Creating a Consent Culture
Content Warnings: discussions about deadnaming, outing, sexual assault and use of a swear word
“Being in queer spaces with codes of conduct have helped me understand that I have the right to say no to any type of physical contact that I do not consent too, and that not asking or respecting consent is a violation."
By Emily Metcalfe and Kirsty Smith
Consent for sexual activity is undeniably an important topic, one that has certainly grown and
evolved over the last few decades. But something we’ve learned being part of the queer community, is that there are also wider and more nuanced applications of consent we should also be talking about.
Here are some of the things that we think are important when considering consent, and what it means to us:
In the world of GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018, we expect any personal information we give to be stored safely. But do we always do this with each other? When a friend comes out about their gender identity or sexual/romantic orientation, do we check how they consent for that information to be used?
Many trans and non-binary people ask people they feel safe with to use a new name and/or pronouns to see how it feels before coming out to their wider friends and family. An important thing to check, and respect, is whether or not they consent to you using their name and pronouns in different situations or with different people. Not deadnaming someone is obviously very important, but telling a mutual friend of their pronouns or sending a parcel to their shared home using their new name, for example, may out them .
Similarly, just because someone comes out to you as gay or bi or asexual, doesn’t mean you have their consent to talk about and out them to other people.
Kirsty’s Experience: “When I first came out as a lesbian, I wanted to share that part of myself with family and close friends initially. One of the people I confided in, who was a good friend, thereafter mentioned this to several people from a wider friendship/acquaintance group and so it became ‘gossip’ amongst people who I hadn’t intended to tell at that stage and without my consent. When I raised this with the person I had told, they said that they didn’t realise it was ‘a secret’ because I had "just come out” and I was “so confident about it”.
"Whilst I was hurt that they had told people without my consent, it was a learning tool for me – namely, that I should be explicit with someone if I share something about myself and I don’t want it to be shared. It also was a reminder that when other people confide in me, I should have the same respect.”
Something we have experienced with friends in the queer community which we really appreciate, is checking whether others are happy with a certain topic to be discussed. In a community that has higher incidences of poor mental health and trauma, these consent check-ins before sharing information feels like a little content warning to the conversation they’d like to have.
Emily Shares: “I recently started reading Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury on audiobook. Before the story begins, there is a list of content warnings given for the book’s content and I love that I can then consent, or not, to continue listening.
“Another thing I’ve learned, is that not everyone wants advice or for you to “fix” their problems that they’re telling you about. Sometimes, people just want to rant. I recognise in myself that urge to give unsolicited advice so try and check if friends consent to advice before I give it, or if they just want me to be a friend to listen to them.”
Physical contact and body autonomy
Many of us had conversations at a young age about bad types of touching, but it generally focused on it being wrong for an adult to touch a child in a sexual manner. More often than not, those conversations didn’t discuss the importance of understanding personal space and that this should be respected by everyone, including other children/young people.
When we were discussing this part of the blog, we talked about the conversations that we had as children and had shared experiences of being told (sometimes quite forcefully) to kiss family members/close family friends goodbye and in the event we didn’t comply, were either told off or had someone apologise on our behalf, which reaffirmed that we had done something wrong by saying that we didn’t want to give someone a hug or kiss. Interestingly, we both had experiences of mirroring that behaviour as adults with younger members of our respective families, albeit to a lesser degree.
It brought to mind an interview held earlier in the year with Valentino Vecchietti (founder of Intersex Equality Rights UK and DIVA’s intersex columnist) as part of the Leeds LGBT+ Literature Festival 2021 (which can be viewed here), during which we discussed Valentino’s online short comic called ‘Being the good girl’ published in the Kadak anthology, Bystander. This includes the following lines discussed during the interview:
“Growing up, I was taught to be obedient; to "be a good girl"
“At home, in school and in social situations, I was taught: not to be too loud, not to take up space, not to say no, not to be difficult, not to make other people feel uncomfortable
“But in adulthood I was expected to seamlessly make the transition into suddenly knowing that I have permission to say no, that I can stand up for myself even if it makes others uncomfortable
“Why are we rewarded in childhood for the very qualities that won’t protect us as adults?”
Whilst the context was not necessarily about body autonomy and physical contact, it makes such an important point. In taking a child or young person’s right to personal space and body autonomy away, at what point do they then unlearn this behaviour and feel comfortable taking control of their own space? Why do we put them in this position in the first place?
Emily’s Experience: “A type of consent that I wish I had learned about at a much earlier age was body autonomy and my ability to not consent to different types of touching.
“When I was a teenager, a boy I liked started flirting with me and slapping my bottom every time he passed me in the corridors at school. At the time, I thought this was exciting, but it wasn’t until I thought about it again as an adult that I realise he never asked for consent. This wasn’t about something I wanted; it was him feeling entitled to touch my body in a way he wanted.
“I’ve also had incidences where strangers have grabbed one of my breasts in the street, someone in a Pride march has hit my bottom with a wooden spoon as he marched past, my bottom has been grabbed by men in clubs as a student and there have been times when I have not ended sex when I wanted to because I felt uncomfortable saying no.
“Being in queer spaces with codes of conduct have helped me understand that I have the right to say no to any type of physical contact that I do not consent too, and that not asking or respecting consent is a violation. It’s only on hearing others talk openly about similar situations they’ve been in that I understand that some of the situations I’ve been in were sexual assaults. I now feel more confident in the rights of my body and that there’s no time I shouldn’t be able to say no or stop.
“I believe conversations around consent for any type of physical content should be had from an early age. I’m not keen on hugging people that aren’t close friends and very much appreciate when people check for consent first.”
Kirsty Shares: “A real area of self development for me has been in respect of personal space. I’m a tactile person and have at times in the past not taken account of other people’s personal space. On reflection I can see that someone saying they didn’t want to hug was them clearly communicating what they were not comfortable consenting to, whereas I interpreted this as being a rejection.
"I can recognise now that occasionally I then used coercive behaviour to get a hug. Whilst at the time it felt like the right thing to do because - hey, we all love hugs right?!! - I couldn’t at that time see how dismissive of clear communication I was being and actually breaching someone’s personal space when they had clearly not consented to it. Asking whether physical contact is OK and in what form became much easier with practice, but it took longer to retrain my brain to accept a ‘no’ as a boundary and not a rejection. It’s really helped me to see this as part of someone’s self care and to think about the way in which I would want someone to respect my own boundaries.”
Finally, let's talk about sex
Queer sex, between people of any gender, between cis and trans people, is a beautiful thing. From cuddling and stroking to loud, sweaty fucking and all that's just waiting to be explored in between.
Emily Shares: “One of my previous partners, on one of our first nights together, sat with me and talked about what language they used for their most intimate parts and what and how they were comfortable being touched. I learned so much from this and it in itself was a very intimate moment.
“From then on, that is something I discuss with all my partners. What language do we both consent to being used; what kind of intimacy, sexual or otherwise, do we like and want; and what do we not consent to.
“This is something that I thought a recent episode of Sex Education (S3 Ep4) did very well. Two characters were becoming intimate for the first time and they shared a conversation about what they both wanted and were comfortable with. This was initially framed around one of them being disabled but I loved that the discussion went both ways and I hope this is something we see more of in television, films and in literature.”
Kirsty Shares: “I recently read Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers and there was one scene where Grace tells Yuki that she’s going to kiss her and asks if that’s OK. Yuki is said to make a face and then says “You don’t have to announce it, Honey Girl”. Grace responds to say that consent is sexy and then they agree what they are comfortable with for impulsive kissing.
"I really liked the concept that the whole process of understanding the parameters of someone’s consent and indeed whether they are giving this for a moment in time or more generally (or not at all) could be seen as something positive. An absence of consent is not necessarily about rejection, but can be about self-care and we all know the need for self-care, particularly within the queer community.”
I DO Consent
The message we hear most is that consent should be an enthusiastic yes! We think however that it should be a discussion of yeses and nos. And not just one, but lots of those discussions. We might feel able to give consent to something at one moment in time, but not at another, and vice versa. Consent isn’t a fixed thing and it comes in many forms. It’s important that we contribute to creating a consent culture, for ourselves and for others.
The International Day of Consent’s tagline is “I DO Consent”, as opposed not “doing” consent, and we believe consent should be practiced in all areas of our lives.
International Day of Consent
“The world’s first International Day of Consent, spearheaded by Jenny Wilson of Irregular Arts and consentculture.co.uk, took place on 30th November 2018, as a small gathering and performance event at Theatre in the Mill in Bradford, West Yorkshire, UK.”
Check out their website here for more information about the International Day of Consent and their events.
Emily Metcalfe and Kirsty Smith are committee members for Leeds LGBT+ Book Club and Lit Fest. They really enjoyed putting together this blog and found the process of discussing the issues covered here really cathartic.