The Art of Asking, Not Telling

Years ago when I started doing consent culture work with alternative communities, I had a pretty good idea of what moves I felt needed to be made to increase consensual interactions and decrease boundary crossing. I was younger, perhaps more naive, quicker to pass judgment and to banish people from my circle.

The more I delved in, though, the more I began to realize that depending on a punitive tactic 100% of the time led to a society where people were afraid to be told they had fucked up. It fostered a defensive society, one where it felt safer to dismiss and talk over an accuser than to acknowledge that harm had been felt. And I realized that while I feel it’s important to center survivors and victims in their experiences and their healing… more often than not, community justice and legal justice went hand in hand in not serving the marginalized. In both situations, marginalized people bore the brunt of the punishment. Many lost access to resources they couldn’t get anywhere else, especially within the queer community.

I felt like I wanted to do work in finding something that was more sustainable. Was that possible? Frankly, I’m still not sure, but it’s probably what I’m asked to provide the most often in my work. An Answer. A Solution.

Instead, I created “Ask: Building Consent Culture”. It’s an anthology, because I didn’t feel like mine was the only voice that should be heard. And my brief to writers was “Structure your piece in terms of ‘Here is an issue we have now, and here’s how centering consent could look and impact that issue in a positive way.’ You don’t have to have the answer, just a proposition!”

Reading some of the reviews, this disappointed a lot of people. I get it — we want to have an answer, a formula, something we can do and repeat that will work in every situation.

But consent doesn’t work that way. In fact, consent can’t really work that way. We’re all made up of personal experiences, which may include coping mechanisms, trauma, positive and negative reinforcement, and a myriad of other things that influence how we communicate. The reliance on a one-size-fits-all strategy for dealing with consent violation is likely part of the reason we’re all feeling so traumatized with the disclosures that seem to come like a torrential rain — if you don’t go to the police to report, which many people don’t feel safe doing and don’t trust (for good reason), then there’s not really a solid model of what you “should” do. And what works in one situation may not work in another.

As a consent educator and guide, I’ve learned to ask a lot of questions. I’ve learned to ask if people want advice, sympathy, or just to talk at someone. I’ve learned to listen more than I talk. And I’ve learned that being a space for people to figure out how they feel and what they need is the best resource I can provide, even if it doesn’t reveal some grand solution for all consent violations everywhere.

Currently I’m taking on the challenging work of creating a space for those who have been called out for crossing boundaries. My hope is to find a way to cultivate accountability and growth, while also imparting understanding that no amount of personal work will undo what harm has been done. I want to balance marginalizations and power dynamics with the needs of the people i work with, and the community at large. It’s a big task, but one I feel driven to do.

I’m not sure if I have a right way. All I have is a way that I do my best to adapt according to the wishes of the survivor, so they don’t have to be part of the process unless they want to. I hope that I can find some tools for this that will be useful to others. I hope more than anything I can help survivors find healing, and abusers have accountability for their violations.

But the more I do this work, the more I realize I need to rely on constantly learning and evolving my methods… and that requires more asking than telling.

Written by

Professional Bleeding Heart. Sick & Tired. Patronize me: Image by @mayakern

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