Consent. We have a problem with the way we publicly engage, explore and discuss it. Our public conversations are usually sparked by headlines about a high profile celebrity being accused of sexual assault or rape. That frame triggers cyclical exchanges – some of which constitute emotional violence -and reharm some survivors of sexual assault and rape and their too often silenced voices. Social media is both a blunt instrument and beautiful connection. The back and forth where some defend and others accuse, where FB threads can get long and loud remind us how much our public conversation circles and cycles. It can feel like an economy of violence. We need a new approach to public conversations on consent. We need to unlearn some of what we have been taught that is rooted in toxic masculinity.
That’s why today I am launching #theCONSENTconvo: a public loving, unlearning and reframing conversation series on consent. It takes place throughout October via my radio podcast The Spin, Emotional Justice and in partnership with EBONY.com. Women and men will explore how they personally learned about consent, from whom, what was taught and how that learning shaped their relationship to their body, sex, power and society. We explore how masculinity and femininity, desire, threat and fear inform our understanding of consent. My aim is to shift our lens when it comes to public conversations on consent.
Nate Parker’s 1999 rape case when he was a student-athlete at Penn State University and the release of his upcoming film The Birth of a Nation makes him the latest celebrity to bring the issue into the glare of headlines and hardlines. Parker’s series of comments, interviews and FB statuses have prompted think pieces and public discussions about his understanding of consent. On these very pages, Parker told EBONY.com’s Britni Danielle that at 19 he does not remember ever having a conversation about consent.
Parker reminds me that toxic masculinity is blunt force trauma when dealing with the spectrum of emotions on consent, regret, guilt, harm, concession, sensitivity and responsibility. Parker’s rape case occurred on college campus, and research shows college-aged women and men are subject to a high risk of sexual violence. The issue is bigger than Parker. It is about all of us.
We have a politics of consent. We articulate clearly and loudly that yes means yes and no means no. We do not have a practice. We don’t have enough language, or safe space to interrogate what consent means for us. We need that. We need to unpack, explore and engage in practical discussions on what consent means for how we live, love and engage with ourselves and each other. Our politics may be absolute, our emotionality is not. It is the latter that informs how we negotiate our bodies, our lovers, our sex lives. So, that process requires loving attention.
#theCONSENTconvo starts today. Our contributors for this launch conversation are Joan Morgan, veteran cultural critic and author of the critically acclaimed When Chickenheads come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks it Down; and asha bandele, an award winning journalist and editor, an author and National CARES Director of Communications.
When it comes to how she was taught about consent, bandele recalls: “As I think back to little asha, I don’t think I ever heard the word Consent used. I was told by my mother to value my body, but my mother was one voice in a cacophony of so many others that were telling me I didn’t have value. What I learned was that I wanted to be accepted, I wanted to be seen as beautiful so I lived with a lot of guilt for a long time because I felt like I gave consent as a way to not be an outsider, but it wasn’t really consent. That scarred me for a very long time.”
Joan Morgan says: “To be able to articulate not wanting to have sex, or what you like or what your desires are is a long difficult process for women, and there are very few places to get support. Because we make that so difficult, when we find ourselves in situations where the sex feels coercive, ‘I don’t really want to, I don’t want to lose him so I’ll go along with this’ – that is coercive – and he thinks he has your consent. We need to stop conflating consent with coercion”.
Let’s publicly talk consent and the revolutionary love of finding pleasure in seeking permission.
Listen to the full conversation with Joan Morgan and asha bandele below.