By Shanthi Flagg
Content warning: abuse, rape, assault
As queers (particularly those queers who are women, of color, disabled and/or trans), we are oppressed, and oppression is abuse. We are accustomed to being run into the ground. We reach for bars we by definition cannot meet because of who we are. Our thresholds are high; we overestimate our limits, because we judge them based on what we can live through rather than what we want, what would make us feel safe, and the fact that we deserve respect. We sometimes push each other as well.
The word “consent” is much discussed in queer spaces. However, at times it seems that its meaning is washed away to be replaced with wishful thinking, posturing, and sometimes manipulation. Many of us inhabit bodies that have suffered at the hands of another. We carry the resulting wounds with us in all of our interactions– conversational, physical, and sexual. As bodies devalued by people we once loved and by a hostile word, we queer people must look deeply to rediscover that we ourselves and the others in our communities deserve respect. We don’t exist to be pushed until we push back. We have boundaries. We are tired of letting them slide.
How can we meaningfully utilize “consent” as a word, a concept, and a way of life?
1. “No” means “no.”
For many of us, this was our first lesson about consent. “No” means “no” when we hear it within ourselves. “No” means “no” when we hear it from another. Period. A “no” is not a “yes” waiting to be coaxed into the open.
2. “Maybe” means “no.”
A “maybe” is not a “yes” in disguise either. Often, “maybe,” “not now,” “another time,” and the like represent the ways in which our culture has disempowered our ability to say “no” in a sexual interaction. As queer people, our “no” has been disempowered; for those of us who are people of color, trans, disabled, and/or women, it has been smothered even further.
Consider a nonsexual interaction. You ask a friend to accompany you to a party, and your friend waffles on it, saying they are not sure if they can make it and will let you know. When interpreting this response, you recognize that among its possible meanings is “I don’t want to go, but I also don’t want to hurt your feelings or be rude.” Consider: a sexual interaction tends to come with much higher pressure than an everyday conversation. It is often very apparent that a partner has a certain desire; how easy is it to respond with a flat out “NO,” particularly considering that explicitly saying “no” in many nonsexual interactions is considered rude? Whether or not you think that equivocating or waffling is a good way to decline a request or invitation, you must acknowledge that many, many people, particularly marginalized people, feel backed into a corner when they want to say “no,” disempowered into a “maybe.” This must be on your mind at all times when you are sexual with someone.
When identifying that the “no” of other marginalized people has been disempowered, remember that you are one of them. When a “maybe” presents itself in your mind, what does it mean? The urge to please others has been planted deeply into us because of our marginalized status. However, we do not exist as vessels for the desires of others. We have desires. Our bodies are resilient; we have been through so much already that it seems not such a big deal to ignore doubts inside to avoid causing a fuss or hurting the feelings of someone we care about, or even someone we feel nothing towards. The body remembers. We can survive through so much, but we need not. Our desires are a big deal. They matter. They do not vanish in the face of the conflicting desire of another, as much as we might wish they would.
3. “Yes” means “yes”– maybe.
The goal of prioritizing consensual sexual interactions is not to go through the rhetorical motions until a “yes” is obtained. Rather, the goal is to not rape or assault another person. What meaning does a “yes” have if a safe environment to say “no” has not been created? When you are having sex, what are the implied consequences if the other person says “no” or “not now”? Do they think you will yell, cry, complain, beg, guilt them, hate them, talk shit about them, or proceed without their consent, potentially further violating them than if they had just said “yes” in the first place? We cannot control our emotions upon receiving a “no” from another. Many of us are very hurt by rejection. However, what we can control is how we handle our emotions. Accept that the pain you feel from rejection is your shit. The fact that you feel hurt is no excuse to make another person feel they did you wrong by stating a boundary. Personal boundaries are not about other people; they are about ourselves, our histories, our feelings, and respect.
When you are sexual with someone, remember that the first priority is that the entire interaction is consensual. You must be open to perceiving their cues. Some kinds of communication are nonverbal. Every person communicates differently. If you perceive discomfort or see the other person shutting down, take action. Do not make assumptions about where an interaction is going. Pay attention.
If this sounds like a lot to keep in mind, that’s because it is. The traditional narrative of sex is heterosexist, misogynistic, racist, ableist, and cissexist, and as such does not prioritize consent– in fact, consent is relevant only as a charade. True consent is not valued. As bodies already abused by these systems of oppression, we must work to make a safe community for ourselves. We are sensitive. We have old injuries. Our bodies are not easy to inhabit. The body’s demands shift daily, catching us off guard as they swing back and forth from stone to raw nerve. Respecting our bodies and the bodies of others is possible, but only if each of us is committed.