Consent Culture: time to get into bed with liberation.
[EDIT: The original title of this piece was: “Consent Culture, meet Intersectionality. You will get along great.” Tara Gholston mentioned concern around the word Intersectionality being used differently than it was originally intended by Kimberlé Crenshaw and posted this potent video about it (longer version here). After reflecting I changed the title and took out the one mention of the word in the piece. While I think there’s a strong need to include poor, disabled, POC, and/or trans people in our work for liberation along with Black female liberation, and the word intersectionality has evolved to encompass all of those things, it is at the expense of centering Black women. And while I could argue that intersectionality needs to center trans, queer, disabled Black women as well, as a white author I cannot effectively do this (especially since I primarily work with white people on undoing our whiteness, and we as white people continuously co-opt Black movements for our own liberation). Just as importantly, Kimberlé Crenshaw is specifically talking about systems of oppression overlapping to more strongly impact those of us with multiple oppressed identities, not around interpersonal interactions. Since only part of this article is on how consent culture intersects (ha) with the systemic impact of oppression, I felt it was important to change the wording around that as well. Thanks Tara for raising this concern. We cannot get free without critique and voices from people who are also directly affected by oppression.]
Consent Culture is about more than sex. It’s about more than dance. It can be a tool for undoing power imbalance between two people and within communities at the deepest level. But that’s not frequently how it’s being used now.
Consent culture has been around long enough in my sex-positive communities and dance communities and beyond that I’ve been able to see it used well, misused, abused, and at its worst, used to exemplify “change” and “solution” while ignoring the ways that it erases or reinforces many marginalized people’s experiences of oppression.
Because complexity is so necessary before we dive in, please know this: I think consent culture is incredible and revolutionary. I bow my head deeply to the people in my life who have dedicated their lives to honoring their own and others’ boundaries, including myself, and likely, each one of you. In a culture where women, femmes, and female-socialized folks have been taught to ignore our own boundaries for the care of others and to keep ourselves safe (and even moreso for People of Color who have these identities and experiences), and in a culture where men have been socialized to not communicate about and to cross those boundaries, we are all undoing some violent cultural norms in our bodies, and I am so grateful for so many people that have done this work.
Thank you to all of the teachers and community leaders who have put together consent teams across dance communities, festival scenes, relationship groups, and many others. Our work in this field has been extraordinary and important. I think consent culture is important, necessary, and revolutionary.
And also: it’s time to level up. If we don’t add a power analysis and anti-oppression lens to consent culture, it will be misused for people to stay in power, and will continue to erase the experiences of the most marginalized people in a community. Thankfully, many writers and teachers are already tackling the the important power dynamic between parents and children, but there are many other power dynamics for us to work on.
[Note: I know there are some inherent risks and ways that making generalizations around different identity groups like gender is harmful and problematic in and of itself. No, not all men who were socialized as men have power-over dynamics with women, and yes, trauma and power dynamics in the opposite direction happen as well. What is also true is that different identity groups, including gendered ones, have had their rights and humanity stripped away systemically, and there are real cultural impacts to that — we treat each other differently based on the social status and privileged identities we hold or are perceived to hold, and based on the ways we’ve been taught to hold those identities. I’m not able to capture all of the nuance and complexity necessary to dive into this in a short article. Thank you for holding this complexity with me as we work on this content together, and feel free to provide feedback in the comments.]
Here are a few ways we can add nuance to consent culture:
- Add a power analysis.
I’ve seen cis men on a few occasions now tell me that I or someone else is violating their consent by interrupting a boundary violation that they were committing, or by talking about it with them to repair harm.
This is a power issue. There are many tactics people use to stay in power in a situation, and if someone is used to being in power in a culture (like a cisgender white man in our U.S. culture), he may do everything he can in that moment (whether consciously or not — much of this is learned behavior so inherent in us that we do it unconsciously) to stay in power. A cis man using consent culture to avoid accountability is a tactic used to keep himself in power in that situation, and it needs to be named, interrupted, and stopped.
In addition, there are other power issues at play — who feels safe or comfortable saying no to who in an interaction? I often feel unsafe saying no to a cis white man or a cis white woman if they are asking something of me or to interact with me in some way, so I will oblige them rather than risk emotional or physical violence. As far as I can tell, and from my experience, many women feel similarly about men. It’s not that I don’t want to be in relationship with cis women and men — I deeply do want that connection! But the power dynamics also need to be taken into account when we interact, and it’s the responsibility of the person with more power in that situation to take on that labor.
One of the ways we can help heal from this socialization is that when we are in power over someone, we can talk about it in a way that is appropriate given the relationship that already exists. “I think there may be a power dynamic between us [they may disagree — power dynamics are tricky], with me being a man/white person/facilitator/cis person/etc. so I want you to know that a no is fine with me.” We can also focus on having a non-violent and supportive reaction when someone says no to us. “Thank you” is one easy example.
As many consent teachers in my life have taught, a no to someone else is a yes to yourself, which is a sacred, wonderful thing. So if you’re feeling rejected, feel free to reframe it.
2. Include conversations about race, gender, and disability.
This isn’t just about touching and interacting with each other’s bodies, and when it is, we need to include consent for trans bodies, POC bodies, and disabled bodies as well. We need to include in the conversation that many of us from marginalized communities do not get to give consent before experiencing a microaggression. Black people do not get to consent before a white person starts talking about their hair. Trans people do not get to consent to how often we are harassed in restrooms or spat on in public. Disabled people do not often get to consent to being in spaces that are accessible to them, in scent-free spaces, or to trauma-informed interactions. There are many other issues around consent that stretch way beyond the realm that consent culture currently talks about.
We need to include consent around conversations. Ask trans people if you can ask us a question about our genitals or if you can tell us your opinions on pronouns. Ask if you can compliment my physical appearance. Ask me if you can ask me about my disabilities without any relationship to me whatsoever — and then reinforce that a no is welcome, that you recognize it may be trying for me to answer your questions, and ask if you can provide care for me afterwards.
3. Have a systemic lens.
Those of us who are oppressed, including poor people, don’t actually have much consent in our day-to-day lives. Many disabled people have to work beyond what we are capable of doing each day. We do not consent to ruining our bodies in this way just so that we can have money to survive. As a trans person, I do not consent to healthcare where I risk being misgendered and having my symptoms and pain dismissed, and as a poor person, I do not consent to the inaccessible locations of mental healthcare providers on Medicaid. Black people do not get to consent to interacting with and being killed by violent, racist cops, or to receiving dehumanizing access to healthcare, education, housing, food, amongst many other things. Indigenous people do not get to consent to having their land occupied. As a disabled person I do not consent to how many hours I need to put into getting disability coverage. Sex workers do not get to consent to their labor being criminalized daily. The list goes on.
I want to dream of a systemic consent culture, one where we all get access to our basic needs and care, and where we each get to decide and affirm what that looks like. What kinds of shelter, air, water, and food do I need access to in order to survive? (And let’s break it down more and be more clear — what food do I need to access to thrive — what food do I need so that my nutrition needs are met, so that I enjoy eating, feel safe around my past relationship to food and eating disorders, and feel like I am honoring my culture?) What healthcare do I need access to for my specific needs? What accountability system can exist that isn’t punishment-based, and includes welcoming me and others who cause harm back into community?
When consent culture only talks about interpersonal interactions, we are erasing the infinite experiences of marginalized people and ways we cannot consent to how we have to live daily.
4. Honor cultural differences.
At least in my communities, consent culture is being taught mostly by white people, including me. Recently a colleague of mine who happens to be a Person of Color was criticized by a white person for not facilitating using the “right” kind of consent. White Supremacy Culture teaches us that there are right and wrong ways of doing things, and we as white people get to often decide what those right ways are. POC also have relevant skills and lenses to bring to this conversation, and it is not our role to critique POC about their versions of consent culture without significant trust and relationship built on both sides.
5. Speaking of White Supremacy Culture…notice that Consent Culture can reinforce it.
In my communities, one of the impacts I hear about the most from POC about consent culture was how we white people can perceive our internal boundaries and respect those, but we are also reinforcing racism at the same time. For example: A Black person asks to get together with a white person to get to know them better. The white person touches their belly with one hand and their heart with the other. “Let me check in with myself.” Pause. Pause. Deep breaths from the white person. “No, I’m hearing a no to that.” But this happens to POC way more often than it happens to white people. It may be respecting our own boundaries, but for white people, listening to our gut reactions and our body cues means that we’ll be tapping into our most inherent biases, including our racist instincts.
Another way it reinforces racism: I almost always have an instinctive “no” in my body to interrupting racism as it is happening. My body could become unsafe — the white person I’m interrupting could be violent to me — or I could lose relationship with that person. Plus, I am afraid of conflict. However, I’m much less likely to be exposed to violence than a Person of Color, especially if they’re Black, and I actually want to push past my boundaried “no” to live my values and take care of my collective community. However, many white people “listen to their no’s” and let racism happen around them without interruption.
It can also reinforce other aspects of White Supremacy Culture, like individualism rather than collective care. If someone is in trauma, we are almost always a “no” to caring for that person unless we’ve moved past our individualism and realize that collective care (or community care, or care for other people other than yourself for the greater health of the community, or however you want to call it) is more important than our individual boundaries at times.
6. Don’t let Consent Culture get lost in Punishment Culture.
We live in a culture where we throw each other away, and traumatize people as they leave the community or are cast out of the community. If consent culture is just contributing to this model, we will continue to traumatize each other and perpetuate harm. Our consent culture model needs to include a structure for apology, accountability, and trauma support, especially for the people most harmed, but also for everyone involved.
How have you seen Consent Culture misused? Does anything resonate?