Washington. -- I suppose it was inevitable in this day of increasing intrusions by colleges into personal speech and conduct that one was going to come up with a code of sexual conduct that governs just about every aspect of private romantic moments between students.
The college is Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, long a bastion of progressive, free-wheeling thought that seems to be having second thoughts lately.
In a wretched excess that could be headed soon to your nearby campus or statute books, Antioch officials have approved a policy that requires verbal consent by both parties at each stage of what we used to call in my day "making out."
The college's "sexual offense policy," adopted by its board of trustees three years ago at the request of students, no less, was strengthened last year to include such dubious clauses as, "Obtaining consent is an ongoing process in any sexual interaction. Verbal consent should be obtained with each new level of physical and/or sexual contact/conduct."
Call it "checklist love." In plain talk, it means that, before any hugging, kissing, fondling, groping, shirt unbuttoning, bra unfastening or other shenanigans can take place, you'd better ask and receive permission properly and unequivocally every step of the way, buster.
No, campus sex police will not leap out the bushes, shout "Gotcha!" and pounce immediately. But those scalawags who fail to check off each milestone of advancement before proceeding presumably will be standing on shaky ground if brought up on charges later.
What next? Chaperones? Chastity belts?
I feel sorry for today's college students. First they have had to deal with substance abuse. Then, rising tuition. Then, a frazzled economy. Then, AIDS. Now this.
The mind boggles at how stilted romance would become if anyone tried to follow this check-off romance policy to the letter. What should be a fun night out would become a legalistic nightmare, checking off anticipated moves like a grown-up version of "Mother, may I?"
Rules that no one respects reduce respect for all rules and for the reasons, however well-intentioned, for which the rules were created.
Even if they tried to pause for permission each step of the way, chances are good that they would not be able to remember the next morning whether they missed anything.
Yet, whether anyone follows the rule or not, everyone will be expected to follow it, which means men have good reason to be nervous about any aspect of their night out that might be even slightly ambiguous. Acts once considered playful can now be viewed as actionable.
Without taking sides, it is important to note that "date rape" or date assault are ambiguous terms, argued endlessly by experts. Some people accept only the legal definition of rape, which is penetration against one's will. Others accept much broader definitions that include virtually any incident in which or after which the victim feels violated.
The case of a woman assaulted while she is too drunk to resist is easy. But what about cases in which the woman goes along, then has second thoughts the next day, either out of guilt or out of resentment, particularly if the guy dumped her? Such defenses are common in campus date rape cases and sometimes, at least, the defense has merit.
But Marian Jensen, Antioch's dean of students since May 1992, blessedly assures me that it is not really all that bad. In the three years since the policy went into force, only one case made it all the way to a hearing, which found the young male suspect not guilty. About a dozen others have been brought in for conferences to resolve the conflict. After all, she explains, education is the purpose of the stiffened rules.
Students who come to campus from a variety of backgrounds need to be educated properly in how to respect each other's rights and bodies, Ms. Jensen explained. Women need to be "empowered" so they won't feel shy about reporting injustice after they feel they have been wronged.
Normal guidelines as to when "no" means "no" are too easily ignored. Antioch needed guidelines with teeth. Antioch, a 750-student campus traditionally identified with high academic standards, new ideas and progressive politics, may have put itself on the cutting edge again with this one.
Campuses today have become sexual battlegrounds. Women have new freedom, yet many express confusion over what to do with it. Men, too, yearn for guidelines as the rules of engagement change almost daily.
Not surprisingly, the new conduct code has spurred a backlash men's movement, which calls itself "the Bone Yard." Some of its men say they came out of the campus' mandatory "consent workshop" scared to make a move. Some of the women sympathized. Others reportedly said, ah, maybe it'll do you boys some good to slow down and think about this for a while. A prude wave on campus? Ms. Jensen thinks not. It is just a shift, she says, from the 1960s, "when women defined liberation in terms of what men wanted, to the 1990s when women define it in terms of what women want."
Even so, my libertarian side says we need fewer rules and more personal responsibility.
On campus or off, women need to respect themselves enough to tell a man "no" when they mean "no," whether he asks or not. And men need to respect themselves enough to listen.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.