This is day fourteen of the Blogging “Yes” project, and today I decided to read two essays back-to-back because they have a common theme. One was “Reclaiming Touch: Rape Culture, Explicit Verbal Consent, and Body Sovereignty,” by trans feminist activist Hazel/Cedar Troost. The other was “An Immodest Proposal” by Heather Corinna, the founder of Scarleteen.com. I picked these two essays to blog together because they both carry the idea of enthusiastic consent out to a not-yet-commonly-realized conclusion and consider what a world with normalized enthusiastic consent might look like.
I’m not going to quote from Corinna’s essay here, because I really think you have to read the whole thing. It was the most memorable essay in the book for me the first time around, because reading the story Corinna sets out at the beginning of the piece, about a fairly standard heterosexual “first time,” and then reading her comments about what’s wrong with that story, and how it could be better, really hit me. My first time was somewhat similar, though without the “doing other things before intercourse” part, and I did read the girl in the story as lucky to have such a good first time. When my college friends who were virgins started having sex, I gave them all the requisite warnings about pain, bleeding, awkardness, erections that don’t maintain themselves, sore throats from blowjobs, etc. Corinna imagines a world where this isn’t necessary, and I urge you to read the essay. Though I still think her idea of desire is a bit fairytale, I love the overall message.
Troost also writes about an idea that’s a bit foreign to the contemporary reader, but I think pretty awesome, called Explicit Verbal Consent (EVC). In other words, you get consent for everything, whether it’s a hug or a pat on the back, whether a friend or a sexual partner. Again, we’re back to that theme of people being expected to “know” what a partner wants through non-verbal cues:
Explicit verbal consent inverts the hegemonic straight paradigm–straight culture asks initiators (men) to know when their partners (women) will be willing, and to never ask but merely wait until they “know.” But I see refusal as an integral part of being sexual with a person whose desires I cannot know. In fact, refusal creates comfort and is necessary for it–and so I ask for things I don’t think I’m going to get. I’ve been amazed at how many times I’ve been wrong. I think that creating a space where no answer is expected–where it is clear that there is no slippery slope between hands on your tits and hands in your pants–makes folks happy to do things they wouldn’t do if they had to be on their guard.
This is an amazing point. Though at first I thought the EVC idea was a little weird, especially in a non-sexual context, I love the idea of “no” being normalized so that there’s no expectation, and no obligation to say yes. It’s okay to be okay with one type of touch, but not another. Troost points out that it’s a little weird when people strongly object to EVC, because they’re saying no, you don’t have control over your body, I don’t like that, or “I should be entitled to touch you.”
Another great point in this essay is that focusing in this way on ownership of one’s own body, and autonomy in this arena, is a more inclusive way to approach activism. Instead of focusing on sites of oppression that may be called intersectional but necessarily focus primarily on the needs of a certain group, focusing on the body brings everyone together, because everyone wants control over their own bodies. Troost points out that we lose ownership of and control over our own bodies when others assume that touch is allowed, usually going by the model of a “map.” If you think about it, this map concept is all over what we’re taught about sexuality. The idea is that if you consent to one kind of touch, another is okay. Consent isn’t based on time or one’s own experience of one’s own body. It’s the idea that if you allow kissing, then hugging must okay. If you allow touching the breasts, then kissing must okay. If below the belt is fine, so must be above the belt. And if you consent once, consent is assumed until revoked from then on. This ignores the way we experience our own bodies, and it doesn’t allow us to decide for ourselves what’s comfortable and not. I immediately thought about boys in the college dorms who assume that a backrub or a stroke of the hair is wanted, and just “friendly.” Maybe it’s just my hair, but I react strongly to such a touch, and it feels intimate. Similarly, my breasts may be above my belt but adolescent experiences of harassment make them a sensitive zone, and I should be able to say yes or no at will, and also “not today.” I think it would be interesting to try the EVC model for a week, and see what happens.