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Ask: Building Consent Culture Paperback – October 27, 2017
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The way that consent is approached in this book is revolutionary. Instead of looking at consent as a legal barrier delineating crime from acceptable behavior, the essays explore how consent permeates every aspect of our lives, and how violations of consent, regardless of legality, cause harm. The variety of perspectives is extremely broad, and I am certain that every single reader will find some point of view they weren't already familiar with.
The nuances of consent explored in this book are something that every single person should be thinking about, talking about, and adjusting their behavior so that we can live in a culture of safety and consent.
None of the essays were about consent as an abstract, ethical, concept. All of them were first person descriptions of consent in specific contexts. One was about teaching consent to students in schools, and another was about consent about such things as children hugging aunt sally or uncle jack in a family context. The author of that one did raise some interesting issues, but they weren't much followed up. Most of the rest were about consent in specifically sexual contexts, some conventional and some not. What disappointed me most about the whole collection was its failure to explore the implications of socio-cultural context and history. A few essays mentioned that these were factors to consider, but didn't do much considering of them.
All in all here this is a statement-after-statement of a single (albeit reasonable) point of view. It is mostly reasonable to ask that one's personal boundaries concerning physical contact of any kind, not merely sexual, be respected. But there are grey areas in life. Like most people I have a "personal space" I like to maintain when surrounded (especially) by strangers. I wouldn't have had much work in my life if I refused to shake hands. This is a trivial example of course but it has implications in other contexts that are ignored in this book.
Consent is a hot topic these days (see pussy-grabber). Yet in spite of the massive amount of information, I have still had a difficult time understanding what active consent and communication even look like. Then came the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, Godemiche-Gate, and this amazing book.
Kitty Stryker, The Most Dangerous Liaison and member of the NorCal Degenderettes, a genderqueer feminist art collective, is an authority on consent culture. So much so that Kitty edited a radical book about it that includes diverse voices on the topic. Outspoken and unapologetic, Kitty is a voice against the patriarchy, speaking out on feminism, sex work, body positivity, queer politics, and other topics. Kitty is also a voice in Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love & Fashion and Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chickenhawks: Professionals & Their Clients Writing about Each Other. Kitty, a sex worker who thinks sex workers have good marriage advice, has a wife, boyfriend, and two cats named Foucault and Nietzsche, who perhaps join Kitty for vulva cupcakes and films at the Ladies High Tea and Pornography Society.
Kitty has edited a book that provides a unique conversation on consent by discussing it as it relates to sex, law, society, government, mental health, cosplay, and other areas. Ask does not deliver its message with a gentle approach; it is in your face, it is radical, political, it tears down the culture in order to rebuild it. Ask is in your face, and it is exactly what we need.
In a conscious effort to include diversity, Kitty first approached oft-ignored non-white and non-cisgender people about contributing to the book. This allows for outstanding variety in the voices and stories provided to the readers, and makes Ask all the more powerful. This book is also very, very aware of the associations of certain words, as well as individual interpretations of those words. When using terms such as consent, power, and honor, time is taken by the authors to recognize the associations with these words, and to define them as they pertain to the work.
The essays are organized by topic, addressing consent in various places that make up society. There’s the bedroom, where we hear from JoEllen Notte on mental health and the power dynamics of relying on others to care for you. The bedroom also introduces us to consent and the law, and an excellent definition of rape culture from the Marshall University Women’s Center:
“Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety” (pg. 26).
The second section discusses consent in the school, including empowerment through bystander intervention rather than anti-rape initiatives, and asking questions as a form of harassment and power play. The following section on the jail explores a theme of informed consent, including ensuring comprehension of the Miranda warning. “A yes-or-no question simply isn’t sufficient to ensure comprehension of complicated processes
and rights” (pg. 66).
Next is consent in the workplace, discussing sexual harassment as well as piracy. Readers are taught that audience performance does not equal consent, and that while sexual relationships are an important area of discussion, “any relationship can be a problem” (pg. 88). In the home, we learn about the essential non-consensual relationship, family. The family involves coercion and pushing boundaries, as well as security and support, and explores the idea of pre-consent. In the hospital, we visit the beginning of the family with pregnancy, and the lack of asking permission to touch a child, whether in utero or otherwise.
The final section discusses the community, including consent in live action role play and sex parties. The community involves more consideration of nonverbal cues, and the idea that people are often afraid to say ‘no,’ stating that “it’s better to confirm consent than it is to violate a boundary in your presumption” (pg. 166). The community also introduces an essay of neuroatypicals, written by an author who is on the autism spectrum. This essay examines the problematic belief in the asexual atypical, and the severe lack of sex education for those who we tend of think of as not capable of sexual relationships.
One of my favorite essays in Ask is written by a person who grew up in an abusive family, and who then began to abuse those who loved him. He “tried to undo the effects of [his] abuse by using [his] power against others” (pg. 45). He states “I would never be powerless again” (pg. 45). He eventually realizes the error of his ways, and goes on to write this essay, which I enjoyed because the writer was very real and very honest. He experiences all the aspects of the exploration of power derived from toxic masculinity, as speaks from perspectives as both the powerless and powerful. “Power does not exist by itself, nor is it self-generating … and power is not one-sided. There is always someone on the receiving end” (pg. 43).
There were a few essays that missed the mark for me, one of which was too heavy in academic language, and another involving wrestlers that seemed to jump around. However, Ask is a powerful, radical, and excellent book for those who come from many walks of life, as well as those who have trouble seeing what all goes into the topic of consent.
Top international reviews
The only small bummer about this book is that many of the essays raise questions without also offering imaginings of how things might be different, so a few of the contributions had me wondering, okay - but what now?
Overall though, this is a necessary book on a necessary topic, and I'm grateful to everyone who contributed to this work.