Consent Done Well.

Sometimes it smacks me in the face that I’ve immersed myself in queer/radical sex/culture for a long while. It will come as a shock to me that not everyone practices radical and explicit consent in their relationships. Somebody, even a close friend, will touch my leg or go in for a hug without asking and I’ll recoil. The reaction isn’t even necessarily because I don’t want that person touch me but because they didn’t ask; they assumed that I wanted that kind of touch at that moment. People assume that because I’ve agreed to touch them in the past in a certain way that I’m in the same space the next time I see them.

Consent is important for every person of every identity, regardless of age or ability or any other defining factor. But for trans folks it becomes something we end up guarding near and dear to us because the world already thinks it has access to our bodies. People will ask, shortly upon meeting me, whether I plan to have top surgery, if I’m going to start hormones (or, more often, when I am going to start hormones), they will make comments about my voice, my height, or my apparent age. People assume they have the right to dissect and analyze the bodies of trans folks they know just because we are trans. We remind ourselves that we have the right, as all people have the right, to consent and to desire and to utilize our bodies as we want to, regardless of the opinions of the world AND we have the right to NOT discuss that with anybody we don’t want to.

When you move into the world of intimate relationships and sexuality it gets even more complicated. Unless you want to have sex within a really, really small group of people it’s almost like you have to lead a consent workshop before any and all sexual encounters. Trans people experience violence, sexual and otherwise, at higher rates than the rest of society. Talking to my trans friends about sexual history and experience with sexual violence is a testament to how prevalent and painful rape and molestation are in society, and I’m no exception to that rule. Whether it happened before or after we were out violence is yet another way of saying “you don’t get to control your body.” It’s taking away that right to say “no” and the right to say “yes.” It’s taking away the right to ask for what you want and to set limits and to explore new things safely.

And this consent stuff doesn’t just apply to touch. You, as my friends and allies, do not get to question which bathroom I walk into when I’m out with you. You don’t get to question how I answer my phone when it rings if I suddenly change up my pronouns (“This is she.”). You don’t get to question it when I choose to not interrupt somebody to correct them on my name or pronouns and you don’t get to correct them for me unless you’ve asked if that is what I want in public situations. These things are not your things to question or analyze. When I use the women’s bathroom it’s because I don’t feel safe in the men’s bathroom. When I choose to not correct somebody on my name or pronouns it’s because I don’t feel safe enough with that person to do so, or it’s because I am sick of derailing the conversation for somebody who doesn’t seem to want to respect my identity, or it’s simply because I’m tired and don’t feel like explaining my identity to every third person I speak with on any given day.

It can sometimes seem like way more work than it could possibly be worth, but when an interaction goes right, goes how I intend it to, or when a bad situation is rectified in a way that celebrates trans identity rather than shuttering it off to the side it’s beautiful. When I get to spend time with other folks who practice the true essence of radical consent those moments are beautiful. When a friend asked if I wanted to cuddle down at Occupy once and I realized that, yeah, I did! Because I felt safe with him and knew that he’d asked because he really wanted an answer. When I lay in bed with a partner, or multiple partners, and in those lazy morning minutes one will mumble, “is it ok if I __?” with the full expectation that the answer could be yes or no and that that’s okay. When I ask a kid for consent before I give them a hug, or teach them that there are alternatives to physical contact if they want that (“Do you want a hug, a high five, or a wave?”).

There is so much beauty in respecting our bodies, and in respecting each other. There’s a certain amazingness to owning what we have and in other people radically acknowledging that.

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5 Comments to “Consent Done Well.”

  1. Andy, as always, a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. Thanks for your continued generosity of spirit and your wisdom.

    One knee-jerk response: you say [I] “don’t get to question” some of the choices that you make. (Let’s assume I’m using “you” in the plural to refer to the T community, BTW, since I don’t know you personally.)

    Because I’m not a member of the T community, there are things about transgenderism that I will never experience first-hand—in-the-moment “which bathroom” decisions and pronoun choices being just a couple of examples. I do want very much to be a supportive ally for the T community, but the only way I can know what you want/prefer/experience is to ask.

    Radical consent IS beautiful and amazing. But consent requires inquiry. Denying me the right to ask, “do you have a preference which pronoun[s] I use when referring to you?,” or “can you help me to understand how having to make that decision makes you feel?” closes the door to some really wonderful potential for education and companioning… doesn’t it?

  2. Two things here: One, you SHOULD ask for pronouns. I’m a huge advocate of asking for pronouns and, if you read what I wrote, you’ll see that I never advocated NOT asking for pronouns.

    Second, I’m not your school teacher. I’m a person, trying to live my life, and not required to answer questions about my personal decisions unless they have a direct impact on you. Asking me why I chose one bathroom over the other is, frankly, not your problem to worry about. Asking me, “Why’d you answer your phone ‘this is she’?” makes me then have to explain who I am, and am not, out to, why I am, or am not, out to those people, and a dozen other questions that, again, really have no impact on your life.

    If there are things you absolutely don’t understand, google is an AMAZING resource. You can probably find your answer there. Or sometimes you just get to accept that you’re not going to know.

    • Fair enough.

      My personality/perspective is a bit different: When people “get all weird” about the gay thing, I always tell them to just ask. I’d rather they open the worm-can and give me a chance to say “that’s not something I’d like to talk about with you right now” than have them wandering around with stereotypes and speculations (or Wiki-whatevers of unverifiable authorship) in their heads. I guess I feel that’s one way I can contribute to reducing ignorance–but then, I’m an upper-middle-class white male, so the gay card is really the only “strike” I have against me, societally speaking. It’s less risky for me to be forthcoming than it is for many others.

      Plus, I AM a schoolteacher, so there you go. 😉

      Again, I genuinely appreciate your openness through this blog, and I appreciate the new perspective you’re giving me on empathy and communication. All the best to you.

  3. I’ve been reading your blog for a while, and while I don’t have much to say, I felt I should try. I live in a small southern US town, and the culture here is backward and antagonistic. I am only out (FtM) to one person locally. Neither of my parents know, and I suspect I can never tell my father. I never hear my preferred pronouns in public, and I never get called my preferred name unless at home. I often feel like this is never going to change, and I’ll be stuck with this label I didn’t ask for for the rest of my life. It’s very easy to lose sight of what I want to do with my life because half the time, I don’t even want to get up out of bed in the morning.
    Your posts sort of give me hope that things are changing. I forget there’s a very different political world outside rural, southern America because I so rarely leave, but this blog is a brilliant reminder of that. I wish people here were so respectful. I wish people could just be decent to each other. You seem like an amazing human being, Andy. Thank you for reminding me there are such things left in the world.
    Just some love from a stranger.

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