Thank You For Asking
Posted February 23, 2018 7:30 p.m. EST
YELLOW SPRINGS, Ohio — When Soleil R. Sykes took an internship in Washington during her first year as a student at Antioch College, she experienced a bit of culture shock.
She was working at a German think tank and noticed that both in the office and at social events, friends and colleagues were far more casual about touching one another. “At a mixer before a speech, someone would tap you on the shoulder or I would tap someone on the shoulder,” said Sykes, 22, now a fourth-year student majoring in political economy. “At Antioch, people would have asked permission first.”
In 1990, Antioch College students pioneered its affirmative sexual consent policy, formulating a document now called the Sexual Offense Prevention Policy. It was mocked by much of the rest of the world. Since then, campuses across the country have caught up. Education about consent is now part of college life.
Now, the current crop of pioneers at Antioch are moving the conversation beyond sex to discussions of consent in platonic touch.
When Alyssa Navarrette, a third-year student who is studying anthropology and art, came home for her first visit after starting college, she was taken by surprise when her mother hugged her.
“If you don’t want to be touched and your mom wants to hug you, you should be allowed to say no,” Navarrette said. “It’s about having autonomy over your own body.”
“It’s a framework for how to engage with everyone, on every level,” said Angel Nalubega, a 22-year-old fourth-year history major and a dorm resident adviser. “It helps promote respect for all people in the community.”
The school’s historical mascot is the Antioch Radicals. On campus, friends ask permission before giving hugs. Personal space is discussed in class as an often encroached-upon right. At the same time, as with many in their generational cohort, some students are giving full expression to their gender identities, whether those identities are fixed or fluid. People introduce themselves with their preferred pronouns (“I’m Katie and I use ‘they/them/their'”).
When people get hurt, the community springs into action. Students say that what they and their predecessors have built here isn’t perfect, but that the culture is as close to an ideal as they’ve seen.
Enacting Affirmative Consent
In a lot of ways, Antioch College exists in a bubble. With an enrollment of 135 students, it is situated in a small liberal town that is a bluish dot in a largely Republican area of southwest Ohio. Its first president was education reformer and politician Horace Mann; Coretta Scott King is among the famous graduates.
But students regularly venture outside this cocoon. Antioch’s “cooperative educational experiences” are a cornerstone of the curriculum, and they compel students, at least four times before graduating, to go on “co-op,” taking on 10-week jobs and internships, usually in places far from Yellow Springs, often arranged or provided by Antioch alumni.
If you choose to permeate the bubble yourself and visit Antioch, you will be asked to sign a “statement of understanding” that you will abide by a policy that requires enthusiastic verbal consent during every stage of every sexual interaction. (Reporters are also required to sign the statement.)
Antioch was founded in 1850 but was closed by an umbrella organization in 2008, in part because of financial issues. Alumni worked to gain the college’s independence and reopened in 2011. When it did, it guaranteed free tuition to its first four enrolling classes.
Students including Marcell Vanarsdale, 22 and now a fourth-year student, arrived at Antioch mostly unaware of the college’s consent policy. “I think my parents raised me pretty well and taught me respect for people and respect for women, but learning about the SOPP is definitely the first formal education about consent I ever got,” said Vanarsdale, who grew up just outside of Chicago and is studying history and performance.
He attended several sessions at orientation devoted to the policy, including one led by Planned Parenthood educators, another about the history of sexual relations. “It was different, for sure,” he said. “The biggest pull was moving away from the idea that ‘no means no’ and toward ‘yes means yes.'”
In its most updated form, the SOPP is an eight-page document that spells out the tenets of “affirmative consent.” In each stage of a sexual interaction, consent must be verbally requested and verbally given, the policy says — and “silence conveys a lack of affirmative consent.”
It prohibits the sending of unsolicited sexual text messages and requires partners to disclose sexually transmitted infections. It also dictates that people under the influence of drugs and alcohol cannot give consent. So, strictly speaking, any drunk hookup would be found to be in violation of the policy if one of the parties filed a complaint.
“The SOPP is Antioch College’s formal attempt at ending sexual violence and sexual harassment while fostering a campus culture of positive, consensual sexuality,” it reads.
When the policy was enacted in the early 1990s, it became the subject of a lot of media attention, including a blistering skit on “Saturday Night Live” starring Shannen Doherty (“major in victimization studies”) and Chris Farley (“charged in three hazing deaths”) as Antioch students competing in a game show hosted by Phil Hartman called “Is It Date Rape?” (The “Jeopardy!"-like categories included “I Paid for Dinner” and “Halter Top.”)
Before a national audience, the school and the women who created the policy were portrayed as endemic of a politically correct culture run amok that was trying to desexualize sex.
The reality may be quite the opposite. Antioch recently extended its Sex Week into a month. “We wanted to bring even more pleasure-based sex education and gender-based education,” said Iris Olson, a 2017 graduate, who is studying for a master’s degree in public health at Boston University and uses the pronouns they/them/their. Mx. Olson, 23, who prefers that gender-neutral honorific, helped organize Month of Sex events.
During them, programming has included screenings of ethical pornography, a “Kiss and Tell” story-sharing event, “Dildo Bingo,” a ropes-and-bondage workshop and an Antioch traditional event that students attend dressed to express themselves along the gender continuum.
A “sex positive” culture has everything to do with the SOPP, Olson said. “Being able to talk to a partner or multiple partners about what you like, what you would like to experiment with — to have a negotiation whether it’s about BDSM or extra cuddling, whatever gets you going — those discussions are what make sex wonderful. You have more control of the situation.”
The college’s administration sees this all as a big selling point for the school. “Our students and our alumni have always been very involved with activism, and social justice is in our DNA,” said Mila Cooper, Antioch’s vice president for diversity and inclusion and the director of the Coretta Scott King Center. “There’s a heightened awareness of sexual violence and sexual assault right now with the MeToo movement, but I do think Antioch has been involved in these conversations long before. It’s not just a policy, you know, it’s part of the education and the culture here.”
‘We Live in a Culture Where So Many Are Penetrated Physically, Emotionally and Verbally’
“We talk about taking up space in a lot of different ways,” said Toni Jonas-Silver, 23 and a fourth-year student, while sipping tea at the Emporium, a coffee bar and wine shop that is something of an off-campus commissary during the day. “Even in these conversations in class, some people have the tendency to talk so much that it diminishes the chance that other voices will be heard. It’s related to people who have more privilege and are more used to being encouraged to take up that space.”
The discussions connect back, sometimes directly, to the policy. “The SOPP is a reminder of who we are and what we’re here to do,” said Michelle De León, 23, a second-year student. “It lets us say, ‘Hey, you’re in a community and you’re in a space with other people and be mindful of the space you’re taking up.’ Women, nonbinary people, queer people, people of color — we’re not living in a culture that gives them space. We live in a culture where so many are penetrated physically, emotionally and verbally by anyone at any moment.”
In the media, it’s been misunderstood, many Antiochians say. “People think it’s a harsh policy,” Nalubega said. “But it’s not. It’s saying that when you do touch a person, your touch is exciting and welcoming to that person.” “There’s an idea that it has to be very unromantic and very contractual and that’s not true at all,” said Jeanne Kay, who was an Antioch student and now is working for the school’s fundraising division as the annual giving manager. “You can learn to ask in ways that are sexy and romantic and say, ‘Is this OK? You want to continue to do this? Can I touch you there?’ These are all thing that can enhance the experience instead of killing the buzz.”
Still, there is a learning curve. Navarrette, for one, was not used to having honest conversations about sex. “It can be especially difficult for people of color who are from cultures where women and girls are not supposed to talk about sex,” she said. “It means you’re a ‘bad girl.'”
Many students have come to embrace it as a good thing. “At first, it feels almost unnatural and abrupt to say, ‘Hey, can I do this? Can I proceed with this?'” Vanarsdale said. “But then, you see, at least for me, it’s not just what you say but how you say it, getting more comfortable with the language. And I think it takes out a lot of the pressure on both parties when asking is involved and clarity is confirmed.”
In the Students’ Hands
Enforcement controls how effective a policy can be. The tiny size of the student body is one impediment to ideal outcomes, students say. News of an SOPP violation being reported to a student community representative or a member of the staff or faculty spreads very quickly. It’s pretty much guaranteed that the person reporting the violation will share mutual friends with the person they’re citing. This can create a real strain on student social dynamics.
There is also a sense that the administration does not always respond as students think it should. “From the time the school reopened to two summers ago, there were about 8 to 10 SOPP cases,” said Malka Berro, a 21-year-old fourth-year student. “Two had administration repercussions. Our perception is that sometimes people don’t follow through.”
But the reality is sometimes more complicated. Roger D. Stoppa, director of public safety at Antioch, said that because a reported violation of the SOPP is, by definition, an unwanted act in the context of a sexual interaction, it must also be considered a violation of Title IX, the federal law that forbids sex discrimination within any entity that receives federal funding.
And federal guidelines prohibit officials from revealing private details of an investigation. “We’re sworn to confidentiality. We can’t say that we found somebody responsible, and this is the consequence that they got,” said Stoppa, who is also the school’s deputy Title IX coordinator. “When they don’t see anything tangible happen, they just think, ‘Oh my God, I reported and nobody did anything about it.’ Well, we go through a very thorough process.” So the student community may ultimately take matters of enforcement into its own hands.
In summer 2017, a student group organized a concert featuring several local bands, that would take place at the on-campus amphitheater. Nonstudents from beyond Yellow Springs attended. They were asked to sign the document stating that they understood and would respect the SOPP. Several of the men refused to sign; they were approached by students who asked them to sign the document or to leave. They left.
“There is a stigma to not signing,” Berro said.
In late 2014, Todd Sanders, now 26, was called to meet with a dean because two SOPP violations had been filed against him. “I had gotten very active in my romantic life when I was at Antioch,” said Sanders, who is gender-fluid and uses they/them/their pronouns. “I was having difficulty managing being polyamorous. Alcohol became a factor.”
The dean read a list of complaints, Sanders said. Some of them came as a surprise, but not all. Sanders said they and the dean decided they should leave school.
Sanders left Yellow Springs for a while but then returned, moved into an apartment in town and got a job at a restaurant. At another meeting, the dean told Sanders that they were banned from campus, Sanders said. The rules were not always closely observed. “I remember once I was walking with a few people, we stopped right at the edge of campus, and someone saw me and got really mad at me,” they said.
Word of Sanders’ behavior had spread around campus. At first, some students weren’t sure how to react because Sanders was well regarded as an activist.
“At Antioch, we focus so much on inclusion and creating space for marginalized people on campus that I think what has formed is a hierarchy based off of marginalization,” Vanarsdale said. “It gives people who have this marginalization attached to their identity some form of power. Todd wasn’t the archetype of what we think toxic masculinity would look like. He wasn’t a heterosexual cis male,” referring to cisgender, or not transgender.
Antiochians take their culture of consent seriously, and students were disturbed to know someone living in their midst was not living by the SOPP. Students began to approach Sanders, asking for apologies or acknowledgments that the consent rules were being flouted. Sanders didn’t seem to be chastened.
In a manner that perhaps can only take place when an entire community buys into a culture of consent, the community took action.
“There was a meeting of people who have been friends with this person or who had sex with this person or who are the victims, and we all got together and decided we had to do something about it,” Nalubega said. “So when we would see him at Birch or at the Emporium or at a party, we would say to him, ‘You can’t be in this space.'”
By spring 2015, it had become more difficult to live in Yellow Springs, Sanders said. “There was a posting on a student Facebook page saying I was a rapist and people should avoid me. That was a difficult thing to read. Within a month, I left. I felt like I had been run out of town on a rail.”
Contemporaries of Sanders said they tried to compel Sanders to acknowledge their missteps. “This is someone who was repeatedly confronted and didn’t change their behavior and then was ultimately not tolerated in the community,” said someone who knew Sanders but did not want to speak publicly about the matter.
Sanders is now committed to seeking affirmative consent in sexual interactions. “I don’t blame anyone else,” Sanders said. “I need to be accountable.”
Taking It to the Next Level
In fall 1990, an Antioch student reported a date rape to the dean’s office. The administration promised her that the male student would be removed from the dorm in which they both lived. When he was not removed, a group came together at the Womyn’s Center to plot for change.
One of the women activists was April Wolford, now in information technology services at the University of California, Berkeley. She was an elected representative to a community council. She thought it was important to codify the demands — to create a policy for the administration to formally adopt.
“The first version we wrote was very punitive,” Wolford said. It was called the “Antioch College Sexual Offense Policy,” and it began: “A sexual offense, as defined herein, committed by a community member will not be tolerated by the Antioch community. If there is reasonable cause to believe that any person has committed such an offense and that person is considered a threat to the community, that individual must be promptly removed from the campus.”
Sexual offenses were defined as forced physical penetration, “any nonconsensual physical contact found to be sexually threatening or offensive” and other incidents of “persistent sexual harassment.”
“But what we learned from that is that wasn’t the focus of what the community wanted,” Wolford said. “We wanted to prevent these assaults. As young people, we didn’t have the tools.”
So they began to discuss consent. “The challenge was, ‘How do you get consent in a situation where everyone is so nervous?'” Wolford said.
So the students created not just a policy but an educational curriculum of lectures, discussion groups, presentations from Planned Parenthood and skits in which actors would work through different scenarios where consent should be taught. “It was so owned by students, it was created by students, and students created education around it,” Wolford said. The school administration adopted the policy with enthusiasm in winter 1991.
When Louise Smith, a professor of performance who graduated in the class of 1977, first came back to Yellow Springs to join the faculty, the SOPP was newly in place but already “a prominent part of the zeitgeist,” she said. Smith had come back to Antioch from New York City, where she was entrenched in the downtown performance scene. She thought the policy was too based in political correctness. “I was an eye roller,” she said.
But over the years — including a stint as dean of community life in 2011, during which she worked with students to remove SOPP language about “rape culture” in favor of “sexual violence,” which she hoped would be less alienating and accusatory toward men — she has changed her mind.
“I have very little patience with the notion that something like this isn’t needed,” she said. “I don’t feel the policy was meant to stop us from shaking hands without consent. What it does do is sort of say, ‘Your body is your body and if you don’t want something to happen to it or with it, it shouldn’t.’ And then that can be applied into every social interaction.” Andy Janecko, 19 and a second-year student, wants to create another policy. “I’m really wanting to write a separate policy, that brings consciousness about consent a little bit further,” said Janecko, who uses they/them/their pronouns. “We’re missing this whole component of consent in general, teaching people not to touch people at all if you don’t have their verbal consent,” they said, suggesting that it could be called the Nonconsensual Contact Prevention Policy.
One reason for the policy, they said, is to protect against people casually touching people who don’t like to be touched or who have disabilities that make unexpected touch painful or unsettling.
“I’m also looking for it to help people get justice or get acknowledgments at least for microaggression,” said Janecko, currently on co-op in San Francisco, working at a mime theater. They hope to get to work on this next evolution when they return to campus this spring.