I received two emails this week relating to sex on campus.
The first, a student government draft proposal for addressing sexual violence at Stanford, was a reminder that sex is becoming increasingly regulated by university authorities. Among other measures, the proposal endorsed the concept (already in force at Stanford) of “affirmative consent” as a requirement for all sexual activity. The university defines affirmative consent as “active and affirmative verbal consent for every sexual encounter and for every sexual act initiated during these encounters.”
On September 28, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a piece of legislation requiring all California universities enforce a similar policy, with the aim of cracking down on campus sexual assault. Still, it is unclear to many observers how this new sex regulation will actually work. As Michelle Goldberg wondered in an article for The Nation: “Do moans count as consent? How about a nod, or a smile, or meaningful eye contact? If a woman performs oral sex on a man without asking him first, and if he simply lies back and lets her, has she, by the law’s definition, assaulted him?”
The second sex-related email — an announcement of this year’s Full Moon on the Quad, a school sponsored tradition in which thousands of Stanford students gather on the Quad to make out, surrounded by volunteers distributing condoms and mouthwash — was a reminder that despite the multiplying regulations, casual sex on campus is highly encouraged. (The email helpfully concluded: “If you choose to engage in kissing, make sure you get affirmative consent”).
Perhaps an even better illustration of the university’s pro-casual sex posture was last April’s “sex week,” a series of events sponsored by the Sexual Health Peer Resource Center, including “Stadium Style Sex,” “How to Have a Sex Party” and “Oral Sex Safety and Skills.”
I don’t have strong feelings about Full Moon on the Quad (though mono is an unpleasant disease) or sex week (though I wonder if there are better ways to spend our tuition dollars). But taken together with the new statewide affirmative consent policy, they send a strange message about sex at Stanford: That sex should be enthusiastically promoted, but also tightly regulated and controlled. Students should have sex all the time, but only in accordance with the specific preferences of legislators and university administrators.
There are certain perils associated with this state of affairs, which is captured by the cultural critic James Poulos’ concept of a “pink police state” — a regime that blends cultural permissiveness with creeping authoritarianism. As Poulos has said:
I worry, and I think we should all worry, about the way cultural libertarianism is snowballing while the snowball of political libertarianism rolls deeper into hell. I’m aghast at the shrug with which many self-styled libertarians greet massive government, so long as it’s run by people with ‘enlightened’ attitudes about pleasure-seeking. It’s not death to the state these libertarians want, it’s the state as cool parent, with a stripper pole in every pot.
Stanford’s administrators, who put on sex week and campus makeout sessions, certainly have enlightened, progressive attitudes towards sexuality. But under the affirmative consent regime, they also have more and more power to regulate where, when and how students have sex — and this should give us all pause.
In the most sinister version of Poulos’ pink police state, the authorities “monopolize and totalize administrative control while carving out a permissive playpen for the people” — effectively distracting their subjects so they are compliant and easy to rule.
I don’t think Stanford administrators or California state legislators have this type of agenda. But it is worth considering whether Stanford students would accept such an intrusive regulation of their sex lives if it weren’t for Stanford’s otherwise lax attitude toward sexuality. Imagine if a Stanford administration known for its social conservatism declined to sponsor sex week and Full Moon on the Quad, then enacted a policy like affirmative consent in the name of protecting women (on top of existing sex regulations, like the restrictions on having sex after drinking). The administration would likely be denounced as puritanical and reactionary.
So perhaps the administration’s ironic view that casual sex should be encouraged even as it is closely monitored isn’t actually ironic in practice. Perhaps the two positions are actually complementary. Without creating a “cool parent” aura through its promotion of casual sex, the administration wouldn’t have the legitimacy to tightly regulate the way students have sex.
Under a pink police state, citizens voluntarily cede more and more power to their rulers “in exchange for more and more cultural or ‘personal’ license.” Stanford students should be aware of this danger, and make sure that it doesn’t happen here.
Jason Willick, a senior studying history, is the editor in chief of Stanford Political Journal.