This blog post is written in response to comments and discussion generated at the January 2018 White Noise Collective dialogue, which examined the themes of “Race, Gender and #MeToo”. I am grateful to the participants for their frank, vulnerable, and honest conversation. See our website for the guiding questions and suggested readings for the dialogue. The following two articles were additional excellent ruminations for this piece: Consenting to Normal by Hyejin Shin and The Female Price of Male Pleasure by Lili Loofbourow.
As someone with very limited social media exposure, I’ve been largely distant from the daily flood of #MeToo herstories, and the painful and overwhelming structures of violence they expose. It wasn’t until recently when a cis-man I know was publicly outed for repeated sexual violence to women in our community that the movement began to feel personal. As I first learned the details of his violations I was surprised that what should have felt heartbreaking and enraging, instead felt awkwardly underwhelming — the details of repeated accounts of coercion, boundary violation, and harm in intimate contexts sounded quotidian and familiar. I witnessed myself nearly accepting these boundary violations as permissible, being entirely unsurprised by even the most egregious offenses. In the despair that arose when making this thought pattern more conscious, I began to wonder if cis-hetero-patriarchy — and all its incipient messages about desirability and disposability — produce a reality in which all heterosexual sex (or perhaps all sex of any kind) is fundamentally coercive.
One of the logics of white-supremacist-cis-hetero-patriarchy is desirability politics. Standards of beauty shaped by colorism, fat shaming, and objectification train us to believe that there are inherently wrong or unacceptable things about our bodies, no matter what form those bodies take.
Another equally powerful logic of systemic power is disposability politics: that if and when we do something wrong, we are to be cast aside, removed, excommunicated, or isolated from our community, support structures, or sense of belonging.
When these two logics combine, they threaten our fundamental sense of belonging and okayness in our own bodies, just as we are. The fear and instability this threat creates can easily lead to coping strategies like dissociation and disconnection from our bodies — instead of learning to witness, sense, and assert our desires and needs, we learn to ignore, undermine, or overlook them. In a world dictated by these logics, how can we ever feel powerful and indispensable enough to tap into an honest, un-coerced, enthusiastic “yes”? Where does consent live in a body acculturated to dissociate from a somatic sense of our wants and needs?
I say “we” and “our” throughout this reflection because I deeply believe that all humans are trained in, and capable of expressing, white-supremacist-cis-hetero-patriarchy. This training undermines all of our humanity, in deeply different and oppositional ways. While we have all internalized the scripts from white-supremacist-cis-hetero-patriarchy, some of us benefit from these logics, while others are destroyed by them. Our individual identities in relationship to structures of power fundamentally shift the nature of this training. White, male, cis-gender, able-bodied, thin, neurotypical people benefit in material ways from the logics of desirability and disposability. They have an easier time getting and keeping jobs, avoiding state repression and violence, accumulating and transferring wealth, accessing housing, finance, higher education. People of color, women, transgender, genderqueer, crip, fat, and neurodivergent people are systematically disempowered by these same logics, although in vastly different ways based on their identities and access to structural power. Marginalized peoples are targeted by state violence, legally excluded from institutions, discriminated against in housing, employment, and education, to name just a few. And with differential impact and differential harm, inherent power dynamics arise that profoundly complicate and manipulate the possibility for genuine consent in interpersonal negotiations, both intimate and not.
For as long as the dual logics of desirability and disposability politics remain as tools to maintain structures of power, consent will constantly be mediated between them, and sexual violence will continue to exist. Naming this reality and making it conscious, while heavy-hearted, is critical to transforming it.
But we are more than our identities, and we are more than the training we receive from systems of oppression. We are capable of resisting, subverting, and unlearning these messages; and rebuilding safety and security in our own bodies and in our intimate relationships. This work will be challenging because it touches some of our most tender places of fundamental belonging and inherent worth. It will require developing the patience and capacity to be present with whatever unexpected feelings, memories, and fears arise. And it cannot be done in isolation. It is not solely the responsibility of individuals alone to know their boundaries or to articulate their needs; boundaries are, by definition, relational. And it is here, in learning new ways of relating, that some measure of freedom lies.
That time when I drove and you drank,
we “celebrated” Halloween with your friends:
I fought the white girl Pocahontas,
you looked away, embarrassed of the scene I made.
I was tired, alone, hurt by the world; you were hungry and unaware.
You pulled me on top.
I buried my face in your pillow to keep your shoulders dry.
That time (the first) when we nervously watched The Giver:
you, reciting all the best lines
me, captured by childhood big questions.
We were both drunk, maybe me more than you.
You asked me if I wanted to.
I, unclear permission was mine to give,
thought it was a test.
I answered seductively, hoping to keep you close.
That time, without asking,
you felt in the dark for that unspoken place
and forced your way in.
I bled for days
and blamed myself for not saying no.
That time, in search of warmth,
I found your bed.
You smoked a joint to relax.
I thought of my mom at 16,
wearing blue to her mother’s funeral.
You looked away as I cried, lacing your shoes
to step outside.
That time, long past goodbye,
we found new desire in old familiarity.
You asked me if I wanted to.
I, knowing more and needing less,
said let’s just lie here.
This time, your shoulders drowned. And I floated.