The assumption that we understand all there is to know about consent underestimates just how impactful, meaningful and information-packed a single concept can be. In a sexual context, we generally understand consent through its succinct, but over-simplified, definition: an agreement between two (or more) participants to engage in sexual activity.
Of course, this definition is correct, however, consent is much more multi-dimensional than a single agreement.
Just when I thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know about consent, I was invited to a Respect.Now.Always panel on the very subject. The panel, ‘Uncensored: Exploring the Edges of Sex,’ featured: Kim Cumms, a porn actress and erotic filmmaker, Mistress Tokyo, a professional dominatrix, and Professor Alan McKee, a professor in the UTS Arts and Social Sciences faculty. I mean, if you want to learn more about a subject, who better to learn from than professionals who teach and practice it on a regular basis? I was invited to a subsequent interview with Kim Cumms and Mistress Tokyo to ask the attendees’ most popular questions, and was not disappointed in the amounts of interesting and important information that I was able to take away.
Defining consent. Consent in the context of alcohol. Non-verbal consent. The experiences of sex-workers in a professional and personal environment. These topics and many more were explored during the night. So, I present to you my takeaway from the ‘Uncensored’ panel. Also, did I mention that free ice-cream was given out to attendees? What a night
#What is Consent?
Consent is more than a verbal agreement. As Mistress Tokyo put it, “consent is saying yes with your body and with your heart.” While some may say ‘yes’ to being a willing participant in any act, paying attention to their body language is still pivotal. If a person’s body language is signalling a sense of hesitance and they do not physically appear to be sure of doing something, it’s important to stop and touch base. During the opening discussions, Kim Cumms added, “‘Yes’ does not mean free reach.” In this sense, when someone verbally consents to doing one act, it does not necessarily mean they will consent to another. Consent involves giving a definitive ‘yes’ to any new act. It is imperative that consent is granted verbally, through heart and body, throughout the entire course of a sexual encounter.
‘I’m not sure’ does not equal yes. In other words, a lack of ‘no’ does not mean ‘yes’. In order for our sexual encounters to be as enjoyable as possible for each participant, consent is absolutely crucial. Figuring out what your partner(s) would like to do, or not like to do, is just as important.
When exploring consent, there are many questions that you can ask to assure that you’re finding out, to the fullest extent, what you can and can’t do. You may ask, ‘What do you feel like doing?’ Or, ‘I don’t understand what you want, do you?’ Hearing things like, ‘Does this work?’, and ‘Is this good for you?’ are just as helpful too. Consent is not only an affirmative indication of what one may want. Consent is a conversation that should happen not just at the beginning of a sexual encounter, but throughout.
It’s assumed that asking for or giving explicit consent at the beginning, or throughout, a sexual encounter can ruin the mood. Fear not, this is far from the truth. Nothing is sexier than knowing your partner is openly, and willingly, enjoying a shared experience. In fact, the panellists spoke about how hearing a ‘no’ from your partner(s) is not only informative, but a turn on! Understanding the dislikes of your partner(s) shapes and develops your own understanding of their desires. Through this, you can be more in tune with what people are happy to do, and you’ll figure out what you have in common. So, no. Giving consent is not, and should never feel awkward.
Professor Alan McKee recommended a very useful quiz, titled ‘Yes/No/Maybe’, for partners who want to figure out what they’re mutually open to and happy to do. The survey is only a Google search away, check it out and give it a try!
Whether you’re in a new relationship, or a long-term established one, consent should never stop being considered. Even though you’ve known someone for a while, boundaries do change! What someone may have liked two weeks ago, may not be what they’re into today, and this change needs to be communicated through consent. You should be regularly letting your partner know what works for you, and what doesn’t. As the panellists stated, “Don’t just assume your partner knows what you want.”
#Consent in the context of alcohol
The panelists unanimously agreed that this is a tricky subject. Alcohol affects decision-making, so you may not be in a rational state of mind to judge what you do and don’t want to do. This being said, it can’t be assumed that any time someone is drinking, they can’t consent. A lot of people happily engage in sexual activity after drinking. In this instance, you must continuously check in on your partner throughout the encounter and make sure that they’re perfectly okay with what is occurring. Also, check in on yourself.
You should ask yourself, ‘Why am I drinking before engaging in sexual activity?’ If you feel that you’ll only have a good time because you’re intoxicated, or you feel that you’ll give in to an act easier, then this is not an appropriate time to engage in sexual activity. If, for any second, there are feelings of doubt by either you or your partner, stop what you’re doing.
#Olivia’s interview with the Sexperts
I was granted the opportunity to speak privately with Mistress Tokyo and Kim Cumms after the panel. What was meant to be an interview, transformed more into a conversation about personal experiences surrounding sex work.
I wanted to know if, in their personal lives, it was common for people to assume that their consent was an unspoken guarantee only because of their lines of work. Mistress Tokyo responded that people will often assume she is “at the ready to provide services to them”, and that judgments are commonly made about her “morals and ethics.” We discussed that, as unprogressive and upsetting as it is, the ‘Madonna whore’ paradox remains in 2021. People will ignorantly assume that sex workers are constantly at service for the sexual needs of others.
Read the rest of the interview, and the full version of Olivia’s article here:
#Respect.Now.Always’ ‘Uncensored’ Panels VERTIGO’s REVIEW (panels 1 & 3)
by Sevin Pakbaz
Last week, Vertigo was lucky enough to attend all three nights of the Respect.Now.Always Panel: ’Uncensored: Exploring the Edges of Sex’.
As a young woman, it felt amazing to hear such relevant and crucial conversations about sexual health and wellbeing occurring in a safe zone — the UTS campus — secured by the university’s open-mindedness.
#Panel 1: In touch with your sexuality, and your sexual health
For this session, the panelists included the incredible Samantha Blake from Sexual Health Info Link, UTS Queer Collective member Cal McKinley, Harrison Sarasola from ACON, a sex-positive community organisation, and UTS Faculty of Science Associate, Professor Willa Huston.
As many of us forget, sexual-health is critical for our overall well-being. On the first night, the expert panelists emphasised that good sexual-health is not just about physical hygiene, but also about having the liberty to access accurate information in a stigma-free environment, away from discrimination.
What’s more, it includes the right to healthy, respectful, and consensual relationships. While sexual-health facilities and support systems should be available to everyone, in reality, not every individual individual is privileged enough to access such resources, and may even struggle to receive help based on their intersectionalities within society.
A major point of discussion that night was the nuanced difficulties faced by the LGBTQI+ community, especially their drawn-out battle with stereotypes. As a sexual health advocate, Harrison Sarasola, is passionate about this topic and brought up an excellent point: if we’re going to start talking more openly about sexual health, it needs to be inclusive. And to do so, we need to destigmatise the way we approach the conversation.
"One of the things that we really need to be careful with, whenever we’re talking about sexual health, is moralizing the issue. As soon as we moralize an issue, we suppress it. So we’re basically saying to people, if you don’t use a condom, if you don’t use PrEP, you’re a bad person"
“Specifically within the gay community, when the epidemic was [at its peak], when people were dying, the message we were getting from people in positions of power was that [HIV] is a gay-related immune deficiency. It was called ‘GRIDS’ originally, not HIV — Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome. And it was all moralized,” he continued. “So our communities are incredibly sensitive when it comes to these sorts of things. [A common] misconception around gay men is that we’re just sluts, we don’t take care of ourselves [and] we’re really, really prone to STIs because of that. But that’s just not reality. The reality is the types of sex that we’re having do put us at risk for different types of STI. We just [accept] that because we have to.”
Another prevailing myth about sexual health — which was debunked on the night — is that you cannot get STIs from oral sex. According to Samantha Blake, this is incorrect and can be problematic when it comes to oral safety. “I think it’s important to speak to the reality that most people don’t use barriers for oral sex.” Society also wrongly believes that sex workers are the major carriers of oral infections, when in fact, “people who use [condoms] the most are actually sex workers. Sex workers have some of the lowest rates of STIs, and that’s because they use condoms more consistently, and test more frequently than the general public.”
Within the boundaries of UTS’ inclusive enviro-nment, it’s easier to be open about these topics, but not everywhere is a safe space. Cal McKinley, from the UTS Queer Collective, really expanded on the importance of finding a hub where you can express yourself sexually without the risk of danger.
They said: “I can say my pronouns [at UTS],
and people are just going to go with the flow like it’s normal. However, [when] I go back home, I interact with my family who I am closeted to. I worked at McDonald’s in Western Sydney, and that was a very queer-phobic environment. It is really difficult. People say homophobic things and make terrible comments. But there’s that level of unsafety if I speak out about this. I am surrounded by a bunch of buff 21-year-old straight dudes who [have] openly expressed transphobic, violent ideations before. And in an ideal situation — if I was at uni, and someone made a transphobic comment — I would have no qualms about being like, actually, that’s incorrect. Or actually, you shouldn’t say those things. Because all we can do is push back against people with these harmful ideas. And how do we do that, while keeping ourselves safe? I don’t know.”
As we progress, these conversations — which cover taboo topics — are becoming more normalised in society.
Young adults, at the peak of their sexual youth, should be able to freely reveal their sexuality, sexual health issues, and sexual needs without coercion or judgment from another. Want to be part of this sexual revolution? You can help by attending, listening, and engaging in sexual health related conversations. Ditch the awkwardness. Normalise discussions on discharge, consent, sexually transmitted infections. Let’s talk about oral sex, group sex, and most importantly, non-heteronormative sex. And don’t forget to take your sexual health seriously — sexual health clinics are your friends and routine check-ups are vital!
#Panel 3: Yes and No: When consent goes wrong in law and life
On the final night of the series, there were two guests on the panel unpacking the legal discourse surrounding consent and sexual harassment: academic Karen O’Connell from the UTS Law Faculty, and media lawyer, Gina McWilliams from NewsCorp.
Is the law inherently sexist? Does the law reflect society’s values or vice versa? What’s happening with revenge porn legislation? Will the #MeToo movement continue its momentum in the future? All of these questions, and more, were covered in this final session.
The most saddening fact I learnt from the experts, is that we still don’t have a concrete, agreed-upon definition of consent. I should say, I am disappointed but not surprised. McWilliams added: “I think the approach, particularly in sexual assault law, has been to break things down into its tiny little pieces. We used to have one offense: the offense was r*pe. It was basically penis-vagina [penetration], no consent and you’re guilty. Now if you look at the legislation everywhere around Australia, it’s a sad fact that you’ve got all of these different fences for different points of consent, in any kind of sexual encounter.”
Lawmakers are constantly reviewing models of consent. Currently, the NSW Government is looking to introduce consent principles to ensure everyone is on the same page, and educated about the concept of lawful consent. Although progress is being made, according to the panelists, certain legislation is inconveniently created as an ‘umbrella solution’ and not imp-lemented in practice. Changing the wordings of law might seem like the end of the story, but so much of the underlying issue stems from the attitudes of society towards consent.
In the latter half, the experts delved into the Brittney Higgins case and emphasised the importance of owning one’s narrative. Mainly, they recommended, we should re-label victims of sexual assault as survivors. We should move away from the misconception that women are ‘liars’ in these horrific cases, and work on minimising victim-blaming behavior.
When it comes to consent, sexual health, sexual harassment, and sexuality, there is still a long way to go. Events like these RNA panels help expose individuals to ongoing issues that are often swept under the rug for being too difficult to talk about. Education, allyship, and open-mindedness are all a big part of becoming sex positive. Bottom line is, join the discourse and make the conversation louder.