Sex by the Code

ELLEN GOODMAN

September 21, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- When they call, reporters ask the dean the same question: Are you serious about this? The fine print in the Antioch College Sexual Offense Policy could provide raw material for a dozen campus parodies.

New students who arrive on the venerable Ohio campus, it turns out, are not only told about rape, assault and harassment. That's standard freshman fare these days. At Antioch, they are handed a script for safe, community-approved consensual sexual relations.

Consent, it says, is not something to be assumed. Consent is not silence. It's not the absence of a ''no.'' Maybe in the movies a lover can say ''yes'' with her eyes but on this campus, she must say it in words.

And she must say it more than once. The policy generated by students themselves says, ''Verbal consent should be obtained with each new level of physical and/or sexual contact/conduct in any given interaction regardless of who initiates it.''

By now, Marian Jensen, the dean of students, has heard all the dialogue that would-be-gagsters write for such an elaborate scene of verbal consent. ''May I touch you?'' ''Here?'' ''There?'' By now, she has explained that the school doesn't expect to put these precise words in the mouths of students. But they are very serious about making students think.

The Antioch policy -- of which this is one small part -- is not unique. It is just a more explicit, more detailed, more exaggerated version of messages coming from date-rape workshops and sexual-violence seminars on hundreds of campuses.

These days, students and administrators everywhere are struggling with sexual fears and sexual politics. The codes are written in proper gender-neutral terms, but they are trying to protect young women from assault and exploitation. They are trying to change the definition of sexual agreement. They are even trying to change the terms of intimate relationships. To level the sexual playing field.

It's no surprise that this is happening on campus. Colleges have long held a pivotal role in the Sexual Evolution. Some 25 years ago, students were the ones who began the move from a sexual double standard to a single standard.

But that standard was, in effect, the old male standard. A generation of young women changed more, or at least more quickly, than men. Women won the right to say yes. It became harder to say no. They won the freedom to do it his way. They didn't necessarily win the confidence to determine her own way or the power to get him to do it her way.

In some places, the Liberated Woman has met up with the Spur Posse. At some times, her sexual freedom has been his sure thing. Saturday night's expectation of pleasure became Sunday morning's regret mixed with a sour taste of exploitation.

Over this time, layers of sexual consciousness have built up without replacing each other: sexual repression, sexual license, sexual anxiety. The fear of pregnancy lifted, and the fear of AIDS clamped down on the joy of sex. Permeating all those layers and darkening that freedom has been the lingering fear of violence.

As recently as last week, 53 percent of the college women in a Massachusetts survey expressed concern that they could be victims of date rape. Only 26 percent thought that men at their school accepted a woman's right to say no at any point.

In ''The Morning After,'' Katie Roiphe, a 1990 graduate of Harvard, writes, ''There is a gray area in which someone's rape may be another person's bad night.'' In a book that ripples with uncertainty beneath the crisp veneer of her argument, she says that the current campus obsession with sexual assault and sexual codes of conduct are part of a sexual counterrevolution.

''The assumption embedded in the movement against date rape is our grandmother's assumption,'' she writes, ''Men want sex, women don't.'' There is a return to stereotypes of ''boys as a sexual threat, girls as vulnerable . . . men as hunters, women as hunted.''

There may always be tension between protecting and empowering young people. Students at 18 or 22 demand safety one minute and emancipation the next. Campuses are home to the savvy and assertive, but also to the unworldly and vulnerable.

But I don't think that the new sexual codes of conduct signal some retreat to Puritanism or a return to the days when women swooned at male ''bestiality.'' I think that they are, rather, part of an ongoing struggle to create a new single standard. A standard of sexual equality. A meeting ground, where no means no and only yes means yes, where we come to intimacy as equals and find sexual freedom in an atmosphere of safety.

So spare me the dialogue. Sexual policy-makers write like lawyers in love. At Antioch the authors could use some poetry, and passion. But they have the plot line just about right.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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