Playing by the Antioch Rules

December 28, 1993|By Eric Fassin

A GOOD consensus is hard to find -- especially on sexual politics today in America.

But the infamous rules instituted last year by Antioch College, which require students to give explicit verbal consent before so much as a kiss is exchanged, have created just that.

They have provoked indignation (this is a serious threat to individual freedom!) as well as ridicule (can this be serious?).

Sexual correctness thus proves a worthy successor to political correctness as a target in public debate.

Yet this consensus reveals shared assumptions among both liberals and conservatives about the sexual The question is no longer "Did she say no?" but "Did she say yes?" Silence does not indicate consent, and it becomes his responsibility to dispel any ambiguity.

roles of men and women in this country.

The new definition of consent at Antioch essentially reflects a "liberal" philosophy.

It assumes that sexual partners are free agents and that they mean what they say: Yes means yes, and no means no.

Yet if they are based on individual responsibility, they also shift the responsibility in a sexual encounter from the woman to the man. The question is no longer "Did she say no?" but "Did she say yes?" Silence does not indicate consent, and it becomes his responsibility to dispel any ambiguity.

The novelty of the rules, however, is not as great as it seems. Antioch will not exert more control over its students; there are no sexual police.

In practice, you still do what you want -- as long as your partner does not complain . . . the morning after.

If this is censorship, it intervenes ex post facto, not a priori. In fact, the "threat" to individual freedom for some critics is not the invasion of privacy through the imposition of sexual codes, but the very existence of such codes.

Hence the success of polemicists like Katie Roiphe or Camille Paglia, who argue that feminism in recent years has betrayed its origins by embracing old-style regulations, paradoxically choosing the rigid 1950s over the liberating 1960s.

Their advice is simply to let women manage on their own, and to let individuals devise their own rules.

This individualist critique of feminism finds resonance with liberals, but also, strangely enough, with conservatives, who quite belatedly discover the perils of regulating sexuality.

But sexual laissez-faire, with its own implicit set of rules, does not seem to have worked very well recently.

One thing is clear: Things are not clear anymore.

Since the collapse of established social codes, people play the same game with different rules. If more women are complaining of sexual violence, while more men are worrying that their words and actions might be misconstrued, who benefits from the absence of regulations?

A laissez-faire philosophy toward relationships assumes that sexuality is a game that can (and must) be played without rules, or rather that the invention of rules should be left to individual spontaneity and creativity, despite rising evidence that a rule of one's own all too often leads to misunderstandings.

When acted out, individual fantasy always plays within preordained social rules.

These rules conflict with the assumption in this culture that sex is a thing of nature, not artifice, and it is the province of the individual, not of society.

Those who believe that society's constraints should have PTC nothing to do with sex agree that sex should not be bound by the social conventions of language.

Indeed, this rebellion against the idea of social constraints is what's behind the controversy over explicit verbal consent -- from George Will, deriding "sex amidst semicolons," to Camille Paglia railing "As if sex occurs in the verbal realm."

As if sexuality were incompatible with words. As if the only language of sex were silence.

For the New Yorker, "the rules don't get rid of the problem of unwanted sex at all; they just shift the advantage from the muscle-bound frat boy to the honey-tongued French major."

This is not very different from the radical feminist position, which holds that verbal persuasion is no better than physical coercion.

In this view, sexuality cannot be entrusted to rhetoric: The seduction of words is inherently violent, and seduction itself is an object of suspicion. (If this is true, Marvell's invitation "To His Coy Mistress" is indeed a form of sexual harassment, as some campus feminists have claimed.)

What the consensus against the Antioch rules betrays is a

common vision of sexuality which crosses the lines dividing conservatives, liberals and radicals.

So many of the arguments start from a conventional situation, perceived and presented as natural: a heterosexual encounter with the man as the initiator, and the woman as gatekeeper hence the focus on consent.

The outcry largely results from the fact that the rules undermine this traditional erotic model.

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