Although issues of consent have always been at the forefront of the feminist community, and reports of widespread sexual assault are nothing new, sexual assault is suddenly becoming mainstream news as people and the media decide not to tolerate it. Victims of all ages and orientations are coming forward on social media to confess that they have been sexually assaulted. The #metoo movement has taken awareness to a new level as it becomes clear the generally accepted statistic of 1 in 5 women being assaulted in their lifetimes is outrageously wrong, as many of us knew long ago. Sexual assault is on trend to no longer be condoned, just as outdated practices like child labor became recognized for what they were: morally reprehensible. The exception, of course, is that we elected a president who is a sexual predator. Well, revolutions take time. What began in the last five years as a spreading awareness on college campuses that rape culture was pervasive has spread to the mainstream as women and the wider population demand to be heard and desire action to be taken.
Activist and writer Kitty Stryker seeks to go beyond what we traditionally think of as consent (in the bedroom) in her new anthology Ask: Building Consent Culture (Thorntree Press). Although one section addresses consent in the bedroom, she expands the conversation, bringing the notion of consent into the spaces we regularly inhabit: school, workplace, home, hospital, jail, and community. The anthology includes authors of various genders, sexual orientations, races, and relationship styles, and that diversity adds to the variety of situations discussed in terms of consent. One of the first essays, “The Legal Framework of Consent is Worthless” addresses how from a legal standpoint, sexual consent is static, but AV Flox, the author of the piece, points out how for consent to be effective, it must be ongoing and changing, something that is continually updated as the sex act progresses. Many college campuses have dealt with the consent issue by having each partner consent at every stage of the sex act, but Flox states an example of the flaw with this: during sex, things can change at any moment and easily go from consensual to nonconsensual. The essays often pick moments of unequal power to probe what is right and respectful to everyone involved, including when one partner has a mental illness as in “Sex and Love When You Hate Yourself and Don’t Have Your Shit Together” by JoEllen Notte, or if a trans person’s not revealing his or her status may create a situation where a sexual partner ends up involved in something to which they did not knowingly consent in Roz Kaveney’s “Just Passing By.”
In other essays, authors talk about potential and actual consequences of marginalized people in positions where they have little choice. In “Bodily Autonomy for Kids,” Akilah S. Richards discusses children being told to hug a relative and what that lesson might impart about body ownership and whether physical touching is their choice. Laura Kate Dale’s essay “To Keep a Roof Over my Head, I Consented to Delaying my Transition” is especially heartbreaking as she relates postponing her transition until her parents felt comfortable with it so she could keep living in their house, resulting in physical side effects of male puberty she still deals with today.
Consent becomes even more complicated when talking about work in the sex industry. When one’s job is having sex with a co-worker in front of a co-worker or boss, as Tobi Hill-Meyer talks about in “There’s No Rulebook for This,” the idea of what is traditionally appropriate in the workplace becomes moot. Cameryn Moore, whose “job involves writing things that excite people” explains in “Service with a Smile Is Not Consent” that fans and strangers assume that if a woman’s work deals with sex that she must be up for sex all the time, with anyone. Hill-Meyer added guidelines about flirting and intoxication to her standard performer paperwork in order to clarify consent, getting feedback until the guidelines became a “living document.” The idea of consent as a living thing returns us to Flox’s assertion that consent is co-constructed and constantly changing. The anthology sometimes looks backwards with regret, for instance in “The Kids Aren’t All Right: Consent and Our Miranda Rights” as author Navarre Overton reflects on her inability to grasp Miranda rights when she was arrested at 15. But just as often the anthology looks forward to how we can keep consent, both our own and others’, at the forefront of our minds and hearts as we go about our business in the world, realizing issues of consent are an intrinsic part of our culture. Even an act as simple as reading a Dr. Seuss book to a child becomes a loaded act when, as Cherry Zonkowski relates in “The Green Egg and Ham Scam,” the book is Green Eggs and Ham and the narrative is that a character learns to like green eggs and ham after being asked to eat it over and over again, and the offeror of the food, Sam I Am, doesn’t accept no for an answer. A “no,” or any verbal or nonverbal objection, in any situation does not need a reason and shouldn’t need to be repeated.
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Andrea Clark Mason's work has appeared in a number of literary and mainstream magazines. She teaches creative writing and journalism at a community college in Denver. You may learn more about her on her website: www.andreaclarkmason.com.