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In Challenging, Complex Essays, “Unsafe Words” Queers the #MeToo Movement

In 2018, I was involved in a labor dispute that sprang from employees banding together to try to change a workplace and workplace culture that had enabled an [alleged, I guess] sexual predator for years. It was at a beloved cultural institution in Pittsburgh. We ultimately filed an NLRB charge (shout out to fellow media workers currently fighting retaliation via an NLRB charge). The labor action was really a byproduct of retaliation that followed the VERY SIMPLE REQUEST that the museum no longer play host to an [alleged] rapist and abuser with over five known survivors willing to speak to his actions. At the time, the #MeToo movement had gained momentum, which, from my position on the ground, seemed to complicate our cause rather than help it, as multiple people (the director, board members, etc.) chalked up the long overdue reckoning happening at the museum to a trend that would surely blow over. (Because according to the men and the women who want to enforce the patriarchy, surely this kind of upset would be a phase.) And yet, talking about it — it being sexual abuse tied to workplaces, labor disputes, organizing as workers — had ripple effects. In the wake of our actions, allegations against other previously untouchable local cultural leaders were brought to light, and museum workers started to unionize, eventually achieving union status.

Sometimes we cannot see how we’re connected until we pull back, years later, and realize our actions are feeding into a collective stream.

Rutgers University Press recently put out a new anthology called Unsafe Words: Queering Consent in the #MeToo Era. Reading Unsafe Words and the ways the various essays reckon with the #MeToo movement filled a need that had been lacking, a return to the hashtag and a pulling apart of what its focus had become. “The women who have become the face of this contemporary movement—a movement founded by a Black woman, Tarana Burke—are overwhelmingly white and assumed to be exclusively heterosexual.” The more popular narratives carried forth by media turned, as they so often do, toward justice for those who are closest in proximity to power anyway, leaving everyone else to wonder — what about us, how does this fit into our lives?

The essays in this book take a deep-dive into multiple facets of consent, grapple with white supremacy and mass incarceration and carceral attitudes within the queer community, talk about repair after harm, and reflect on situations where it’s unclear whether or how or to whom harm occurred. I found the book challenging in the best ways at times, especially when the essays, like haunting short stories, asked more questions than they answered.

I recommend NOT SKIPPING the introduction section in this book. I know it can be tempting for some, but it outlines the project and the goals of the text and serves as a helpful guide to what is contained therein. The book is divided in two, with a photo essay marking the transition in the center.

The first section looks at consent and queering consent from multiple angles, with the first essay structured around interviews with multiple sex workers. It explores the processes through which they negotiate consent, with special care paid to the power dynamics of intersecting identities. “Exerting power and asserting one’s needs are critical when acquiring consent to the sexual encounter and to feeling safe and respected. However, it is also crucial to examine how overlapping systems of oppression shape who feels entitled to or empowered to articulate their sexual needs directly.”

Following the opening essay, which sets the stage for thinking deeply about power dynamics, are three essays that look at, from varying angles, the ways in which contemporary heteronormative ideas around sexual consent fail queer people. In “The Straight Rules Don’t Apply: Lesbian Sexual Ethics” Jane Ward says of heterosexual sexual relations:

“When you’re fucking in the shadow of misogyny, mainstream feminism’s modest recommendation that good sex is defined by the presence of reciprocity and enthusiastic consent makes perfect sense. Underlying the concept of consent is an understanding that sexual equity and reciprocity are vital corrections to men’s sexual entitlement and self-centeredness. This belief, one that I share, emerges from straight women’s lived experiences struggling for pleasure and agency under the erotically lopsided conditions of patriarchy.[superscript 1] One of the key insights that emerged from feminist commentary about the #MeToo movement is that a flabbergasting number of straight women, in addition to surviving sexual assault and coercion, have consented to bad, male-centric, one-sided sex. For Black, Indigenous, and other women of color, the gap between heterosexuality’s false promise of fulfillment and the realities of heteropatriarchy is widened by the expectation that straightness is one form of privilege available to women of color. Patriarchy ensures that heterosexuality is itself a “rigged game” that normalizes men’s sexual entitlement, prioritizes men’s pleasure, and relegates sex acts that produce women’s orgasms—like oral sex—to the realm of the optional.”

Ward then goes on to unpack the second-wave feminist origins of completely egalitarian lesbian sex and delves into the long history and practices of uneven but entirely consensual and pleasurable lesbian sex. We talk about pillow princesses and stone butches, where I enjoyed the point Ward makes that “There was, and is, no corollary for this kind of masculinity in straight sexual culture, and this tells us a great deal about the differences between female masculinity and heteromasculinity, lesbian sex and straight sex.” This essay gave me the pleasurable experience of re-thinking and revisiting things I knew to be true in my bones, where having them named out loud gave me something more to work with, like finally knowing what that instrument you’ve been hearing in songs for years is called.

Just before the photo essay that marks the move between sections, we hear from the late Mistress Velvet. This essay sat heavily with me, in part because I was reading the words of someone who had recently died of suicide. “Black Femmedom as Violence and Resistance” is a complicated work — and that’s the point. Mistress Velvet holds both the “fallacy of Black femdom empowerment” up to the light at the same time as they ask us to consider that “Black femdom—particularly the kind of race play that I engage in, Black femme domination over white male submissiveness—is a site of inversion that can bring forth pleasure, catharsis, and healing.” The book is dedicated to Mistress Velvet.

The second section is particularly sticky. I’m still thinking about the first two essays which acknowledge times in the writers’ lives when boundaries are crossed, consent is not obtained, sexual assault happens and then subvert the typical #MeToo prosecution narrative by contending with — as Shantel Gabriel Buggs does in “Rejecting the (Black Fat) Body as Invitation” — “a double-bind: the ways that as a Black queer woman I am sexualized, othered, and viewed as available, and the ways that I must navigate who is doing that fetishizing and whether I want repercussions for the person(s) engaging in that behavior.”

Multiple of these essays ask how we can make queer spaces safer, especially for our most vulnerable community members, while also not becoming our own police and while keeping our queer spaces (many of which involve alcohol consumption) — bath houses and nightclubs, dark back rooms and queer bars — open and available to us. When we consider queering consent and making our spaces at once safer and more liberatory, it becomes clear that a queer, abolitionist framework will be necessary to move forward. As a sexual assault, abuse, and rape survivor myself, I’ve held many of the same questions in my mind, turning them over and over and over, and I appreciated reading perspectives from people doing the same.

The stories from gay men that touched on youthful explorations of sex were particularly challenging, and I mean that in the best way. In “My Firsts: On Gaysian Sexual Ethics,” James McMaster asks of his first queer sexual experience, “Was he expressing a queer impulse even more impossible than my own, or was he simply so in need of a friend that he would give his desires over as hostages to mine? I still don’t know the answer to this question, but I do know how much that answer matters.”

Where are the lines of consent when you’re exploring, when you don’t know fully who you are…or who someone else is, when you’re a kid? As someone who had my first queer sexual experience at fourteen, these are GOOD QUESTIONS. Just because we can’t answer the questions fully within an essay doesn’t mean they aren’t important to ask and keep asking. Even if we’ll die never uncovering the answers, it is important to ask.

The book concludes with a conversation between one of the editors of the collection, Trevor Hoppe, and the then-Executive Director of Black & Pink, Dominique Morgan. To me, there was no better way to conclude this collection than with a conversation that centered on our incarcerated and formerly incarcerated LGBTQ community members, on abolition and the decentering of the concept of justice from conversations about consent and harm and safety for queer people in favor of community-building. As Dominique Morgan says, “anything that’s going to work is going to be centered in us.” This collection, by bringing these queer perspectives and voices together, is an important part of that work, and, in my opinion, a valuable addition to that healing stream.

Unsafe Words: Queering Consent in the #MeToo Era is out now.

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Nico Hall

Nico Hall is a Team Writer for Autostraddle (formerly Autostraddle's A+ and Fundraising Director and For Them's Membership and Editorial Ops person.) They write nonfiction both creative — and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret longform project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 229 articles for us.

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