Don’t Touch Me: Normalizing Consent in Queer Communities of Color

This is a text exchange that happened a few weeks ago with a beautiful and talented woman writer with whom I am building a loving relationship. I was reading Rebecca Traiter’s essay, “On the Post-Weinstein Reckoning,” when the memory of me twirling this friend’s loosely-curled strands about my finger came to mind. As I thought about this intimate moment of affection and playfulness, I asked myself if I would be okay with my new friend touching my hair? As a Black woman that’s a tough question. My hair is often touched by all kinds of people without permission. This happens so often that Black women have crafted hit records, created legendary comedy sketches, and designed innovative video games on the microaggression.

Momo Pixel, Hair Nah!

In Momo Pixel’s Hair Nah! videogame, a black girl is warding off the arms and hands that are reaching to invade the Black mysterious land that is our hair. In this game all the hands are white. And in Rebecca Traister’s piece, all the sexual harassers are men. While I have been sexually harassed and assaulted by men and white people in the past, my current and future communities do not look like the worlds that Pixel or Traister are naming. The people I surround myself with, the people whose growth I am invested in are not White and they are not cis-heterosexual men.

And while I am grateful that I do not frequent spaces with cishet men, there are still ways that the toxic behavior of rape culture seeps into the Queer Trans People of Color (QTPOC) community. I am hyper aware when I am walking on the streets and am expecting men to make comments or try to reach for my body. However, I am never prepared when a close friend of mine, squeezes, pokes, or jiggles one of my breasts. Nor when a person at a queer dance party grabs my ass. I am uncomfortable. And while I do not feel that my body is unsafe in these spaces, there is a message that is being communicated to me about my body, that it is an object. I may know that the person thinks of me as more than my body and sometimes certain that these invasions were not malicious in intent and were in many ways an attempt to show praise and love for my body. However, in these moments I am uncomfortable, my body stiffens, and my brain takes a pause. I felt like an item on a shelf. How could they reach for my body with such ease? Why do I sometimes do the same?

Mary J. Blidge, Diana Ross, and Lil Kim at the 1999 VMA’s

It was Afropunk 2014, the last good one, the last one with a suggested entrance donation. It was a space of Black queer freedom and magic. Lianne La Havas before the Prince recognition, Alice Smith before the Nina Simone Cover, SZA before CTRL. Meshell Ndgecello before Queen Sugar. Valerie June. Sharon Jones & The DAP Kings. The TonTons. Lolawolf. Princess Nokia. Cakes Da Killa. The Internet. It was the Blackest and Queerest weekend of the summer and many were under the influence. I was under the influence. Of alcohol, of weed, of misogyny. Even amongst queer femmes, I myself was able to replicate the devaluing of and act violently toward another Black woman’s body, a woman I had met just hours before. I placed my hand on her breast as we posed for a photo. I felt gross doing it and am cringing now as I write this.

Because this woman did not completely avoid contact with me after the incident, even though she had every right to, I grew a friendship with her and I was able to apologize for my behavior. Still, knowing that I, me, with my incessant talk of safe spaces for women, was able to disrupt such a loving space, could threaten another woman’s safety, has caused me to consider how consent plays a role in the expression of our affections for one another, our fondness, taste, like for another’s body.

It was with Traister’s reckoning, that I began to reckon with my own language of desire and expressing that desire for women. Who has taught me that language when all the women loved men and all the men are misogynists? How do we start to create a queer feminist language that does not objectify our bodies and breaks down power dynamics? How are we building a culture of consent where Black and Brown femme and/or woman bodies are not hyper-exposed to unwanted advances or touch?

One of my good friends has recently started asking people if she can hug them. And when she is touched without consent, she politely says, “You did not ask to touch me.” It seems so simple and so obvious and yet asking for permission before touching someone is not a common practice.

Can I touch your hair? Can I hug you? Can I put my arm around you? Can I rest my hand here? I have recently been trying my best to use this practice myself and I feel good about it. And I feel really good when I am asked by those I am physically and/or sexually intimate with. It is a skill that takes some rehearsing but, my god, when a sexual partner asks if they can touch me my body shivers. The idea that asking permission removes that air of sexiness and mystery is a patriarchal myth that does not account for the ways that bodies like mine are violated and exploited through practices and codes of silence that are prevalent in nightlife spaces.

I can also acknowledge the different ways that we communicate consent — body language, eye contact, facial expressions — while also prioritizing direct communication to show that I value the person’s safety and want to be mindful of the violence that many of us face and may have experienced. I am not assuming. I feel more secure in my interactions with that person. As time goes on and I build relationships, people may start to say ‘you don’t have to ask’ and so I may stop. I might also say that I will always ask because asking is for me too, for my own sense of safety. Eventually it will become habit, so even if I am under the influence and can’t always rely on my mind’s reading of one’s body language.

My hope is that by resisting a culture that does not value bodily autonomy we model and share these intimate ways of consent in QTPOC communities that it will reverberate to those outside of them. It is my hope that we are moving towards a world where our habits of tongue communicate our care, love, and desire for each other to feel safe and supported in a space. The women, femmes, and gender nonconforming folks that I love, am loving, have loved, made love to in my adult life are my greatest teachers, we are each other’s greatest teachers. I am grateful for all the ways they have taught to me to decolonize my expressions of desire and attraction.