UPDATE: Thanks again to Button Poetry for capturing this and broadcasting it out to so many people. Thanks also to George Takei (and many others) for sharing. The poem is in my book, which is available here.
The poem itself is maybe one of the more straightforward things that I’ve written; I wanted something that could work as a teaching tool, a resource, an additional frame for anyone doing work around this issue. In that spirit, I’d like to share a couple of links for further reading:
“Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games.” —more on consent from Project Respect
Here’s an in-depth primer on consent from Planned Parenthood.
“The idea of enthusiastic consent is quite simple. In a nutshell, it advocates for enthusiastic agreement to sexual activity, rather than passive agreement.” —more on enthusiastic consent from Persephone Magazine
Book: “Yes Means Yes” from Jaclyn Friedman & Jessica Valenti
The classic “Five Ways We Can Teach Men Not to Rape” by Zerlina Maxwell
Feel free to add more links or resources in the comments. Thanks!
Full text of the poem:
CONSENT AT 10,000 FEET
You ever have sex in a haunted house? Like you know, you sneak in together, and you’re both laughing, and you got it all planned out because you both worked there last year and know the layout of the building, and then like a werewolf jumps out and it’s like aaahhh but then you find that one spare room and it’s like… aahhh… you know, it’s different, it’s outside the box, but there’s nothing wrong with it.
You ever go to your roommate’s fringe festival show and end up hooking up with one of the supporting cast members, but they’re like, a method actor in the middle of a series of performances so they never break character? And, it’s cool but their character is this, like alternate universe steampunk Mercutio and their blunderbuss keeps getting in the way and you both laugh about it, and it’s like, memorable, something beyond the norm, but there’s nothing wrong with it.
You ever have sex inside an enormous bowl of fettucine alfredo that is suspended by chains between two sequoia trees because you’re dating this super avant garde performance artist and wanted to draw attention to their new vanity publishing press but they only got like a hundred Twitter followers? Yeah, it’s squishy, and definitely an experience that is not easily replicated, but there is nothing wrong with it.
There is nothing wrong with any of these scenarios, because in all of them, both partners are 100%, flamboyantly beyond any shadow of a doubt, down with what’s happening; and the communication of that, verbal and nonverbal, is clear and constant. This is consent. And wrong… would be the absence of that. In any context. For any reason.
It would be silence. It would be “I don’t know if this is what I want right now.” Because maybe that’s not a no, but it’s definitely not a yes. It would be just about everyone agreeing that rape is bad, but only when it’s called rape; how the amount of men who will admit to getting someone drunk, or otherwise manipulating, coercing, or forcing them into a sexual act is so much larger than the amount of men will admit to raping someone.
How wrong is it, to continue to talk about sexual assault like it’s always that stranger lurking in the bushes, or always that cartoon caricature of a predatory fratboy and never… the boyfriend. Or the girlfriend. Or the best friend. Or the “ally.” Or that really sweet guy from class.
This is for that really sweet guy from class, who might be asking: what about the grey areas? I’m not a rapist. What if we’re just both really drunk? What if she sends mixed messages? What if I’m trying to do the right thing but I read those signals wrong?
Have you ever had sex while skydiving? Like where you talk about consent the same way you talk about wearing a parachute—no grey areas, no assumptions like “I’m pretty sure I’m wearing a parachute.” No questions like “I asked her to check my parachute and she didn’t say anything, but it was okay last time so I’m sure it’s good this time too.”
Have you ever had sex in a burning building, when smoke and cinder wrapped itself around your neck, but coming was more important to you than going? Have you ever had sex on a liferaft in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by sharks. I’m not saying the water can’t be cloudy. I’m just saying: we are under no obligation to swim through it. Have you ever not had sex? Just watched a movie, maybe made out, maybe made plans to get up again later, and then maybe days or weeks later, when you’re both there, and both ready, and both smiling, and both completely alive in your own bodies, and both listening to each other, fully, and maybe it isn’t love, maybe it’s just sex, and that’s perfectly okay, but love is so much bigger than “let’s spend our lives together” it is also “let’s spend this moment together” as two (or more) people, present, electric, the opposite of grey—the embodiment of human—hands, eyes, lips, everything.