We Started the Crusade for Affirmative Consent Way Back in the ’90s

Photo: Hanifah Shoatz-Bey/Courtesy of Antioch College

It took a few news cycles for me to realize that “Affirmative Consent” was, in fact, “the policy,” as we, the “Womyn of Antioch,” called the controversial document we wrote in 1990, demanding that verbal consent be required at each progressive level of sexual contact. “May I remove your Che Guevara T-shirt now?” was the way Meghan Daum described it in her 2007 article in the Los Angeles Times, “Who Killed Antioch? Womyn.” She was going for a burn, playing on our silly radical politics, but she was right. We did wear those shirts, we loved them, and we wanted to say yes to taking them off.

Many of the folks who are pushing for affirmative consent today weren’t yet born when we “womyn” (a spelling we liked because we felt it freed us from the patriarchal male root of the word/everything else) turned the prevailing idea of consent — that it was always the naysayer’s responsibility to make her/himself heard — on its head. Though the college did accept our demands, the broader culture did not. In fact, we became laughingstocks. And the Antioch College Sexual Offense Prevention Policy (SOPP) became a stand-in for Ridiculous PC Bullshit, mercilessly mocked by pundits, reporters, family members, and even Saturday Night Live. The premise of the SNL sketch, called “Is It Date Rape?” was a game show hosted by Phil Hartman (“the dean of intergender relations”) in which two Antioch students, one played by Chris Farley, a nose-tackle, frat guy (as if … we had neither sports nor fraternities), and Shannen Doherty, a junior in “Victimization Studies” (that’s a little more realistic), compete to see who can judge situations correctly as date rape. For instance, “I paid for dinner” (date rape!) or “It is the last day of school, a female student asks a male student to help her move her futon” (date rape!). When this piece aired in 1993, I was in graduate school in New York City, trying very hard to leave Antioch and the policy behind. When I watched the skit, I felt misunderstood and defeated, but also kind of excited that we had hit such a nerve.

Now, somehow, to my utter befuddlement, “the policy’s” day is coming. In fact, it’s already here. The Affirmative Consent rule (different from our “policy” in that nonverbal cues are now acceptable) has been signed into law for California colleges, all the Ivies are adopting similar policies, and President Obama has called for colleges to “do more” about campus rapes. Our work is being established as a best practice in colleges nationally (just in time, by the way, for Antioch to win back its accreditation after sadly closing its doors in 2007).

And yet, when I look at the coverage of Emma Sulkowicz, “a.k.a international sensation ‘mattress girl’” — poised, lovely — lugging her dorm bed around Columbia’s campus, I feel conflicted. Of course I am thrilled that such competent women are picking up where we left off, and in their own honest, direct, and compelling ways. But there is also a part of me that can’t help but wonder: What does Mattress Girl have that we didn’t have? Why is she so sympathetic and we were so … not?

Just look at the way the New York Times covered both eras of the movement.

From Roberta Smith’s review of Sulkowicz’s protest art, September 21, 2014:

It is so simple: A woman with a mattress, refusing to keep her violation private, carrying with her a stark reminder of where it took place. The work Ms. Sulkowicz is making is strict and lean, yet inclusive and open ended, symbolically laden yet drastically physical. All of this determines its striking quality as art, which in turn contributes substantially to its effectiveness as protest.

From an editorial about Antioch, October 11, 1993:

Antioch is trying to address a real problem. No student guilty of rape, for instance — whether date, acquaintance or stranger rape — should be allowed to remain on campus.

But adolescence, particularly the college years, is a time for experimentation, and experimentation means making mistakes. No policy will ever be able to protect all young people from those awful mornings-after that are accompanied by the dreadful feeling: “Oh my God! What have I done?” It’s from such moments, accompanied by “I’ll never let that happen again,” that people learn.

Adolescents will always make mistakes — sometimes serious ones. Telling them what’s unacceptable, in no uncertain terms, is fine. But legislating kisses won’t save them from themselves.

During the fall of 1990, I was in my third year at Antioch College, a tiny campus with 500 students and three original, spired 1850 buildings, surrounded in every direction by a wide-open horizon of corn. Back-to-school was a bluster of connections and promise, seeing friends who had been away, picking classes, begging professors for independent studies, vibing each other out. The usual. But soon after school started, the rumors began that women were getting raped at Antioch. At first, I didn’t believe it, so sure that Antioch was the bubble of security I wanted it to be. I was on the fence about even attending the meeting advertised as “Womyn! Confront and Stop Rape!” But I decided to go. During the meeting, one of the women who had been raped told us, in detail, about her experience and how powerless she felt because the man who raped her remained on campus. And I was pissed. “It was at this meeting, late into the night,” I later wrote in an article in the Antioch Record, “that we, Womyn of Antioch, created our list of demands, to be met by the next Tuesday morning, November 13 or we would respond by going to the press and ‘Radical Physical Action.’”

Though I was not one of the women who was raped that quarter at Antioch, I had, like one in three American women, experienced my share of sexual violation, mild by comparison but harsh enough to confirm what I had always felt — that being a girl was to be in a position of powerlessness marked by a complicated knot of sexual longing and victimization. Ever since I can remember, even before I had the words or the concepts to explain it, I was determined to untie myself from that knot. I would flush with anger when I saw an adult man, an uncle or friend of the family, pat his wife’s ass (even if she seemed to like it). When I found my dad’s stash of Playboys in first grade, I feared that this meant that I, too, was destined to become a soft-focus sex object. It all seemed so gross, undignified, and shameful. So by the time I attended that meeting at Antioch, I was a 21-year-old ‘90s-style, theory-thumping feminist in the making, falling in love with learning and enthralled with the possibility of subverting the dominant paradigm.

I would venture to guess that Emma Sulkowicz has exactly what we had: impatience with the status quo and the energy to do something about it. And yet her approach is very different — some of that is by design, in that she is an artist and, frankly, a good one, and some of the difference in approach is, I think, cultural. I think it has something to do with the way we, as a culture, have embraced the power of storytelling. We are so saturated with personal tales, so oriented toward individuals and their agonies and ecstasies. The Womyn of Antioch didn’t have a story to tell, per se. We had a message to deliver, a message about macro-level stuff: ideas, ideologies, politics, patriarchy, feminist liberation, and the like. We had a hegemonic discourse to smash. Yes, we were totally embroiled in the details required to change a policy grounded in deeply entrenched beliefs, including defining rape and consent, setting up a support network, administrative protocol, and sometimes even offering our own survivor’s stories. But all of that was in service to an idea — an idea that would change people’s reality. I actually wrote in my 1991 article that I was “shocked” by the survivor’s “powerful and candid story, partly because of the very frightening and close emotional nature of a personal discussion about rape … ” What a difference 20 years makes.

Another thing I have noted is that Sulkowicz and many of the other women who are putting themselves on the line now are called “Survivor-Activists,” activists who are the victims themselves, sometimes even calling out specific rapists. Whereas we were not, explicitly anyway, or that time, the ones who were raped. We were just part of the borg of shrill, kiss-legislating feminists with shaved heads, ethnic vests, and Doc Martens, and nobody took our picture anyway. Except one. And until I saw it just last week, and recognized the faces and read the names, I wouldn’t have been able to say with any accuracy who my compatriots were. We were just an ever-evolving hive of passionate activity. At least that’s how I remember it.

As I read about the details of Sulkowicz’s experience — how she was raped in her own bed, anally, when previously consensual intercourse took a dark turn — I am struck by the fact that she has so internalized the concept of Affirmative Consent that it didn’t occur to her that her violation might not be one that some people (myself most definitely NOT included) would deem “real” rape. Justifying her trauma is not even part of the conversation! Remember when wearing low-cut shirts used to mean we wanted it? I do. Like it was yesterday. And while I don’t know that mainlining other people’s gory details is always the best approach to public discourse, in this case, the plain truth of Sulkowicz’s story — that her rape is a weight she still carries with her — has caught the public’s attention in a way that our polemics never could.

I have always believed that the policy we wrote was semiotically profound, emotionally powerful, and culturally transformative. And yet I have also looked back at that time at Antioch with some personal chagrin, even shame, embarrassed to have been riding my high horse so publicly. In my Record article, my indignation was pretty over-the-top:

I received two incompletes last quarter, which I am still in the process of completing. Most womyn who were involved last quarter probably have similar debts. Most men probably don’t. I was pulled behind because I had to protect myself from being raped…I as well as other womyn, have been put in the terrifying position of either flunking out of school entirely by putting my energies into creating and defending this policy, or focusing on my education in an institution where I feel unsafe and victimized.

Everything I said here is true. I was clicking away at my Mac Classic with womyn till all hours of the night, debating, deleting, getting the cold shakes from too much coffee and cigarettes and a lack of sleep. People stopped me along the campus path to argue, or to ask questions. There were other people who I knew hated my guts. I was on guard, ready for action, all the time. I even remember my professors wanting to talk about the policy during class, though I was too distracted by the revolution to care much about their opinions. What would a Ph.D. in history or poly-sci have to teach me about the political process? Still, I loved every minute of it. To be so engaged, inspired, hot-headed, filled with rage, unafraid — to be so goddamned right.

Katie Roiphe in her 1994 book, The Morning After, in which she critiques the “date rape crisis” on college campuses, writes:

But some people want the melodrama. They want the absolute value placed on experience by absolute words. Words like “rape” and “verbal coercion” channel the confusing flow of experience into something easy to understand. The idea of date rape comes at us fast and coherent. It comes at us when we’ve just left home and haven’t yet figured out where to put our new futons or how to organize our new social lives. The rhetoric about date rape defines the terms, gives names to nameless confusions and sorts through mixed feelings with a sort of insistent consistency. In the first rush of sexual experience, the fear of date rape offers a tangible framework to locate fears that are essentially abstract.

Yes, the melodrama was there. We were young, after all. And of course, yes, who doesn’t crave the absolute value of language? And while I get that there is a kind of hoopla that gets whipped up on college campuses around sex, and some of it can feel a bit overwrought, I so, so wish that fear of sexual violence were akin to the confusion of figuring out how to decorate our dorm rooms. Unfortunately, not all fears are abstract, and human beings, while remarkably resilient, really can get hurt when not protected. And sometimes, we have to advocate for ourselves in obnoxious or awkward or silly ways in order to take care of business. It’s not some sophomoric fantasy that women, a lot of women, suffer from having their trust violated, from being flattened out and objectified. My motivations may have been mixed — the frenzy of my activism fueled in part by a craving to feel important, and maybe some misplaced anger — but still, I was right.

And I’m touched that, for all the missteps and messiness, that crazy moment in that crazy place laid the groundwork for these truly sane but radical changes that are happening now. Dare I say, the one thing that Sulkowicz and the other activists of today have that we didn’t have is the Antioch College Sexual Offense Prevention Policy. Though we did have those who came before us. And I wonder what they wondered, and so on.

We Fought for Affirmative Consent in the ’90s