We Need to Do a Better Job Talking About Consent in the Queer Community

by | August 22, 2015
filed under LGBT, My Reality


When I volunteered on a rape crisis line I would occasionally get calls from women who had been assaulted by other women. During training, it was presented like a test, and of course the answer was that we were to treat it like any other call. Consent is either given or not, and the gender of either person doesn’t change that.

At the time, I was a heteroflexible cis woman, and hadn’t been in many queer spaces, so this seemed like common sense. Having run the gamut of identities and landed on “queer trans man” since, I revisit this sentiment with the sort of appreciation you have coming back to something simple after having been somewhere much more complex, the way a guy I once dated would spend hours picking apart classical piano pieces before blissing out on Happy Birthday.

The narrative we hold about sexual assault is steeped in gender roles, and it’s easy to lose track of things when those roles get murky or discarded altogether. I know that, having rationalized plenty of boundary-pushing moments by other queers. And I keep coming back to the old party line: consent is freely given. Consent is enthusiastic. Lack of a “no” does not equal a “yes.”

A few years after I retired from the crisis line (and all women-only spaces), I stayed home with a friend one night instead of going to the bar for a dyke party.  My friend, who is femme presenting, just couldn’t do it anymore. She’d had enough of predatory masculine-of-center people grabbing her, grinding on her, and not backing off when told to or just ignored. One went as far as to tell her to lighten up, we’re both women here. My friend, who dates mostly men, felt safer in straight bars, where there would at least be support from bouncers when the men got aggressive.

As I write this, I feel like I’m betraying my own. We spend so much time and energy trying to convince the straight world that we have things figured out – so when I criticize our communities, I wince a little and hope the straight people aren’t reading. But, queer people, we need to talk. As queer people we hold tightly on to the idea of safe space. It’s very likely that we’ve never experienced one. So when we show up at our queer communities and are welcomed and offered safety, it’s hard to admit when there’s a problem.

But the silence isn’t helping us.

The reason consent feels murky in queer worlds in because of how we’re trained to see our sexuality in relation to our gender. Women can’t be aggressive and certainly can’t rape. Men always want sex, and so can’t be raped. I’m a person who either passes or doesn’t based on a million subtle rules, like the neckline of my shirt, so when I leave my apartment I can expect to fall into either category. It’s fair to say that some days I can expect to be forgiven for grabbing someone at a drag show, and other days I can expect to get thrown out – which is to say that those gendered stereotypes are bullshit.

It’s no coincidence that my friend felt her boundaries violated at a bar. The overlap between queer culture and intoxication culture is a complicated mess which brings into play our history of using bars as sites of resistance, because, like many oppressed groups, when we were forced into a corner we found each other there. There persists a culture of partying around queer communities which blends radical joy with a brand of self-destruction. We don’t go there to talk. And we tend to leave our policy of enthusiastic, sober consent at the door.

Along with entangling resistance with intoxication culture, we have a way of conflating resistance with sex. When I have sex with another queer person it feels like a push back against every homophobe I’ve ever met. This is one place things get murky – on the one hand, the alignment of politics and sexuality is powerful and freeing. On the other, that is a lot of pressure to put on sex and is a quick way to objectify each other, tokenizing other queer people as walking canvasses for our expression and resistance. There is a reason the queer community is so sexualized, and it is not that we have higher libidos than straight people. It is that sex to us is a lot more than sex – it’s the chance to be unrepentant, unapologetic queers.

I’m afraid of seeing the queer community fall into the same trap feminism did following the sexual revolution. Once it became more okay to have sex, it quickly became an expectation, and the virgin/whore dichotomy was born. Suddenly there was no right way for a women to be sexual, short of walking a tightrope between stuck-up prude and slut. I remember not feeling liberated enough unless I was my partner’s nympho dreamgirl, when “sex positive” meant “sex always.” Nowadays, I often don’t feel queer enough unless I’m up for anything. When we equate freedom with sex, “queer” becomes a moving goalpost and, as in feminism, trying to reach our politics through sex serves only to further confuse our motives and blur the lines of consent.

There are many moments, especially as Pride season comes and goes, when I feel like to be in queer spaces, I am de facto consenting to being sexualized by other queers. The combination of intoxication culture and our hyper sexualizing, mixed with the defensive silence around queer-on-queer boundaries, is a consent disaster waiting to happen.

And there it is, happening. Again and again. For myself, I’ve drawn up a few timid rules: I try not to have sex with a partner when they’re intoxicated, but I’ve screwed up more than a few times when I’m intoxicated myself. I thoroughly check in with myself before trying new things, to make sure it’s something I really want and not just what queer culture tells me I should – even when it costs me opportunities.

The part I get stuck on is calling out sexual aggression when I see it. It’s hard to step up and tell a woman she needs to back off, especially when I’m passing as a man – I feel like another voice pushing her back into the closet. Likewise, it’s hard to tell my friends to stop coming on to me when they are poly and mean to include me in something important – I feel like I’m normalizing monogamy even further. But I bear in mind that queer people care passionately about consent, and I remember that we can do better.

Is it naïve of me to expect the queer community to perfect consent? Maybe. But I still believe we can.

Photo of nightclub interior by David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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