(Note: this zine is from 2018, but the text here has been edited and updated since then)
A big part of the work that I do is traveling to colleges and high schools to talk about consent and gender violence prevention. For me, though, that conversation can’t just be about prevention on an individual, “being a better person” level. Of course, that’s an important part of it. But when we talk about sexual assault, we’re not just talking about individual perpetrators, individual survivors, and individual bystanders—we’re talking about a culture. How do we shift culture?
An activity that we often do is to put up three big sheets of paper, and ask the question: HOW DO WE BUILD A CULTURE OF CONSENT? One sheet is for things we can do as individuals, on our own. One is for things we can do in community, with our friends, family, and peers. One is for things we can do to shift policy in a larger-scale, sustainable way.
The idea is that the activity becomes a visualization of action ideas—it’s big, messy, and includes steps that experienced organizers can take right next to steps that someone who is having this conversation for the very first time can take. It shows that we have agency. We have power.
For this new zine, I wanted to share some of the results of this activity, some of the action ideas that thousands of students, survivors, advocates, and organizers across the country shared. It’s short, of course, but can hopefully spark some conversations, and some action. Please feel free to share, or even to download and print/fold some zines yourself (here are cutting/folding directions). Full text here:
What Is Consent?
“Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games.” (Project Respect)
“[Affirmative consent is]” “Informed, freely and affirmatively communicated willingness to participate in sexual activity that is expressed by clear and unambiguous words or actions.” (The Aurora Center)
“The idea of enthusiastic consent is quite simple. In a nutshell, it advocates for enthusiastic agreement to sexual activity, rather than passive agreement.” (Persephone Magazine)
Consent is… (via Planned Parenthood)
- Freely given. Consenting is a choice you make without pressure, manipulation, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- Reversible. Anyone can change their mind about what they feel like doing, anytime. Even if you’ve done it before, and even if you’re both naked in bed.
- Informed. You can only consent to something if you have the full story. For example, if someone says they’ll use a condom and then they don’t, there isn’t full consent.
- Enthusiastic. When it comes to sex, you should only do stuff you WANT to do, not things that you feel you’re expected to do.
- Specific. Saying yes to one thing (like going to the bedroom to make out) doesn’t mean you’ve said yes to others (like having sex).
“Up until recently, the prevailing theory of consent was ‘no means no,’ which often translated to ‘I can do whatever I want unless I hear a firm, clear, verbal no.’ Even if the person was drunk or high. Even if the person seemed unsure or had stiff body language. Happily, things started to change around 2008, with the publication of an anthology called Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, edited by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman. The book stressed the theory that consent wasn’t just a legal term used during rape trials, but the bare-minimum requirement for pleasurable sex. It helped popularize the terms ‘affirmative consent’ and ‘enthusiastic consent’ — the idea that both partners need to actively, emphatically agree to every step of a sexual encounter.” (Teen Vogue)
Practicing consent is vital, but ending sexual assault will take more than all of us just being better individuals. So how do we build a culture of consent? This document shares a few ideas pulled from conversations with advocates, activists, students, and survivors around the US:
As Individuals, We Can Level Up
Learn more about these issues via books (check out the last section below for some recommendations), articles, podcasts, classes, and more.
Especially for men: “unlearning” some of what we’re taught about masculinity and sex can be necessary. Lots of useful resources here.
Practice consent in your relationships: Be present. Communicate, listen, and ask questions. This video has more.
It isn’t just about sex; practice consent in other areas of your life too: ask before giving someone a hug, taking their picture, etc. Let children know that they can always say “no” to tickling, kisses, etc.
Understand consent beyond the “dominant narrative.” Consent matters in same-sex relationships, for people outside the gender binary, and beyond. While most perpetrators of sexual assault are men, men can also be victim/survivors.
Get plugged in: do a quick online search to find local and/or national organizations (or individuals) doing work to support survivors and end rape culture, and join their email lists, follow them on social media, or attend their events. I list a few examples in the “resources” section below.
Believe survivors. Start from a place of listening to, and taking seriously, those who come forward.
In Community, We Can Step Up
Dialogue. Spark conversations with friends and family. Join a book club or discussion circle where people can meet up, share their experiences, and build community. If you’re a student, take a class that explores these issues.
Speak out. Post links on social media. Write blog posts and letters-to-the-editor. Signal-boost the voices of organizers, advocates, and survivors.
Challenge the myths. From the prevalence of false accusations, to the idea that “boys will be boys,” to all kinds of victim-blaming nonsense: learn to spot these myths, and how to dismantle them.
Especially for men: bring these conversations into spaces where they aren’t already happening. Refuse to laugh at sexist or violent jokes. Call people out. Support survivors. Don’t just “be” a good guy, put your values and principles into action.
Support survivors. For a great list of “dos” and “don’ts,” check out “Supporting a Survivor: The Basics” at www.knowyourix.org.
Create art. Broadcast. Plant seeds. Whatever platform you have access to, no one else has that same access. You can also share existing art; for example, here’s a list of poems about consent and healthy sexuality.
Talk to the next generation. Whether we’re parents, older siblings, teachers, or other adult role models, let’s have open, honest conversations with the young people in our lives about consent. Check out the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s “6 Resources to Help Parents Talk to Kids About Consent.”
Bystander Intervention: Remember that it’s not just about perpetrators and victims. We can all disrupt harmful—or potentially harmful—situations. Whether you’re at a party and you witness someone trying to take advantage of someone else, or you’re on the bus and someone is being harassed, or you’re just on the internet and someone is saying harmful things, a great introduction to what individuals can do is Right To Be’s “5Ds of Bystander Intervention.”
On that last note, I’d also recommend this video, and this article, which both acknowledge the power of the bystander intervention approach while sharing some necessary critiques; a quote from the latter:
Maybe bystander intervention can be radically re-imagined, not as momentary interference in “isolated” instances of violence but as a consistent, collective effort at victim-centered justice, accountability, and support, one that extends long before and long after any particular “incident” of violence. (source)
To Shift Policy and Culture, We Can Show Up
Show up. Find organizations doing work to support survivors and cultivate a culture of consent, and support them via donations, signal-boosting, volunteering, organizing fundraiser events, or joining them– you can become an advocate too. Of course, not everyone can “show up” in the same ways. That’s okay. No single individual has to do every thing here. But we can all do something.
Vote for candidates who share your values on these issues. Advocate for them. Volunteer for their campaigns. Get better people into positions of power. Voting alone won’t solve this problem, but it can help set the stage for future work.
Plan for the future: If you’re a student, meet up with your advisor to find some classes that might put you on a career path to do this work for a living.
Do the work where you are. Make sure your school, business, or organization has effective protocols in place for dealing with accusations of harassment or sexual assault, as well as plans to help cultivate a culture of consent, respect, and support before any harm occurs.
Organize! Here are some specific policies that people around the country have fought for and won:
- Campus affirmative consent policies.
- K-12 consent education.
- Comprehensive sexual education in schools.
- More engaging, more critical, more effective consent ed content in first-year orientation programs.
- Funding for survivor advocacy organizations and/or student groups that work on these issues.
- Resources for holding perpetrators of sexual harassment or assault accountable outside of the criminal justice system, like community-centered transformative justice practices.
A few organizations (among many):
- Me Too Movement
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- PAVE (Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment)
- Know Your IX
- A Call to Men
- Green Dot
- Men Can Stop Rape
- Local organizations! Especially if you’re looking to donate, go local. To use Minneapolis as an example:
And a few suggested readings:
- “Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape” (Friedman and Valenti)
- “Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture” (ed. Gay)
- “Ask: Building Consent Culture” (ed. Stryker)
- “Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti-Violence Movement” (ed. Patterson)
- “The Hunting Ground: The Inside Story of Sexual Assault on American College Campuses” (Documentary and Book)
- “The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America” (Deer)
- “Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It” (Harding)
- “Not On My Watch: A Handbook for the Prevention of Sexual Violence” (Rotman)
- “Know My Name” (Miller)
- “Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement” (Burke)
Obviously, there are many more. With the format I’m using for this, space is limited. On here, however, I’d also point people to this list of poems (plus links/readings) dealing with these issues that may be useful as conversation starters or teaching tools.