COMMENTARY: Time to consider teaching Consent 101

The recent cascade of revelations about sexual misconduct in high places in America is, unfortunately, old news to many women. It is, however, a welcome opportunity to ask the long-overdue question — is there an educational antidote?

Each day I walk by a simple poster pinned to the bulletin board outside my office. Actually, the poster is on bulletin boards around our campus at Antioch College. Titled “Consent 101,” the poster offers no-nonsense, straightforward guidelines for helping to ensure that sexual interactions between members of the Antioch community, when they are appropriate to begin with, are consensual at every stage.

As a digest of the Antioch College’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy, “Consent 101” underscores the necessity of asking and giving assent to all levels of sexual behavior. It explains that consent must be provided free of coercion or inveigling and that it must be verbal and definite. Very importantly, it makes clear that legally consent cannot be given while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs that might impair one’s decision-making. Finally, it teaches that agreement cannot be conveyed through silence, body language, sounds other than verbal communication and that consent is neither negotiable nor optional.

Developed by a group of women students at Antioch in 1991, this policy was originally met with ridicule, mocked on “Saturday Night Live” in 1993, and for years after scorned as a textbook example of political correctness run amok. Now, 30 years later, this policy has become a national model for how to educate college students and employees about how to avoid the devastating and dehumanizing effects of sexual harassment and assault.

A piece penned by Ms. Magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem and Michael Kimmel, professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University, published in the New York Times in 2014, years after the policy was first enacted, defended this notion. Their piece stated that “Antioch College, long a bastion of innovations in education, also decided that consent to sexual activity required more than just a failure to say ‘no.’ Verbal consent, the new code of conduct stated, was required for any sexual contact that was not ‘mutually and simultaneously initiated’.”

Verbalizing consent, in theory, is relatively simple. But how and does it work in practice? On a recent evening, I watched at a student dance where all attendees were asked at the door to read and sign the Sexual Offense Prevention Policy before entering. There were quite a few in attendance, some from Antioch College, and many more from other colleges. None objected or even seemed surprised.

At Antioch College, we believe that democracy and change requires the kind of direct engagement, difficult conversations and hard work exhibited by those who created the Sexual Offense Prevention Policy. The policy isn’t the final answer in ending sexual violence and harassment, by any means. But if we are to make real progress on those fronts, it is crucial we encourage open dialogue and respect around the real issues. Then, as now at Antioch, students own their education. They are encouraged to participate in developing policy and practice — and to take personal and collective responsibility — for the betterment of the community and society they wish to build.

It may well be time for learning space, workplace, and government office in America to offer “Consent 101” as a required course.

Thomas Manley is president of Antioch College in Yellow Springs.

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