Do you want this?” but about what it means to say “yes.”
“It can be really hard to say yes,” Ms. Saltman said. “You have to be so brazenly wanting sex to say yes.”
In a culture that teaches women in particular not to want sex too much, to be able to say: “Yes, I want you to do that to me! Yes, I want to do that to you!” is exciting, she argued, “and that has been totally, totally misunderstood.”
The requirement of signing the Sexual Offense Prevention Policy before spending the night on campus still exists at the school, and students told me they actually volunteer to stand at the doors of parties and hand out the policy to off-campus attendees. It makes me wonder if the memory of signing that form will pop into the heads of those young visitors when they’re in their 30s, as it still does into mine.