Trever Hoppe & Shantel Gabrieal Buggs, Unsafe Words: Queering Consent in the #MeToo Era. Rutgers University Press, 2023. xi + 216 pp. $20
In a recent anthology titled Unsafe Words: Queering Consent in the #MeToo Era, editors Shantel Gabrieal Buggs and Trevor Hoppe assemble a diverse array of documents, all geared towards offering queer perspectives on heterosexual society’s sudden discovery of consent as a subject of analysis. The themes covered in this collection include competing definitions of sexual harm, the superiority of community over police in redressing wrongs, and the difficulty of determining the degree of consent in a relationship from an outsider’s perspective. Altogether, Unsafe Words explores how minorities have cultivated unique, elastic, and productive sexual ethics against the backdrop of a world that long considered moral queer sex oxymoronic. It also offers some helpful ways forward now that heterosexuality seems to be approaching a normative dead end.
Unsafe Words starts strong with an essay by former sex worker and sociologist Angela Jones, who argues that sex work, instead of the last stop on a train of degradation and abuse, should actually be studied as the blueprint of a theory of consent that can benefit society at large, unlike other forms of sexual intimacy wherein power and material considerations are assumed absent until proven otherwise, Jones argues sex work takes power and capital as its starting point, and demonstrates how sex workers engage in a constant process of renegotiation, boundary-setting, and bargaining.
A key theme in the essay is the fact that consent looks different to each person and in each situation. As an erotic dancer and escort in the 1990s, Jones describes setting different terms for every client. For example, if she was not attracted to a client she would limit their relationship to dinner dates and make-out sessions in the car. With others, however, whom she found genuinely appealing, she would allow their relationship to go further.
Still, Jones acknowledges that the experience is not the same for all sex workers. Sex workers with marginalized identities, in economic straits, and with uncertain citizenship often have less bargaining power with their clients and are forced to work under more dangerous labor conditions. Fortunately, the internet has given many sex workers the tools to keep themselves safe. As one of her interviewees explains:
So, my verification just starts off the bat with just a basic session. They email me the date and time they want because I have a general set of availability, and it may vary, so we may have to change …. And if they’re wanting a longer session than what I advertise, I’ll respond with, ‘Okay, then I need you to provide like a LinkedIn or a business picture of a business card for employment verification (p. 31).
Jones writes that technology helps sex workers empower themselves “by enabling them to negotiate sexual encounters well before they happen” (p. 32). However, acts such as FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) limit how much sex workers and clients can communicate through the internet. As full-service sex work is criminalized, sex workers must resort to speaking in vagaries, and sometimes using codes with their clients in the form of emojis (p. 32). As, according to Jones, “using more direct language and more clearly articulating our needs can create the conditions for safer, pleasurable, and sexy consensual sexual encounters,” laws such as these outlaw the very language sex workers rely on to protect themselves (p. 35).
The following two essays by Alexander Cheves and Trevor Hoppe respectively focus on gay male sexual culture and the many ways it seems to diverge from contemporary discourses on consent. In Cheves’ essay, “Consent in the Dark,” he discusses the practice of “fisting” which became popularized in the gay leather culture of the 1970s and 1980s and involves one individual inserting his balled-up hand into another male’s anal cavity. Here, Cheves recalls a particularly pleasurable experience: the first time he was “double-fisted.” Afterward, however, he remembers that he did not ask his partner to double-fist him, but actually asked him to slow down (p. 41).
One of the traits that Cheves likes about this partner is that “He knew when to push my limits, when to listen to my ‘no,’ and when to charge past it” (pp. 41-42). Cheves calls fisting “one of those rare spaces where the established rules of consent sometimes get murky—where I might not fully know what I want while someone else might have a clearer idea of my desires” (p. 42). One of the reasons why boundaries are so fluid during fisting is because, as Cheves claims, the activity itself requires a surrendering of the “mind’s natural defenses” and a literal opening up to whatever comes (p. 42). This inherent ambiguity is made more consequential by the fact that fisting is dangerous. No matter how cautiously performed, a trip to the ER cannot be ruled out as a possible outcome (p. 43).
In addition to fisting, Cheves cites the backrooms and darkrooms of gay establishments which “count as the best parts of [his] sex life” (p. 45). Describing them as “beautifully egalitarian, democratic, and rogue” these places, according to Cheves, “are the relics … of an antiquated gay male ethos that once existed outside the law and away from the media spotlight” (p. 45). People who enter these places “waive a degree of consent” and speak through glances, gestures, and other non-verbal cues. Gropes from strangers are to be expected. However, these establishments have recently been shutting down or else sanitizing themselves to cater to straight women—who now nearly outnumber gay men. For example, when one straight woman entered the backroom of a gay bar in Atlanta in 2017 and was touched, she threatened to call the police (p. 46). Considering the long history gay bars have of police raids and shutdowns, the bar took this seriously and responded by installing bright lights, taking down the curtains, and turning the area into a smoking lounge.
Cheves concludes by describing his distaste for new models of what constitutes good and ethical sex. He says that although queer men are reluctant to voice this out loud, “enthusiastic consent” is alien to many of their lives, and believes the universalizing of consent standards to all people in all cultures hearkens back to a long history of heterosexual people colonizing queer spaces according to their own assumptions.
Hoppe continues in this vein by recounting his experiences coming of age as a gay teenager in the 1990s, and asks what consent means to people who are unsure of what they want and what they are agreeing to. While sexual scripts can be confining, being left out of the conversation entirely comes with its own set of challenges and anxieties. However, it also provides opportunities for new ways of imagining erotic spaces and pathways to pleasure.
Hoppe began his sexual career in adolescence, having sex with men he found on Craigslist, and writes that he “can count on one hand the number of times [he] had sex with someone [he] did not first meet online” (p. 58). He then cites the data that shows that this is not atypical amongst LGB individuals, with 55% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people using online apps to meet partners compared to 28% of heterosexual people (p. 58). However, before smartphones and other online hookup technologies, meeting people through the internet was a crapshoot. Uploading a picture of oneself entailed scanning a physical photo—something many considered an unnecessary hassle. As Hoppe puts it, “you were often in for a surprise when they opened the door” (p. 56). Echoing Jones and Cheves, Hoppe makes the case that boundaries are not set for us at birth but are multilayered, personal, and develop with practice, even if that means having some “disappointing, frustrating, or downright bad sex” (p. 55).
The fourth essay in this collection by scholar Jane Ward, “The Straight Rules Don’t Apply: Lesbian Sexual Ethics,” constitutes an odd disruption in the thematic flow of this book. Strangely it seems to renounce the interesting and heterodoxical work done on all the preceding pages and takes the tone of a first-year consent seminar. Focusing on female injury, words like “patriarchy” and “misogyny” float untethered around the text without reference to any specific realities (apparently, Ward assumes that unless the reader is an idiot they know implicitly what she is referring to without further corroboration). Ward writes, “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” (p. 66).
Ward goes on to discuss the superiority of lesbian sexual roles as subversions of the heteropatriarchal orders. The “pillow princess” for instance, whose job is to lie back and receive pleasure from the “butch,” reveals the contrast between what Ward calls “female masculinity” and “heteromasculinity,” as it is the masculine/active “butch” who gives pleasure while the feminine “pillow princess” passively receives it. Ward writes that in “lesbian sexual culture…the ability to serve women, to make women come, is a powerful badge of honor, one that sometimes supersedes the interest of one’s own body” (pp. 67-69).
The problem with this essay is that it entirely ignores the massive diversity of male and female sexual experiences. Unlike Gayle Rubin (1984) who argues that sexual desires and sexual oppression must be analyzed within its own separate axis, Ward claims that specific sex acts which men enjoy is a reflection of cultural attitudes about women and “male dominance.” For instance, Ward claims that men are taught to believe that sex is designed for their gratification specifically, and activities such as oral sex are meant to be received and not given. However, how and where this is taught to men is not made clear, but apparently not all of them were made aware of what patriarchy compels them to want. Nor are all women informed of what feminism claims they should want.
For example, so far as cunnilingus goes, according to one study of college women (n=43), while many desired to receive oral sex from their male partners and expressed frustration at not getting it, others disliked cunnilingus and felt uncomfortable with males who believed it was expected. Seven even reported that it was their male partner’s enthusiasm for cunnilingus that changed their initial negative opinion of the activity (Backstrom et al, 2012). In another study by Salisbury & Fisher (2014), men placed a higher importance on the role of womens’ orgasms in womens’ sexual pleasure than the women themselves.
Ward was right about one thing, and that is that heterosexuality has lost its claim to teleological naturalness, and what once seemed so blatantly by design — penis + vagina = pleasure for everyone — must return to the drawing board. However, instead of focusing on the need to deterritorialize heterosexual sex and treat it as a new terrain for communication and reanalyzing expectations, Ward assumes bad faith everywhere and thoroughly misses the mark. Theoretically unfalsifiable and riddled with dubious and essentialist claims, this essay stands out for its lack of nuance and its greedy reductionism.
Part II begins with the eighth essay in this collection by sociologist Blu Buchanan, titled “Before Consent and After Harm,” and is followed by Shantel Gabrieal Buggs’ “Rejecting the (Black Fat) Body as an Invitation.” Both address the issue of dealing with non-consensual behavior within marginalized communities without resorting to the same carceral logic that has historically made them so vulnerable in the first place. Buchanan’s essay deals with the erotic ethos of gay bathhouses. Comparing their experiences of gay bathhouses with those of the author Samuel R. Delany in his memoir The Motion of Light in Water, Buchanan discusses Delany’s concept of the “massed body” and the neoliberal process of privatizing harm. Drawing on themes seen in preceding essays by Jones, Cheves, and Hoppe, Buchanan draws attention to consent as something geographical and cultural, as opposed to something merely contractual, writing, “long looks, head shakes, grazed hands, even the positioning of one’s body took on meaning…” (p. 121).
Buchanan writes that “these spaces are erotic, public, and maintained by a set of rules that are understood but often go unspoken makes them ideal for talking about community forms of consent and their failures” (p. 122). Instead of these sexually liberated spaces devolving into exploitation and abuse, Buchanan instead claims that these spaces “contain the mechanisms for crafting communal consent.” Ultimately, they conclude that “the goal of transformative justice … is not to prevent all harm but to reduce it through structural intervention and to create pathways towards repair” (p. 125).
Buchanan’s essay on gay bathhouses and the ways queer culture has slowly accepted the process of singling out individuals within their ranks for state punishment offers an important reflection on American culture nearly five-and-a-half decades since the Stonewall Riots. While police raids on non-normative sexual communities have become a thing of the past, the monitoring, tracking, and registration of individual “sex offenders” has expanded into a global enterprise, replete with what Scott de Orio calls “bad queers,” or people whose sexuality falls outside of Rubin’s (1984) “charmed circle.” Unfortunately, what’s missing from Buchanan’s analysis is a look at all the sexual minorities without bathhouses; dispossessed of any “massed body.”
For instance, although they write, “consent isn’t only achieved by ‘matching’ identities to erase power imbalances: it has to be negotiated and held by participants,” they still imply that “matching identities” is a necessary condition for consent (p. 127). Too often these bathhouses of private adult male homosexual sameness replicate just those neoliberal spaces Buchanan decries: quartering off private areas of “reciprocal deviance” while keeping the nuclear family structure fundamentally unchallenged. Buchanan emphasizes the importance of “translating the power of ‘massed bodies’ from the bathhouse to the ‘massed bodies’ of direct action” (p. 127). However, it remains highly unclear what this entails in our current age, or what it will offer to the tens of thousands of registered citizens unable to unite and organize by threat of re-incarceration.
The pendulum between sexual harm and carceral response is continued in Buggs’ essay “Rejecting the (Black Fat) Body as an Invitation.” Like Buchanan, Buggs addresses the need to preserve bodily autonomy while accounting for the unpredictability that comes with sexual liberation, all within the context of a world where queer people are free, yet continually scrutinized for traces of criminality that need to be disciplined.
Identifying as a “light-skinned multiracial Black bisexual woman with a fat but also fairly tall and hour-glass shaped body,” she highlights the many ways her physique is admired and her boundaries are ignored (p. 134). She often finds herself as the life of the party in nightclub scenes and expresses amazement at “the power [her] ass has” to attract even gay men (p. 131). Though gay or straight, Black or white, male or female, numerous people have taken Buggs’ appearance as a sign of permission.
Explaining the purpose of her essay, Buggs writes, “Here, I attempt to assess how I have denied justice and fair treatment to myself as a Black queer woman out of my concern for other queer people, because of the ways the social structures we live within target queer people and people of color for unequal and unjust treatment” (p. 134). She continues, “on more than one occasion, I ignored or tolerated behavior by a queer person that I would never let a straight person get away with, because I do not want to risk repercussions for a person who is already structurally and socially marginalized” (p. 135). Buggs asserts that “we must develop other means of keeping our communities safe while maintaining practices and norms that reject heteronormativity and avoid putting a damper on the intimacy and exhilaration that dancing in a nightclub can produce” (p. 137).
However, the difficulty lies in the fact that many people arrive at these nightclubs with various understandings of which rules are in effect. Many take advantage of this ambiguity to disguise their non-consensual behavior as a misreading of signals. Standardizing codes of conduct and ensuring that no one must be made to endure unwanted touching, including people with Buggs’ body type, is certainly warranted. However, unlike Cheves and Buchanan whose sexual milieus are found in comparatively homogeneous backrooms and bathhouses, Buggs describes experiences she’s had everywhere from New York to Mexico. Thus it is left open to interpretation precisely what changes can be made which apply to so many diverse scenes. Buggs concludes with her desire to create “spaces wherein we willingly share our bodies with others or take pleasure from the seeming violation and fetishization of our bodies while also rejecting the perpetuation of logics that lead queer folks to believe they must allow their bodies to be accessible” (pp. 137-138). That’s a worthwhile goal and one which deserves a roadmap.
Essay eleven, “Was I a Teenage Sexual Predator?” by HIV/AIDS activist Mark S. King is the only essay in this collection that addresses the issue of consensual adult/minor sex in gay communities, and, given the near total queer silence on this issue as it has turned into the dominant vehicle for sexual governance, it is the one essay in this volume which poses a serious challenge to the American penal system. This essay is a personal narrative of the author’s experiences as a gay 14-year-old boy in 1975. Explaining that it took too long to seduce other boys his age, he joined a local theater production “just to be in the company of gay men” (p. 151). On several occasions, he managed to get men alone with him and sleep with them.
These encounters usually transpired without trouble. One afternoon, however, he asked a man named Jim if he could give him a ride to a pool party, first asking him if he could stop at Jim’s house with the ruse of needing to borrow a bathing suit. After they had sex and got back on the road, Jim suddenly pulled the car over and started to cry for remorse. Unable to understand what made Jim so upset, King sat in uncomfortable silence and waited for him to stop crying so they could get to the party (p. 153).
Years after this event, King reports feeling “abandoned” by mental health professionals who refused to discuss his adolescent escapades outside of the context of “child sexual abuse” (p. 152). He had been told that he was the victim of molestation, that the men he slept with abused him, and, “most bruising to [his] ego…that [his] seductive charms were irrelevant and that perhaps it was the grown men who were doing the manipulating” (p. 152).
This deployment of “professional knowledge” to insist on the truth of pain in cases of “victimization” without a victim is a common tactic in the psychiatric field. As Anne-Marie Grondin (2011) writes, with young patients who resist construing their experiences as harmful, “the first task for therapists is to lead children to recast their denials of injury as accounts of abuse and of victimization.” Meanwhile, the sociologist David Finkelhor who played a large role in promoting the Satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s and 90s, has recently been castigated in conservative media after saying, “If young people are initiating sexual activities with adults, or [are] enthusiastically involved, we can’t be effective working with them if we assume that all such relationships start with a predatory or criminally inclined adult.”
King’s essay is clearly the most provocative document in this collection, which is ironic considering that it is the least politically conscious. Unlike the other pieces in this book which end with a slew of citations and make powerful statements regarding the need to tear down systems of oppression and radically question cultural norms, King does not provide a single reference, nor give any call to action. Instead, it is purely contemplative as the author situates and resituates his experiences against dominant discourses, writing, “From the inside looking out, my teenage self was getting exactly what he wanted. My youthful yearnings can easily be compartmentalized — until I look at a 14-year-old boy today and am horrified at the very thought of him being preyed on” (pp. 152-153).
Whether or not such moral ambivalence about cross-generational relationships in general is a way of qualifying the radical implications of this narrative is unclear, though as far as he personally is concerned, he writes, “I don’t feel scarred…My consent was a given. I spent time and effort finding those partners…I sought out men because I figured they would be less troublesome than boys my age. The fact that they could have faced serious consequences didn’t rob me of my consent to do it” (p. 155). And, in response to claims that he was molested and that Jim “trapped” him without him even knowing it, King writes, “…yes, I felt trapped alright, if only because I felt trapped in his car at [that] moment where things were not going as planned, because after ten minutes we were still parked on the side of the road and Jim wouldn’t stop crying” (p. 154).
The final two pieces, an essay by trans activist V. Jo Hsu and a transcribed conversation between Trevor Hoppe and Dominique Morgan, the executive director of Black and Pink, take the fight directly to the prison system as America’s now dominant weapon of social control. Hsu begins by citing the words of Judge Rosemary Aquilina during the sentencing of USA gymnast doctor Larry Nassar: “Our constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment. If it did, I have to say, I might allow what he did to all these beautiful souls…I would allow someone or many people to do to him what he did to others” (p. 157). Hsu argues that this statement embodies the principle beliefs about the criminal legal system: that it is “(1) a trusted arbiter of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ (2) a means of redressing interpersonal harm, and (3) equally effective in responding to the pain of all survivors” (pp. 158-159). This overlooks the fact, according to Hsu, that prisons rely on the strategic narrative realignment of victimhood and criminality to enforce the status quo of who requires support and who deserves punishment.
Hsu then offers several case studies whereby non-white, female, and queer people have defended themselves and were then later characterized as malicious assailants by prosecutors and news outlets. Marissa Alexander, for example, was called an “angry Black woman” after firing a warning shot at her abusive husband. Even though nobody was hurt and the gun was registered, Alexander was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of twenty years for aggravated assault. Black trans man Ky Peterson, likewise, was imprisoned for nine years after defending himself from sexual assault. Meanwhile, when four Black lesbians fought back after being physically accosted by a man who threatened to “rape them straight,” headlines read, “Lesbian Gang Epidemic?” and “Attack of the Killer Lesbians” (pp. 161-162).
Through such rhetorical mechanisms, Hsu argues, “interpersonal violence is presumed to be pervasive and inevitable. Police and courts respond after the harm has already happened, and incarceration suggests the perpetrator cannot be redeemed, but only removed from civil society. This system enforces a narrative in which criminality belongs to certain bodies, and those bodies must be sequestered from the general public” (p. 167).
Hsu frames their analysis in the language of racism, homophobia, and transphobia, as does much of the prison abolition movement, which puts them in an uncomfortable position with one of the fastest-growing underclasses in the U.S.: the white sex offender. Marginalized whites have taken various forms throughout U.S. history, from the indentured servants who comprised over half of the Europeans coming to the New World, to the “white trash” of the South who often overtook the Black population as the preferred target of the eugenicists (Wray, 2006).
Alternatingly romanticized as the “true soul of the American heartland” and condemned as an irredeemable blight on progressive civilization, the poor white has served as a reference point in shifting boundaries of race and criminality. Today, according to Roger Lancaster, the white sex offender serves the function of offsetting white guilt “at a time when so many fears are focused on the black gangbanger or the brown border menace.”
Race and sexuality also form the basis of determining who is a victim of societal bigotry, and who are the real villains. Judith Levine documents this doublespeak in the case of Kirk Nesset, an English professor incarcerated and registered for the possession of illegal sexual images. When Nesset published a poem in an issue of Poetry magazine intended to display the voices of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, a storm of angry Tweets and blogs raged. One post read, “Literary spaces for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals are crucial. However, ceding—no, not just ceding, but amplifying—the voice of a White male predator at the expense of the voices of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated transgender, non-binary, and female survivors of color is egregious,” and another lamented the fact that the magazine failed to promote the “traditionally marginalized.” One person claimed that “POETRY gave Kirk’s submission white male privileges,” and wrote, “Kirk Nesset is not a victim of the prison industrial complex, he’s a predator.”
Thus, Hsu is correct in revealing how media localizations of aggression unto certain ethnic and sexual categories fuel populistic fear. However, their counterattack—transforming narratives of aggression into narratives of marginality and victimization—can overshadow a more sustainable project of decarceration through community-building and creating alternatives to state punishment. Disproportionately focusing on what Marie Gottschalk (2016) calls the “non, non, nons” (nonserious, nonviolent, and nonsexual offenders) and making marginality and victimization into a state of grace may have the adverse effects of pressuring justice-involved people to compete in claiming marginality and victimization for themselves, leaving out those who cannot claim marginality and victimization, or can only do so in ways that are not socially recognized.
These issues are addressed in the last addition to this collection; a conversation between Trevor Hoppe and former Black and Pink executive director Dominique Morgan as they discuss the intergroup tensions in the prison abolition movement and the tragic consequences of seeing criminality as more than a political label but a facet of one’s personhood.
Unpacking the different stakes people have in ending mass incarceration, Hoppe says,
A lot of my students have a passion for thinking about inequality and mass incarceration, particularly when it comes to Black communities in the United States…They come to class really focused and want to talk about drug offenses and nonviolent offenses. And anything beyond that is very scary territory for them. And I see this with LGBT organizations as well. They want nothing to do with criminal justice reform or especially sex offense policy (pp. 176-177).
To this, Morgan explains, “a lot of people really like this idea that you can say, ‘I’ve never been a felon, I’ve never been in jail. I did go to jail, but it was a DUI; it’s not like I murdered anybody.’ Those types of things people say create levels of good and bad, who deserves and who doesn’t deserve” (p. 177).
Morgan implies a distinction between attacking/seizing the system and outperforming it, saying “the most protected I have ever felt was as an abolitionist who leaned on communities and not systems,” and “the ways that system shows up can be put to the side” (p. 183). She continues, “quit telling brown and Black folks, quit telling queer folks that it would be better for them to become a part of the system …. You can do all the diversity sessions with the police you want to around queerness, but do they know how to handle it when they go to the park and somebody is getting a blowjob behind a tree?” (p. 187).
Morgan states that it’s the norm when somebody meets a person who has been in prison to ask about charges “because people want to know who’s there for a sex crime and who’s not” (p. 182). However, she says that when she made a commitment to serve as executive director of Black and Pink, she understood that the people who looked to her for support “deserve the best of [her]” regardless of their charges (p. 182).
Unsafe Words delivered what was promised – a variety of fresh perspectives on what consent looks like from the margins and the reasons why the law and its enforcers cannot solve the problems it has helped create. Other additions in this collection include a conversation between Anahi Russo Garrido and Gloria González-López on lesbian relationships in Mexico City, an essay by the late Miss Velvet, a former Chicago-based Black dominatrix and human rights activist, and a photo essay by Don (D. S.) Trumbull on the leather/fetish community. All are worth reading for their insights into the ways consent is experienced by different people. In the new political-sexual landscape of today in which past formulae for intimate relationships can no longer be trusted as guiding principles, this collection empowers readers, queer or otherwise, to start writing their own sexual scripts.
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