Riese: What stories would you say that the mainstream LGBT press are currently overlooking or not devoting enough space to?
Sarah: Oh there’s so much, oh G-d.
Well one thing … When I went to college you had to be in the closet, and now when you go to college the first day in orientation week they have a special thing for gay students and you meet the person that the college hired to run all the gay stuff, and there’s an office where you’re gonna meet, and they tell you what the events are gonna be, and I’m starting to think that that was a big mistake. Because I think it makes queer students very passive and very controlled. And I would love to see somebody talk about that.
Riese: I was definitely not out in college and wouldn’t have taken women’s studies or queer theory that would make me seem gay!
But when we first started Autostraddle in 2009, most of our interns were college students, and they influenced a lot of what we talked about and how we talked about it. Over the past seven years, I’ve come to realize that there’s an agreed-upon mode of discourse and topics that are appropriate and things that people are interested in talking about that begins with academic queer communities. I was never in those communities so I was oblivious to it. Then it ends up making this divide between queer people who’ve had access to those programs, in an undergraduate place where they were out and in these queer groups, and people who didn’t, who end up feeling like they don’t have a place in the discourse because they’re not familiar with the language that comes from those communities.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s a problem. I mean, I’m glad that those programs are there, they’re very important. A second topic that has not been fully discussed if we’re gonna talk about the realm of education is how little that material has been integrated into mainstream curriculum. […] It’s all so parallel. You can have a social science education and never learn about anything gay.
Riese: They do have a very off-on-its-own way with gay literature, or AIDS literature.
Sarah: [Another thing LGBT media overlook is] I think sexuality discourse … I go into this in my book quite a bit. I think that expressing desire is now conflated for some people with assault.
Riese: I COULD TALK ABOUT THIS FOREVER.
Sarah: I would like to see some serious discussion of how that happened and what its implications are.
Riese: When I was reading that section I thought about a situation at an early A-Camp where some campers asked camp staff to talk to another camper about consent and forbid them from drinking for the rest of camp. The camper in question was a person of color from a very conservative religious background who’d never been around queer women or alcohol much before, and was drinking too much and being pushy about boundaries. For a number of reasons the conversation never happened. But in retrospect, I’m not sure what the right thing for us to say would’ve been anyway.
It could’ve been humiliating for them to get a speech on boundaries and alcohol abuse from us, or damaging to their struggles with desire and sexuality by telling them to chill out with their desire in the first context where they felt free to express it. And that camper left camp feeling alienated from the queer community anyway — they wrote in their feedback form that they’d been shunned by their cabinmates for not being as rich or educated, which wasn’t the real reason why they were shunned, and that wasn’t their cabinmate’s backgrounds. The situation made me really sad, for everyone involved. But I still have no idea how we should’ve handled it!
Sarah: Someone wrote on twitter that I never discuss consent. And it’s not true, I’m constantly discussing it, but I call it negotiation, I have a different word. I recently had an interesting discussion with Don Romesburg, who runs the queer studies program at Sonoma State. We were talking about this California consent law —
Sarah: The person has to say yes, but if they’re drunk they can’t say yes or something like that? In my experience, life is more complicated. And there’s this puritanical idea that if you drink, you’re gonna have sex that you don’t want to have — you will “lose control” — but when shame, and double standards, etc., are at play, sometimes we lose BEING controlled. Because actually, people sometimes drink so that they can have sex they DO want to have, which would not be possible, or excusable, without drinking. Those kinds of rules are not even human; they don’t recognize what people’s lives are really like.
This was a reality that we realized during the height of the AIDS crisis. Rather than claiming that people had unsafe sex because they were drunk, it became apparent that some people got drunk SO THAT they could have unsafe sex.
Riese: I think the California regulation was intended to be a tool for women seeking legal/administrative action against their sexual assaulters, to help them get justice through that specific system, which has not been kind to survivors and often claims a girl who passed out drunk could’ve somehow consented to sex. But somewhere along the way, this regulation was taken up by the feminist internet and the younger queer community as a behavioral standard for all sexual encounters, and anybody who had a drink before having sex or expressed consent in a manner besides “enthusiastic verbal consent” to every sexual act, as it happened, was told they weren’t ready for sex. I don’t think I would’ve ever had lesbian sex in my early twenties if I hadn’t been “allowed” to drink first, or if I’d been asked to declare what I wanted. But I was ready. It’s all very terrifying — especially as queer people, who often have sexual encounters with people who may or may not be “out” to themselves or others, and have desires they’re not capable of articulating yet but should still have the right to act upon. What happens when a girl wakes up after having lesbian sex for the first time the night before, freaks out because of shame over her sexuality, and learns it’s within feminist bounds to say that, because her partner knew she’d had a few beers but had sex with her anyway, she was assaulted? These regulations could so easily become another tool of white straight supremacy, because we all know who is more likely to be accused and convicted of assault, whenever we get the-powers-that-be involved in interpersonal sexual relations. Not to mention the shunning, of course.
Sarah: They’re being taught that control is freedom. I had this argument… I was doing this seminar at Columbia University that was really interesting. That’s the place where a student was sexually assaulted and she carried the mattress around campus for two years and we were talking about the question of expelling the guy. And I believe that a guy who is a sexual assaulter… at a campus where there’s no state intervention, at a private school like Columbia, that expelling him is not the answer because that is just letting him loose on the world of women who don’t go to Columbia, and I think that strategy is a class-based strategy. Like “let’s kick him out of the country club, who cares what happens when he actually leaves the gates.” When actually these wealthy schools who have the resources should be made responsible to actually deal with male offenders, to create some kind of infrastructure because expelling them or incarcerating them are not the only alternatives to letting him get away with it.
Riese: Doesn’t that place an undue burden on the woman, though? To have to go to school with her rapist and see him every day? Or am I missing something.
Sarah: What I think you are missing is the way class divides women in this equation, into those who attend the gated community of corporate universities and are seen as inherently deserving of protection, versus those who live outside of the country club and have no structure with which to negotiate. Simply excluding a male offender from contact with students in elite schools does not address the problem, and – in a sense- lets them loose on everyone else. Instead, it is the responsibility of these very wealthy schools to use their resources to attract the most gifted and knowing professionals to develop pilot programs — within the closed world — to address male offenders therapeutically. And these programs can become models for the public sphere, and in that way would become a service.
Sarah: Anyway we’re getting in a whole argument about this and finally there’s one girl in the group who grew up working-class in Queens and she says, “You know, when I grew up, in my neighborhood, people were raised to be resilient. Now, I’m at Columbia and people wanna be protected. And I’m not sure which is best, resilience or protection.” And I’m like, “Resilience is better!” Because the only way you can be truly protected is at other people’s expense. Only a very small group of people can be truly protected because everyone else is controlled by them. So this impulse to control control control instead of DEAL and try to understand what’s going on and try to understand ourselves and help each other negotiate and reach for necessary transformations — it ends up being a domination tactic.
Riese: I guess when I talk to people about this, they tend to be like, “well what’s the harm in it, in having affirmative consent rules?”
Sarah: That when these rules don’t actually speak to people’s real experiences and the grey zone where most people live, people end up being labeled as abusers and offenders when actually that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is that their realities are not being reflected in the rules. Obviously some things are clearly sexual assault, everyone understands that and there are people who truly are predators and they enjoy breaking other people’s will. But that’s a very small group of people.
Most of this arena now is a grey zone arena, where two people can have the same identical sexual experience and for one person it’s devastating and traumatizing and for the other person it’s nothing. And it’s not because of the experience itself — it’s because of their histories. You can’t have these blanket standards. You have to talk to people and listen to what people’s experiences are and how they understand what’s happening, and what their histories are, in order to draw any conclusions. The fact that someone is very very unhappy and very frustrated and suffering does not inherently mean that another person abused them. It doesn’t mean that their problems will be solved by punishing another person.
Riese: For sure I’ve found that there’s this initiative to re-label people’s consensual yet unpleasant or traumatic experiences as assault. I’ll tell people about an experience I had and they want to label it assault. But sometimes I did fucked up things or consented to traumatic experiences. The other person involved in the encounter with me might deserve personal consequences, like me not wanting to see them again or be their friend, but not necessarily legal ones or community ones, you know?
Sarah: I talk about that in the book, about words like “stalking.” Stalking is a real thing! It’s like when your ex-husband is sitting in front of your house in a car with a gun. People get killed by stalkers. Someone who wants to talk to you and resolve a conflict that you don’t want to resolve because you might have to face something about yourself that’s uncomfortable, that’s not stalking. So how come we’re using the same word to apply to two completely opposing phenomenon?
Riese: Well, I think we’re trying to make room for people who feel unheard, or silenced by the powers-that-be.
Sarah: Sometimes they are unheard, sometimes they feel unheard or sometimes they’re upset about other things that get projected, like the Trump voters who blame immigrants instead of Trump. There’s a lot of anxiety projected onto vulnerable objects who are not the cause of the pain. This gets into the concept of “trigger.” My definition of “trigger” is “an unresolved pain from the past that expresses in the present and that asks the present to be accountable for a pain it has not created.” And that way when someone is triggered, two parties are hurt — the person who’s reliving a pain they should not have to relive, and the other party is the one that they acted out on who did not cause it.
Riese: We don’t let people use the word “triggering” on Autostraddle because it was getting out of control with what people were using that word for. It was becoming meaningless. Another thing that confused me about that specifically, which you talk about in your book, is how college classrooms should actually be the safest space for this stuff to happen. If there’s no possibility of a world in which everything upsetting can be warned about before it happens, what really is the point in prohibiting it in these specific spaces —
Sarah: But even more than that, what really should be happening is that the issue should be faced and resolved. And a classroom is a great place to do that because even though a classroom can be a place of inequality and racism, it is rarely the site of actual sexual assault or physical violence. It may be the only space in people’s lives where dangerous ideas can be engaged with no threat of physical consequence.
At this point we’d already been talking for an hour, so our conversation had to end even though I obviously still had a lot of questions! If you’ve made it thus far, congratulations on reading a 10,000 word article, that’s like half a novella.