How Antioch College Got Rape Right 20 Years Ago

In the ’90s, a campus feminist group drafted rules governing sexual behavior on campus. They were jeered for their efforts, but today they look visionary.

12.10.14 10:45 AM ET

As colleges across the country struggle to develop procedures for dealing with sexual misconduct and sexual-misconduct complaints, it’s time to take a second look at the effort that was made to deal with campus sexual offenses two decades ago by Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

A tiny college, founded before the Civil War by Horace Mann, the legendary educational reformer, Antioch has always been innovative, and its ’90s effort to come up with sexual-conduct guidelines reflected this tradition. The Antioch rules—officially, the Sexual Offense Prevention Policy—centered on the idea that “consent must be obtained each and every time there is sexual activity.” The rules, spelled out in the Antioch Student Handbook, did not, moreover, stop there. They had a corollary: “Each new level of sexual activity requires consent.”

The policy had its origins with the Womyn of Antioch, a campus feminist group that in 1991 undertook a campaign to end sexual violence at Antioch and succeed in getting its views accepted within the Antioch community. The reaction outside Antioch was altogether different.

In 1993 the Antioch rules became a national story and were quickly turned into fodder for ridicule. The attacks peaked with a Saturday Night Live sketch that revolved around a mock quiz show, “Is it Date Rape?” The premise of the sketch was that sex was too spontaneous to be regulated, and the quiz show played that idea to the hilt. The show featured Chris Farley as a goofy frat boy who answered all the questions about rape incorrectly and Shannen Doherty as a Victimization Studies major who answered every rape question correctly. The implication was that trying to sort through the thorny problem of sexual consent was beyond the ability of colleges.

The Saturday Night Live put-on made it almost impossible to have a serious discussion in the media about the Antioch rules, and before long even the New York Times was talking about the difficulty of “legislating kisses.” Lost in the national controversy was the distinction that Karen Hall, the director of Antioch’s sexual offense prevention program, made when she observed, “We are not trying to reduce the romance, passion, or spontaneity of sex; we are trying to reduce the spontaneity of rape.”

Two decades later, it is difficult to imagine Saturday Night Live or any hip show intended for an under thirty audience satirizing the idea of coming to terms with college rape. Earlier this year the Antioch rules were defended by Ms. Magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem in an op-ed she wrote with Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University. Even more important, the federal government has begun to play a key role in giving new life to the ideas behind the Antioch rules. On October 15,  the Department of Education released the names of 85 colleges and universities under investigation for their handling of sexual assault complaints.

Princeton, Amherst, Harvard, Swarthmore, the University of Chicago, and Sarah Lawrence (where I teach) are among the 85 colleges and universities under investigation, but even at schools not on the Department of Education’s list, there has been internal pressure to examine how campus sexual misconduct is dealt with. Wesleyan University has just banned one of its fraternities from holding social events until 2015 because of rape allegations, and at Columbia University, senior Emma Sulkowicz, whose senior art thesis is titled, “Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight,”  has received widespread support from students and faculty alike as she carries a mattress with her to protest Columbia’s decision to allow the student she says raped her to attend classes.

The Womyn of Antioch are now in their forties. They rarely get mentioned in the media anymore, but that’s no reflection on them. Their ideas have triumphed.  Democratic senators Kristen Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri have made sexual assault at colleges and universities a major issue in Congress. Even more telling, the language in California’s new student sexual consent law, signed this fall by Governor Jerry Brown, seems taken straight from the pages of the Antioch rules.

Under the new California law, in order to receive state aid, colleges and universities must have in place policies that require of their students “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement” when they engage in sexual activity. In addition, like the Antioch rules, California’s new law doesn’t limit itself to the onset of sexual activity. In unambiguous language the law declares, “Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.”

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Every Army Man Is with You: The Cadets Who Won the 1964 Army-Navy Game, Fought in Vietnam, and Came Home Forever Changed.