As many cis-het white women know right now, it is a time for us to learn everything we have been doing wrong and make amends. But whilst many claim to love learning, discussions of race are hampered because it means confronting our own blind spots and actively choosing to be vulnerable to the rage of those we have unwittingly oppressed or abused, even if our crime has ‘simply’ been to look the other way. Looking the other way means we are complicit under ‘the bystander effect’ which enables and encourages abuse. Yet even though consent should underpin every discussion of abuse, it is rarely mentioned in conversations of unpacking whiteness and that omission means ‘looking the other way’ becomes far more likely through pure ignorance. Education–or rather re-education–is desperately needed.
Such re-education is not easy, but it is made easier when it is removed from our personal sphere–bearing in mind that we have that privilege–which is why books like Ask: Building a Consent Culture by Kitty Stryker–an antifascist activist and fat positive, queer sex educator who’s worked in the sex industry–are so damn important. Not only because this book can be read without overt confrontation and without our minds immediately going to defense and rejection mode, but also that this one is specifically designed to highlight the marginalized voices which are rarely included in current literature. Their voices have been easily overlooked in the past because white people, as the book points out, can more successfully amplify their voice. We have better access to professional opportunities, publishing contracts, fundraising venues and political platforms.
What is Consent Culture?
America is leading the way in consent discussions right now; and although as a Brit I feel our common language has never been so divided, I’m so grateful that activists in the U.S. have coined and defined the terms ‘rape culture’ a term which as yet is resisted by many of my peers in Europe and ‘consent culture’ which is all but unknown. And still, even once these terms enter the lexicon, there is more to discuss.
There’s twenty-one morsels of consent perspective to nibble on in this book, many of them intersectional–twenty-four in total if you consider Kitty’s own introduction, Laurie Penny’s foreword and Carol Queen’s afterword. Too many to cover in one review, but each one of them worthy of extensive discussion and reframing of what consent really means.
Consent is not true consent where there is a power imbalance. You cannot make a free and retractable agreement about something, if that agreement is made in fear of losing your access to income, and resources–financial, emotional or otherwise.Both rape culture and consent culture are themselves extensions of how humans are capable of acting in any given moment. One has been defined in opposition to the other and this leads to further deliberation, because these do not exist exclusive to one another; it depends very much on who is more powerful in a given situation. I have been both powerful and powerless. I have performed exactly the same act with different people. The same act which was consensual with one, has violated someone else’s boundaries because they had less power than I did. So I have been wronged and have done wrong. Discerning this subtlety means constantly asking question, ‘Am I the one who is more powerful right now?’
Answering that question, with all that power means–privilege, money, status, legality and more–is a lifelong work. But power is not only structural, it is also personal: from the book–power is also “the ability to get others to do what you want them to do through charm, guile, coercion, guilt, feigning ignorance, threats of violence, and/or actual violence.” Definitions like these are badly needed as a starting point. But still they are only a starting point.
This book highlights a smorgasbord of situations which make you question your current ideas about consent. Consent is not true consent where there is a power imbalance. You cannot make a free and retractable agreement about something, if that agreement is made in fear of losing your access to income, and resources–financial, emotional or otherwise. As a cis-het white woman only able to speak of my own experience, I’ve previously I’ve written extensively about consent and the issue of non-violent rape. But Ask demonstrates with concrete examples that consent is far, far broader, far, far more complex than this. It doesn’t have to involve sex, especially where there is a bigger difference of privilege. Whilst it should be obvious to me because I’m well aware of privilege, the essay Trouble Found Me written about two roommates, one of colour and the other white, really brought home that true consent in all and any areas of life is often only available those with the most social capital.
How Do We Teach Our Children Consent?
Beyond discussions of race, the section “In the school” has also made me reflect a whole lot, as it relates to my children. I am always more powerful than them but they do not yet have the capacity to take responsibility for their own power and so on various instances I must cross their boundaries. I must violate their consent. I must brush my son’s teeth, even though he feels transgressed because he hates it so much. I tell my small daughter that her body is her own and that she has the power to say no… except that on many occasions she doesn’t. I have to force her to take vaccinations. To take her clothes off for the doctor. I have make her clean her vulva. I have to use many wiles to get her to eat her vegetables. There are rules and exceptions, rules and exceptions.
In the essay “Rehearsing Consent Culture: Revolutionary Playtime” consent is examined as a building block for children amid supposed peers. Tickling between my daughter and her friend can be consensual, they are both on an equal footing, they both feel okay with saying ‘no’ (unless my daughter so badly wants to be liked that she feels afraid of refusing an act that is obviously pleasurable to her friend–sticky waters indeed). But if I tickle her I must be constantly vigilant and notice whether her squirming is uncomfortable, and if she says ‘no’ even in play, I will immediately stop so that she knows her ‘no’ is heard and means something.
Right now she is the one who has the power over her little brother. He was born two years after her and took what she felt was previously her space–her toys, her room and my attention were divided, in many ways unequally because he needed me 24/7–so the power she can exercise over him can be intoxicating. Her powers of logic are stronger, her verbal skills better and right now she is taller and stronger. He can also be very annoying and has no sense of boundaries. Of course he doesn’t. So how can I teach her to resist something that feels so pleasurable and so ‘right’? Something that assuages her own insecurity? Something which also protects her boundaries? How can I also teach her that no doubt, this situation will change and he will grow more physically strong and more capable which means the power dynamics between them will change? How can I teach him that as he grows stronger he needs to demonstrate responsibility and restraint to someone who has previously but unconsciously lorded power over him? Thankfully this is not only my job. And the essay “The Power of Men teaching Men” makes it easier. It will be something I share and discuss over and over with their father. From the same essay, “It is all about power. And the highest form of power is the power you can deploy to keep others safe.”
Then there’s the essay “The Green Eggs and Ham Scam”–my daughter was reading that book only this morning and now I discover that it has more harm in it than I ever imagined.
“The phallic Sam I Am insisting on his ego and his pleasure and emotionally coercing the poor nameless character with a ceaseless barrage of questions: Would you like it with a house? Would you like it with a mouse? The other guy, identity erased and unimportant, is subjected to harassment until he gives in and “likes” it.”
Oh… shit. Didn’t I use that tactic to persuade my daughter to eat her vegetables? Yes, yes I did.
Like you, I have good intentions. Like you, I know some things about consent. But I thought I knew a lot more. And if there’s one successful barometer of a book like this, it’s how many ‘a-ha’ moments it contains. If you’re anything like me you will find a lot of them in this book–some enlightening and pleasurable, many more uncomfortable and several downright horrific, especially as you realise your own crimes and also how many times your own consent has been violated. But you’ve got to start somewhere and that somewhere is here.
Full disclosure: Ask is published by Thorntree Press who also publishes my own books. This review is my own and has not been paid.