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.

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.

compromisation

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.