Coming Up Next for Coronavirus and Consent

Image by Simon Gradkowski
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As artists, venues and producers scramble to find new ways to make and monetize, now that every creative medium is compromised by restrictions on how we create and consume, an eye in the back of our heads is best used to keep track of the last crisis to strike our industry: #MeToo. For while the “hands-off” approach is being taken in good humour, we’ve got to prepare for the long-term impacts of social distancing on a community defined by its intimacies.

I work in a relatively niche area. I teach sexual violence prevention to creative people. This involves opening discussions about consent processes, gender and sexual diversity, mental health promotion, and accessibility for people living with disability. I love my job, whenever I get to do it, because I’ve seen teams become more conscious of each other, more secure with their audiences, and stronger creative voices in the making of successful work. And then, at a stroke, every plan I had fell through my hands, every place I would go closed its doors, and nearly every single person I knew lost their job. Now that I’ve flown back to Australia on recommendation from my government, I’ve been asked if coronavirus has destroyed my career.

Yes and no.

In the past weeks there has been a remarkable change to the way people consider each other’s personal boundaries in the arts. Reports are flying of collaborators asking before touching and hugging, communicating clearly and checking in on interpretations of body language and facial expressions, and using the word ‘consent’ in a positive, productive context. Initiatives that were once repelled by sinister motives masquerading as “creative freedoms” and “sense of play” are now unquestionable adaptations to process. 

While it is a shame that the rate of sexual assault and harassment wasn’t enough to compel people to this kind of reinvention, there’s definitely a silver lining to what coronavirus has instigated, especially the level of care we have for our fellow creative community. 

In this forced down time, organisations and practitioners would be well-advised to reconsider their policies on sexual violence to make these more practical, to make any practices more vigilant, and to make all strategies preventative rather than reactive. 

What continues to concern me, is that at some stage this virus will become manageable, will be contained, and we will be able to re-explore the role of proximity, interactivity and even sexuality in our artistic work. At whatever point we do regain momentum, there is undeniable risk of increased risk of sexual harassment and sexual violence once a mass of confined people once accustomed to opening night parties, closing night japes, shared dressing spaces and reduced personal boundaries are unleashed into one another’s company again. 

There is potential for the sector to go backwards in the safety of its workers. Intimacy directors may become nice-to-haves as budgets tighten dramatically. Many projects will be forgotten in favour of surer sells that appeal to old hierarchies. To boot, the rapid evaporation of creative work due to virus-related lockdowns will likely mean that desire and desperation for work will drive people – as it has always done – to bow to pressure to contribute sexual favours for the (often empty) promise of work; my concerns increase.

Film, particularly television, and gaming production seems likely to skyrocket as these mediums are what will be easiest to consume in an ever-increasing season of isolation, quarantine and escapism. Video games are notoriously harmful environments when it comes to consent and inclusion, whilst television is taking steps to make safer sexual content, with commitments from Netflix and HBO to have intimacy coordinators on all productions. 

These mediums can take the lead from work being done in some immersive theatre productions to train teams on collaborative codes of conduct and consent processes, mental health first aid, sexual and gender diversity, bystander intervention practices and harassment response strategies. Invest time at the head of a project schedule to ensure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet – further, that they contributed to the writing of the hymn sheet itself.  

People around the world have turned to artistic expression as a means to get by through balcony karaoke, live-stream listening parties, movie nights via webinar and the list goes on. The artistic and creative industries can lead the way in ensuring society does not go back to business as usual. Rather, that we rebuild eco-friendly, consent-conscious, community-focused, diverse industries to face the challenges ahead.

That’s it. That’s what I think. That’s what I hope for.

the gift of ‘no’

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The most common question I get when I tell people about my work on Consent in the Creative Industries?

“Does this mean I can’t just hug someone without having to ask?”

No sooner is the question out of their mouths that they realise what the answer is, and try to justify themselves: “I’m a really tactile person”, “I think we should all be free of boundaries”, “I don’t have bad intentions”. Sure, but tell me which of those statements respects the other person’s right to choose?

It is the one thing I am questioned the most about, and also the one thing I am thanked the most for. People who are introverts, people who are trauma survivors, people who live with synesthesia, people who live with non-visible disabilities impacted by touch, people who are just having a bad day, people who have somewhere else to be – tell me that being asked for a hug, saying no, and being met with a smile and an ‘all good’ has mattered to them and how they go about their days.

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Whenever I do a workshop or a talk with a creative team, I find the most powerful point is when I talk about hugging. It’s always an awkward topic to start with, because as people we don’t want to overthink about the politics of touching each other. Especially in the creative world, where we’re encouraged not to have any physical boundaries or prudence in our approach. It’s uncomfortable. But then I make the following point, and I see people’s minds change:

When someone says “no”, try to understand that what they’re effectively saying is, “I trust you”. When someone says “no”, they’re declaring a boundary, and communicating that they have faith and hope that you won’t cross it. When someone says ‘no’ after you ask them to consent to something, they are offering you a powerful opportunity to establish mutuality and openness, to grow a stronger relationship.

For some people, setting boundaries can be incredibly scary and vulnerable. Which is why the more someone’s “no” is ignored, disregarded, violated? The more urgent, insistent and aggressive their “no” can become. Which is why when that ‘no’ is respected, without any questions asked, it can be incredibly powerful, even overwhelming.

We don’t like to be told “no”. We don’t like to feel rejected, or diminished, or prevented from having what we want. Any performer who has done improvisation will know that the number one rule is that no matter what, you say “yes” – to any idea, any suggestion, any impulse. It’s a difficult habit to break, and often one we won’t question until something traumatises or terrorises us so that we become afraid to say “no”. Until we come to feel as though ‘no’ is not available to us.

Our feelings of rejection are our own responsibility, and they are far less important than another person feeling safe, heard and respected. So before hugging someone, especially someone you haven’t hugged before, prove that you can navigate a boundary, and that however that boundary is set – with ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘sure’, ‘not yet’, ‘only on my left side please’ – that you’re willing and trustworthy.

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Sure there are exceptions to the ‘no is a gift’ concept. Someone asking someone else to do something together, and they say ‘no’ is one thing; someone asking something to stop doing something that is making them unsafe, or putting other people at risk, and they say ‘no’ is quite another. Broadly, our relationship with ‘no’ needs to change: that we stop seeing ‘no’ as negative, and start seeing it as productive.

I’m also not saying that it has to be every time that you ask (although, why not? People’s boundaries can change quick as lightning). I’m also not saying that asking needs to be verbal every time. You build the relationship where the consent in glances, and body languages, and asking, and checking in. And if you’re worried about saying ‘no’ and potentially making someone feel uncomfortable remember there are many ways of saying ‘no’. ‘Nah’, ‘not right now’, ‘I’m alright, thanks’, ‘sorry I’m not feeling it’, ‘I love you but nope’ are all things we should be comfortable saying and hearing.

I recently was part of a project where there was a great deal of ‘yes’ in decisions, where more questions should have been asked; more ‘no’ could have improved the rate of success and teammate-ship. In these working conversations it doesn’t have to be ‘no’ either: it can be ‘yes, but like this’, or ‘not for me’, or ‘there’s a different way I think that can work’, or ‘how about we try…’. One of the big reasons we avoid diversity in leadership is because we want the speed that ‘yes’ can provide, more than we want the quality that ‘no’ can promote.

‘No’ is the key to compromise. ‘No’ is the cry of self-empowerment. ‘No’ is a verbal leap of faith.

no thank you

 

 

consent IS about you. and the Spice Girls.

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this article comes with a trigger warning for discussing sexual violence.

The last time I was ever on Grindr, I got this message:
“I’d love to rape ur penis with my arse”
I responded “As someone who has been raped, I really hate people using that word so casually”
Then I got blocked. Then I deleted the app. Then I had a cup of tea.

Consent is a topic I find unites many people when they are willing to engage in conversation around it, but typically makes men uncomfortable. That may be in some part, speaking recently, due to #MeToo and #TimesUp giving voice to women who have experienced sexually harassing and traumatic events in what appears to be endemic proportions. Even before these movements though, discussions of sexual assault or rape perpetuated a pattern of women who can’t defend themselves against men who can’t control themselves. Mainstream media narratives, unforgivably lenient sentencing, and the current presidency of the United States of America have cemented this stereotype around the world. Where great strides have been made, backlash has brokered back ground, and outside of heteronormative discourse, silence continues to dominate and dismiss victims. Not only gay men and women, but also trans people, people born intersex, prisoners, trafficked people, recipients of foreign aid, single-sex private school children and many more examples outside those we hear most about.

Speaking into my own primary community of gay males, who are often thought of synonymously with promiscuity, I’ve found there is still much to learn and myths to be busted about how we approach sex in a respectful and safe way. So I’m going to attempt imparting wisdom with the help one of the world’s universal languages: the Spice Girls.

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Consent isn’t sexy
You know what they say about throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Don’t. What I find most people mean by this is that having to instruct or talk someone through sex, isn’t sexy. I can appreciate most people want to enjoy sex the way they’ve been brainwashed to enjoy it: post-verbal passionate pornographic moaning & groaning where each person is perfectly attuned to the others’ wants and needs, hits their G-spot on the first go and ejaculates within enough time to get sweaty, but not odorous. Now with someone you’ve slept with many times, built trust between and created an instinctive communication around? Sure that’s a reasonable expectation. But a guy you’ve only met once or twice, haven’t ever seen in full light, who you’re not even sure speaks English as a first language? It’s not fair to expect that person to know instinctively and intimately how to satisfy you without communicating.

Consent during sex isn’t as complicated as we’d like to believe; being caught up in our own enjoyment or nervousness during sex can make us less able to notice or interpret the other person’s signals, and being afraid of rejection can make us unsure of how to communicate during sex.

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You only need consent for penetrative sex
Once on another gay dating app, someone I’d been talking with for a while asked me to come over for some shared nudity with casual intimacy and I made the decision to ask “are you healthy?”
This is an insufficient question. He provided an insufficient response: “I’m on PrEP”
I said that PrEP only covered him for HIV, asked when was he last tested for any other STIs and let him know I would still prefer to use a condom.
He never replied. I felt bad for not waiting to have the conversation in person. Then I had a cup of tea.

Something I didn’t know about consent when I had my first sexual experience (aside from everything because they don’t talk about that stuff in Sex Ed), was that it only applies to the situation you believe you’re in. For example, ghosting, the practice of putting a condom on to gain consent to engage in penetrative sex then removing before actually penetrating, is rape. Plain and simple. Similarly, having sex with someone whom you have told you’re sober when in fact you’re on drugs voids their consent, as does saying you’ll use lubricant but not using it in case you lose your hard-on. There’s this attitude that you only need to put a condom on at the point of insertion. There’s also an attitude that you only need to put a condom on as an alternative to pulling out. There’s an assumption that saying yes once covers you for whatever happens in the next four hours. It doesn’t.

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Isn’t consent implied if he sticks around?
An Australian Football player made waves back in 2010 with the statement “When will you learn! [sic] At 3am when you are blind drunk & you decide to go home with a guy ITS [sic] NOT FOR A CUP OF MILO!”. There’s this idea, particularly among men, that the key to absolution from any compassion or consideration of another person’s engagement in intimacy is that they can put their hands up between you, say “Stop! I don’t like it!” as they were taught to back in kindergarten and then everyone will part ways as friends. The truth is that pretty much all of us would like to feel like we have the power and the right to do as Amber Rose saidIf I’m laying down with a man, butt naked, and is his condom is on, and I say ‘you know what, no I don’t wanna do this. I changed my mind’, that means no. It doesn’t matter how far I take it or what I have on. When I say no, it means no”. I’d even go a step further to if I say “ouch”, or “wait”, or “gently”, or “try this”, I should be able to expect any of those things to ensure you check in on me, and care about my response, and respect my enjoyment as much as your own without judgement.

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Someone on twitter made a comment that there’s a spectrum of behaviour, and that being catcalled, being groped and being raped are very different things in terms of how consent works. My response to that was that consent is like a joke, if no-one is laughing, it’s not a joke. It’s only consent if everyone is on board. If you feel taken advantage of, or coerced or traumatised, that’s valid and real. Then I wrote this blog. Then I had a cup of tea.


(this blog was not authorised by the Spice Girls)
Another great read on this topic ‘The But of Butts’.
take a peek at Project Consent for more information.
I talk plenty about consent in BURLESQUE BY FORCE which is showing in Adelaide Fringe Festival February 24-27. Tickets available here.

 

make something with it.

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you know what it is.
because you carry it everywhere.
and every time something happens that causes you stress or angst, you look over your shoulder dead into its frank eyes and say “yeah, I know”.
you may think of it as “just who I am” or “I’m a bit like that”.
people may talk about it like “you’ll be alright” or “hang in there”.
you eat it to excess.
you lash it over your back.
you use it for sex.
you might sharpen it up to cut with.
you’ve painted a picture of it on all your mirrors.
you let it excuse you from life.
you hate it.
you need it.

some readers will be aware of the book that saved my life. I must have ordered and given away to friends about ten copies by now. If you’ve got pain, and you don’t know how to look at it differently, or do anything with it, but you don’t want it in its current form anymore then read this book. It’s called This is How by Augusten Burroughs.

I read the book, recommended by an old mentor, back in February 2016 when I went to check my hope balance in my app and discovered I was bankrupt. Hoperupt. Whatever.

That same year I went into massive hope debt, and not that I made much song and dance on the internet about how bad things got, but the experience of romance-failure-long-distance-friendships-familial-collapse-professional-overwork-creative-impotence-financial-hardship-haven’t-eaten-three-meals-in-a-day-in-possibly-three-weeks created a serious collapse that I feel very vulnerable, but not ashamed, to share. In the midst of a doctor-ordered week off I made some choices. One of which was to take all the hell and fashion it into the one thing I could still count on to pull me together: theatre.

so I wrote a thing. and then I let other people read it. some of the bleakest and most fraught thoughts I’ve ever had about life, and myself. things that could compromise the way people know me, the way they relate to me. and they gave me advice. and I listened. and I had patience. and I rewrote. again. again. and again. I invited other minds into my madness and their creative flows were like balm. unimaginable change to pain I once thought insurmountable, suddenly was pink and clean and pliable. someone I look up to shared a message to just book the venue and make it happen. so I did. so here we are.

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Burlesque by Force is on in Feast Festival in my hometown of Adelaide this coming November. It’s a one-man show, self-penned and autobiographical, crafted with the support of director Marissa Bennett and designer Stephen Moylan, under whose transformative powers I truly believe this will be something fantastic to share. I’m unashamedly nervous and excited.

The show was based on the idea that when it comes to storytelling, imbuing sexuality becomes treacherous ground for those who’ve experienced sexual trauma, whose consent has been exposed to them for its fragility. This work is a subversion of that burlesque idea, where it’s not about the tease, it’s about the time it takes to step onto a stage and reveal yourself; and not to allure, but to connect.

There is more to say. But for now all I can ask is that you save the date, buy a ticket now if you’re keen, and spread the word.

Big love.
B.

NB. If you’re a Melburnite wanting to see the show, tickets are also on sale for the Melbourne season next February at Butterfly Club.