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The History Behind Sexual Consent Policies


Alaska is not the only state grappling with the issue of sexual assault. California just became the first state to pass a law mandating that colleges require their students obtain affirmative, conscious and voluntary sexual consent. You might remember, 20 years ago, Antioch College became a national laughing stock for enacting a similar policy, even getting lampooned on Saturday Night Live.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: May I kiss you on the mouth?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Yes, I would like you to kiss me on the mouth.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: May I elevate the level of sexual intimacy by feeling your buttocks?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Yes, you have my permission.

RATH: Kristine Herman is an Antioch College alumna who helped draft that sexual consent policy, after two rapes occurred on the tiny campus within a single year. I asked her to lay out exactly what the Antioch community put on the books.

KRISTINE HERMAN: You know, it listed the idea that you have to get verbal and willing agreement to engaging in any sexual contact. This was a huge, fundamental shift in defining what consent means. And always, the conversation around consent has focused on, does someone say no. And so at Antioch we really focused on defining consent in a very different way and asking a very different question, which is did somebody say yes? And so that is one of the things I really love about what we created at Antioch around talking about affirmative consent and what we’re now seeing happen in California.

RATH: What was the reaction to the policy on campus among students at the time?

HERMAN: You know, it really opened the door for us to have just extensive and difficult, complex conversations around issues that many of us, I think, haven't had to talk about before in an almost a laboratory environment, frankly, which was safe to talk about, but also very active and very political. And it really, at least for me personally, became part of who I am. You know, that little bit of history was something that I think I'm very proud of and a part of. And I think it was forging new ground. But I also think it was incredibly important ground and something that was very, very much needed. And so it was an exciting time, frankly, to be part of it.

RATH: Outside of the campus, I remember at the time, the Antioch rules, as they were known, were the butt of endless jokes - kind of held up as the apotheosis of political correctness.

HERMAN: Absolutely. We were accused of legislating sex. We were ridiculed pretty heavily. And, of course, what's interesting is that media attention didn't even really explode until 1993, which, of course, was already two years into us living with policy where it wasn't that controversial, because there were already two incoming classes of students who sort of thought this was normal and status quo. And so we did get very harsh and sort of mocking disturbing coverage around the policy as something that was sort of crazy.

RATH: Do we have a sense though if things are better at Antioch? You know, are there lower rates of sexual violence or any way that we can measure it?

HERMAN: I don't know what the data would be around - if the numbers have gone down or not. But what I do think is definitely true is that if there have been allegations of any kind of misconduct, there are absolute wonderful steps on how to address those allegations and what questions to ask and what protections and what issues of confidentiality need to be respected, what boards you can go to, what the appeal process is and also what supports are in place for both parties.

So I think what we do know is we have something now there and have had it for two decades that really provide a safety net for students where they know exactly what's going to happen and that they're going to be protected.

RATH: How similar is this new California law to the Antioch policy adopted in the '90s?

HERMAN: So much of the policy is very similar to the Antioch policy and what it provides in protection and requires around affirmative consent. Except it doesn't seem to have, from what I understand, the verbal component. That's really key and that I think is what Antioch got mocked for, frankly, quite often, you know, in the "Saturday Night Live" skit - and so the the idea that you have to verbalize consent at each step of a sexual encounter.

RATH: Kristine Herman is an Antioch alumna and a lawyer and social worker based in Brooklyn. Kristine, thank you very much.

HERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.