SWEPT AWAKE! Negotiating Passion on Campus

SWEPT AWAKE! Negotiating Passion on Campus

by Bonnie Pfister

What’s an activist to do when everyone from George Will to “Saturday Night Live” satirizes your work and accuses you of infantilizing women and taking the fun out of sex?

“I find it exciting,” says Jodi Gold, coordinator of STAAR, Students Together Against Acquaintance Rape at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “You don’t get a backlash until you’ve ruffled some feathers. It means we’ve really pushed the envelope and things are happening.”

The backlash has all but obscured the radical importance of student efforts to develop new – fairer – rules for sexual liaisons. The emerging new code includes the apparently controversial idea that potential lovers should ask before foisting sexual attention on their partners, and that partners should clearly answer “yes” or “no.” In other words: people should communicate about their desires before making love, rather than waiting to be “swept away” by overwhelming passion.

While a deadpan legalistic approach to sex is easy to ridicule, Jodi Gold believes that the real reason media coverage of today’s campus activism is so highly critical is that Americans are still scared silly by its sexual frankness – a frankness that today’s generation of young people desperately need.

“Sexuality is perhaps the most defining issue for today’s students,” says Alan Guskin, president of Antioch College in Ohio for nine years, and a supporter of the often-mocked Sexual Offense Policy, the student-written rules for sexual conduct at the college, which have been in place since fall 1992.

“Men and women students come to the campus with a very different consciousness about sexuality,” notes Dr. Guskin. “The women have learned they have a right to determine how their bodies are used, but many of the young men still think the central question is how to get women to do what they want.” The best way to deal with the situation, says Guskin, is for women and men to learn to communicate with each other. “The policy gives no specific checklist or statements. But there is a sense of how you should behave.”

The Antioch policy says verbal consent is needed before all sexual contact, and that consent is an on-going process that can be withdrawn at any time. Students who are sleeping or unconscious or incapacitated by alcohol or drugs are not considered capable of consent. The policy also defines offenses as unwanted touching, verbal harassment, and non-disclosure of sexually transmitted disease, including HIV, and defines punishments for violations of various parts of the policy. All students are required to attend an educational workshop on consent and sexual offense each academic year.

Guskin notes that the media swarming over the campus for two and a half months reporting on the controversial policy accomplished more student education on the issue than the college’s past five years of effort.


Thou shalt not:

Assume your partner is willing without asking

Lean on another person, physically or verbally, to push them into unwanted sex

Take advantage of a person who is drunk, drugged, unconscious or sleeping

Date a student in your class if you’re a professor

Thou shalt:

Warn your partner if you have STD or HIV

Ask before you start and ask at each stage

Ask every time

stop if your partner changes her/his mind at any point

Know your boundaries and clearly communicate your desires

Exercise your right to say “no’ and to say “yes”

The policy emerged when thirty feminists disrupted a campus government meeting in November, 1990 demanding institutional rules to deal with rape, says Bethany Saltman, Antioch ’93 and member of the original group, the Womyn of Antioch. Even at this tiny (650 students last fall) alternative college, the administration seemed to prefer to keep rape reports under wraps. Faced with vehement, relentless protest and a flurry of local news attention, the administration reluctantly accepted the feminists’ demand to remove any accused perpetrator from campus within twenty-four hours of a reported rape. But the rule was adopted on the condition that a committee of concerned staff and students would work to retool the policy while the administration consulted lawyers about its constitutionality. Womyn of Antioch demanded the policy out of strength, not weakness, notes Saltman. “We get to say who touches us, and where.”

The policy has been criticized as a return to the 1950s that disempowers women by viewing them as damsels in distress and spells the death of amour.

Perhaps the critics are upset because they’re embarrassed, says Elizabeth Sullivan, Antioch ’93, now of Seattle. “It’s still very hard for people to be explicit about sexual intimacy. The policy limits certain options, such as casual, thoughtless sex, while encouraging other options, such as accountability, sexual equality, and living in a community with a reduced fear of harassment or coerced sex.”

Sullivan notes that critics act as though, without this policy, there is no social context influencing student’s interactions at all. “Most of us acquire a whole set of norms and attitudes before we become sexual with other people. We learn who is an acceptable partner, we learn unspoken codes of how to proceed, and we develop a set of expectations about what sex should be,” says Sullivan. In an intentional community like Antioch, people can choose to restructure that context.

Some students from other campuses who have adopted the Antioch rules as their own, don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Matthew Mizel, a student at Stanford (CA), likens the current resistance to people’s initial embarrassment about asking a partner to use a condom during the early years of the AIDS crisis. “Why do people feel asking is not romantic?” asks Mizel. “All it does is clarify things. For me, it’s not a romantic situation until I know the woman is comfortable.” As a letter writer to The New Yorker noted, asking permission, as in – may I kiss the hollow of your neck?” – does not have to be devoid of amour.

Students should be relieved to discard the old stereotypes that “masculine sexuality is dangerous, passionate, reckless, and that the woman is passive and just laying back there,” according to Mizel.

Callie Cary, an Antioch spokeswoman, herself out of college for less than a decade, scoffs at the idea that the asking-beforeyou-touch policy infantilizes women. “The assumption that this policy is about women saying no to men is based on the idea that men initiate sex all the time. But I know there are men on this campus who feel the women are very aggressive.”

Activism on Other Campuses

While Antioch’s policy contains the most detailed rules for sexual correctness to date, feminist actions on a number of campuses have expanded from helping rape victims after the fact to including a preventive approach. These efforts by female – and male – students are cropping up at conservative, co-ed universities like Syracuse (NY) and Vanderbilt (TN), as well as traditionally liberal women’s colleges, such as Barnard (NY) and Mount Holyoke (MA). Private schools such as Stanford and Duke (NC) Universities boast dynamic men’s groups examining why men rape and striving to prevent it, while students at public Evergreen State (WA) and Rutgers University (NJ) are reaching out to local high school girls with educational programs. On black college campuses the emphasis is on how the negative depiction of women in rap music discourages fair treatment in the sexual arena.

Most student organizers express some reservations over Antioch’s policy: some hate it, while others herald it as swinging the pendulum dramatically to the side of open communication about sex – so far, in fact that they might not need to adopt such a radical approach at their own schools (phew!).

“I would love to address the Antioch policy, but from what I can gather from other people on our committee, it would be suicide for us to consider it here,” says Melinda Lewis, a sophomore at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and president of Students For Women’s Concerns. After speaking in spring 1992 with rape survivors who felt revictimized by the school’s judicial system, Lewis returned in the fall to push for a new sexual assault policy. Although she is sensitive to Katie Roiphe-inspired charges of “victim feminism,” she counters that the term does not accurately describe the activism – or the problems – she sees around her.

Rats in the Ivory Towers

At Lehigh University (PA), Jeanne Clery was robbed, sodomized and murdered in her dorm bed by a student she had never met. Jeanne’s own actions that night – it is believed that she left her door unlocked for her roommate’s convenience – made it clear that students are often shockingly oblivious to the dangers around them. At the time, in 1986, Lehigh students regularly propped open outside doors to allow friends to come and go easily. Leigh had “studied” the security problem for eleven years but taken no action until after Jeanne’s death, according to Lynda Getchis of Security on Campus, a group founded by Clery’s parents.

After this incident, then-freshman Congressman Jim Ramstad (R.-MN) joined forces with Clery’s parents and crafted the Campus Sexual Assault Victims Bill ofRights. Signed into law in 1990, it requires that all post-secondary schools that receive federal funding publish annual reports about crime statistics on campus, institute policies to deal with sexual assault and offer rape awareness educational programs.

For 1991, the first year statistics were collected, 2,300 American campuses reported 30 murders, 1,000 rapes, and more than 1,800 robberies, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Most campus crime (78%) is student-on-student. While the crime incidence on campus is lower than that of the country as a whole, student and parent perceptions of the campus as a safe haven make the crime levels seem more shocking.

There is much controversy about just how many women experience sexual assault at college – the figures range from a scary 1 in 25 to a horrifying 1 in 4. But even the smallest estimates amount to a large threat to women’s safety.

So it’s no wonder that student activists are increasingly pressing their colleges to own up to the reality of crime and to codify, in writing, the kind of campus they want. The demands usually include more stringent acquaintance rape policies and mandatory peer education for students of both genders.

In the past five years, student activists have increasingly focused on university policies, notes Claire Kaplan, sexual assault education coordinator at the University of Virginia. “This strategy can be construed as students asking for protection, but it is not a throwback to in loco parentis. The institution has a contract with the student – the same kind of contract that could result in a third party suit against employers or landlords who fail to provide adequate protection against crime on their premises.”

Today’s students are also coming of age in a litigious, capitalist culture and many adopt a consumerist creed: “I pay a lot of money to go to this school, I deserve to be protected from assault and, at the very least, informed of its incidence on campus.”

Coming of Age in the ’90s

Today’s young activists have a point of view so different from those of the 1960s and ’70s, that commentators have had difficulty making the connections. In the ’60s it was college men who had their lives on the line with the threat of being drafted to serve in the unpopular war in Vietnam. But today it is the women, and threat of rape, that’s the flashpoint.

And unlike the rebels of the ’60s and ’70s who were trying to tear down repressive rules, institutions and social establishments, the generation growing up in the no-rules ’90s is striving to build up a foundation of acceptable personal conduct and institutionalized norms.

At Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, the administration had spent two years, with no end in sight, developing an anti-rape protocol. In the spring of 1993, rage at slow adjudication of a rape charge boiled over into graffiti hits around campus. The scribblers named names and proclaimed,’ ‘Rape Me and I’ll Kill You,” said Nina Fischer, a member of the Rape Response Coalition. The university protocol went into effect last fall, and students plan to take their rape awareness workshops to local high schools this spring.

Radical approaches are less popular at a school like North Carolina State University in Raleigh, says Brian Ammons, a founder of that school’s REAL-Men (Rape Education and Active Leadership). Originally active as the male-involvement voice in crafting a campus sex offense protocol, Ammons formed the group to examine male socialization and responsibility in a rape culture. In fact, at NCSU, it was REAL-Men that organized last fall’s Take Back the Night march. The resident women’s group, Help, Education and Activism on Rape (HEAR-Women) developed out of that.

“In some ways it was easier for a group of men to come together to offer some legitimacy on the issue,” Ammons says. “Women on our campus are afraid to speak up about a lot of things. The fear of being labeled a feminist and being alienated here is very real.”

White Women’s Feminism?

Melinda Lewis, an African American, is a sophomore at Vanderbilt and president of Students For Women’s Concerns, a predominantly white feminist group. “People question my involvement,” she says. “The rape issue is perceived as something with which only Anglo, middle-class women are concerned. But that’s a misguided notion. Women of color are raped and assaulted much more frequently than Anglo women.”

Jennifer Lipton, a Barnard College student involved in rewriting sexual offense policy for the Columbia-Barnard community amidst administrator recalcitrance, agrees that the perception of acquaintance rape as a ”white women’s issue” flies in the face of reality. At the rape crisis center at St. Luke’sRoosevelt Hospital nearby, where she is a volunteer, most of the survivors she sees are women of color, most very poor, some homeless.

“Their concerns are very different,” Lipton says. “If their perpetrator is also black, they wonder if they should report it to the police. They are very aware of the racism of the judicial system, and worried about what it will do to their own community if they turn in this man. They also know that, as poor black women, society doesn’t really value what they say.”

However, at many African American colleges, date rape is a significantly less prominent gender concern than how women are depicted in rap music and advertising, reports Dionne Lyne, a student at the all-women Spelman College in Atlanta and member of the new campus organization SISTERS (Sisters in Solidarity to Eradicate Sexism). There’s also anger at the persistent reference to certain Pan-Hellenic parties as “Greek Freaks,” because of the use of “freak” as a disparaging term depicting black women as nymphomaniacs.

“There is a silence on the issue, a sense of, ‘Yeah, it happens but we really don’t want to know about it.’ It reinforces the [idea] that these things happen to bad women, and we’re just going to assume that we are all striving to be Spelman women, who are finer than that,” Lyne says.

Spelman and brother school Morehouse College frequently co-sponsor educational programs about acquaintance rape, but Lyne says many women get the sense that Morehouse men are lecturing them about the issue, as if the men don’t have a thing or two of their own to learn about date rape. Morehouse organizations have frequently scheduled their programs on Spelman’s campus rather than their own, and fill the room with women and just one or two men.

Thomas Prince, associate director of counseling at Morehouse, counters that there are numerous anti-rape programs on the men’s campus for co-ed groups, but his description of them seemed to indicate upon whom the responsibility is placed. “We cover the FBI statistics,…talk about the things that might be contributing to the rise of acquaintance rapes and what to do if it happens to you. [That is]… what women can do if they find themselves in that situation,” Prince said.

Prince states that there is no student group specifically organizing around this problem at Morehouse, and felt the Antioch policy did not encompass the way African-American men and women communicate about sex. “The language used around African American males is different,” Prince said. “They have their own way of communicating verbally.”

Men Against Rape

Some male activists are just as disturbed as their female counterparts with men’s penchants during educational programs, for doggedly questioning the technical definition of rape or assault, rather than focusing on the nature of sexual relationships themselves.

“It’s always coming up: ‘What if this happens? Is this rape? How about that – is that rape?'” said James Newell, a senior at Syracuse University and president of the five-year-old coed student group SCARED (Students Concerned About Rape Education). “Men feel victimized by groups like ours. But we are not a group that’s against sex.”

Examining male expectations of sex is one tactic used at Duke University in Durham, NC, by the four-year-old student group Men Acting for Change (MAC). Pornography as sex education for men is a focal point of at least one of the eight-session course on men and gender issues, a topic that precedes the class on rape, says Jason Schultz, a MAC cofounder who graduated in spring 1993.

While most of the women activists interviewed praised the men’s organizations that are working against sexual violence, many expressed reservations and some suspicions about token support from other men’s groups. One woman who asked not to be named criticized a men’s group on her campus whose sole pro-feminist action is a annual day-long wearing of white ribbons to signify opposition to sexual assault. “Frankly I think it’s a very shallow and trivial way of responding,” she said.

Kelly Wall, a founder of HEAR-Women at North Carolina State, expressed irritation that the most visible anti-rape presence on campus before HEAR was comprised of men.

The REAL-Men group is aware of the apparent irony of the situation. “We’re very conscious of what our place is. We don’t want to take over the issue,” Ammons says. Although his group does deal with “secondary survivors” (men who are grappling with their feelings about the rape of a lover, friend or relative), it is with some hesitation that they discuss the issues of male survivors of sexual offense.

Anti-rape activist Matthew Mizel at Stanford University says he sometimes feels his motivation questioned. Mizel founded Stanford Men’s Collective in fall 1992 to discuss where rape comes from and how to stop it by examining men’s own behavior. A talkative, outgoing senior easily recognized on campus by his long blond hair, Mizel says the praise he gets from women for his work generates curiosity and the occasional impression that he’s doing it to “get laid”. “Men have asked if I’m trying to gain points with women and be some kind of super-heterosexual…. And some women have asked if I’m gay – as if there was no chance that I’m just a regular person who cares about this issue,” Mizel said.

These young men make it clear that anti-rape work is not just a woman’s thing, and that the most progressive voices among college students are determined to rewrite the sexual code to fit the needs of their generation.

And they agree that a rewrite is necessary. At the University of Virginia, Claire Kaplan described a seminar in which several fraternity men asserted: “When you get to a certain point during sex you can’t stop,” an attitude she thought had long since fallen to the wayside. “That’s why the Antioch policy was created,” she notes. “There is still the attitude – don’t talk, just do.”

Bonnie Pfister is a freelance journalist living in New York City.