By Jess McDonald
I was lazily making bacon and eggs one Saturday morning, just over a month into my position at Our VOICE, when my favorite podcast planted the seed: I needed to get myself to the second annual Sex Down South (SDS) conference in Atlanta! When else was I going to have a Fellowship that would fund such an adventure and a job that would appreciate its value? I abruptly shifted gears over breakfast, diligently researching the conference and drafting a scholarship application. I excitedly texted several friends, and four days later, I received a response: I was in!
The conference sits at the intersection of two of my passions, sexuality and social justice, and is founded on a swoon-worthy set of Guiding Principles designed to honor the expansive intersectionality of community spaces like SDS. The workshops and speakers varied widely and included educators, healthcare professionals, therapists and coaches, writers and bloggers, sex workers, feminist pornographers, BDSM experts, community organizers and activists. But folks in the field of sexual violence prevention and response like myself were there, too. I left Atlanta with broadened and deepened frameworks regarding sexuality and sexual violence, greater self-awareness as an individual and an educator, new professional connections, and a renewed commitment to better serve the LGBTQIA+ community through my work at Our VOICE this year.
One of the recurring themes of my conference experience was interrogating the nuances and complexities of consent on personal, cultural, and institutional levels. At first glance, consent is straightforward: Without a clear “yes” from all parties, you don’t have it. But when we talk about consent in such simplistic terms, we do a disservice to ourselves and each other. After all, obtaining legal consent is often far from negotiating ethical, pleasure-based consent with a partner. Creating a culture of consent requires envisioning a better world and striving toward it in our own interpersonal relationships and communities. As we seek to do this, it’s key for us to have honest and thoughtful conversations about the intricacies of consent in order to better understand how to care for each other.
Here, I’ve tried to distill some big lessons and questions about consent that I’m still pondering after returning home. Special thanks to workshop presenters Emmy Johnson and Camille Zimmerman of “Does Yes Always Mean Yes?: Exploring the Nuances of Enthusiastic Consent Through the Lens of Trauma Response” and Cavanaugh Quick of “Sex Ed Without the Sex” for planting these seeds of wisdom and inquiry.
Free & Informed Consent: What would it mean to shift away from a framework of “enthusiastic consent” to one of “free and informed consent”? Such a shift recognizes the agency of asexual folks, trauma survivors, and other people who may consent to sexual activity without what we would typically define as enthusiasm. “Free” consent implies an active and sober decision, made in the absence of coercion and without threat of disproportionate consequences. (Because we don’t always know our partners’ trauma histories, it’s critical to remember that consequences can be subjective, varying widely from person to person.) “Informed” consent implies full knowledge of who, what, where, when, why, and how of any sexual activity. This includes communication about you and your partners’ triggers, what being triggered looks like for each of you, and what support is helpful in the event that someone is triggered. While new or unanticipated triggers may emerge, at least having a framework to discuss them can be helpful.
Consent Violation: Because our language is limited and we commonly fail to state our assumptions, miscommunication about boundaries is more common than we often admit. Sex is an inherently vulnerable thing, and people can get hurt despite our best intentions. What if we acknowledged that we are all capable of consent violations? What if we created space to ask our partners about moments when we may have crossed boundaries without realizing it? In these exchanges of honest feedback, it’s important to practice radical accountability: Listen, don’t get defensive, apologize, communicate, and be open to change.
Giving vs. Receiving Consent: What if instead of focusing on who has the agency to give consent, we reframed the conversation to consider who has the agency to receive consent? This reframing has the potential to shift conversations about statutory rape, defined according to North Carolina law as a sexual act involving someone who is 13-15 and someone who is four or more years older than them, away from victim blaming and toward accountability for perpetrators.
Interpersonal & Systemic Power Dynamics: How do power dynamics at systemic levels inform our personal interactions, including conversations about consent? How does racism show up in the relationships and sex lives of people of color partnering with white people? Cissexism between cisgender and transgender partners? Misogyny between masculine and femme partners? Ableism between disabled and abled partners? Classism between poor and wealthy partners? And so on. How do we hold histories of trauma and violence in our intimate relationships? How do the ways we’ve been socialized show up in our communication styles, self-image, and desires? How do we balance awareness of these oppressive power dynamics while also striving to create cultures where we all feel empowered to practice consent and fulfill our desires?
Racialized Views of Age & Innocence: Research shows that White people view Black children as older and less innocent than their White peers. For instance, one study reports, “Black 13-year-olds were miscategorized as adults by police officers (average age error 4.59 years).” We know that this has lethal consequences for Black children like Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was shot by police in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2014. What consequences might these same racist attitudes have when it comes to Black children and sexual violence? How are prevention education efforts taking implicit biases into account?
These are just a few of the ideas and urgent questions that SDS 2016 raised for me. The conference was not only a reminder of how much work there is to be done but also a testament to the value in pausing to acknowledge and (re)consider the frameworks and assumptions within which we operate. In the year ahead of me as a Tzedek fellow, I hope to use these questions and others that arise as a guideposts for the journey ahead of me. I know, for instance, that these concepts will deepen my conversations with college students, many of whom have become well-versed in how they are “supposed” to respond around topics of sexual assault. (I’m thinking of a recent training with fraternity men at the moment.) By inviting groups to consider the nuances and complexities of consent, we can have more realistic conversations about how these issues play out in their own lives, and asking questions becomes less taboo. The urgency of doing so can’t be overstated.
Jess McDonald (they/them/their) is an educator from North Carolina with a passion for working with youth in the South around issues of power, privilege, and oppression. They hold a Masters of Education in Social Justice Education with a focus on intergroup dialogue from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. They currently reside in Asheville, NC, where they are a Tzedek Social Justice Fellow working at Our VOICE, Buncombe County’s rape crisis and prevention center. Jess believes that social justice education is a key component of creating a world with healthy relationships that are free from violence.