Towards a Culture of Consent

There is no love where there is domination.
~ bell hooks

CN: Rape Culture, Trauma, Assault


In the wake of what is coming to light through social media- and in our own awareness- the conversation about building a culture of consent holds extra weight.

Once we have, en masse, recognised that there is indeed a widespread problem, and this problem is not about sex addiction, or ‘boys being boys’, what then? Where do we go from here? How do we move from triage— where we support the victims and hold the perpetrators accountable— and start to address the root causes of the problem that is so widespread it has affected every single one of us?

“Rape Culture”.

This is provocative language. There are very few things that can happen to you worse than rape and this conversation is not about diminishing that. We need to listen to the people who have been victims of sexual assault and we need to support them to heal, and we need to prevent their abusers from hurting again. But the term “rape culture” is holding many of us back from seeing the bigger picture.

When we use a term that describes an aggressive non-consensual sexual act, we limit the conversation, because we blind ourselves to the micro-aggressions, to the ingrained ways that each of us contributes to something that feeds into this culture that is void of Consent.

When a person is raped, their sovereignty and autonomy is ignored. Another person’s will becomes dominant over them, regardless of their desires or needs. But rape is not the only place where this happens. This happens every single day, to most of us, and much of the time it has nothing to do with sex.

The problem isn’t rape. Rape is a symptom of the problem. And— rape isn’t about sex. Rape is about powerThe problem is that human beings have come to believe they have the right to hold power and dominate over other human beings.

At some point we, as a species, developed a culture of dominance in order to survive. Maybe we’d been hurt. Maybe there was a scarcity of resources. Perhaps we suffered mass trauma from some global cataclysmic event that led us to create social dynamics of absolute power structures. And over the many generations, this survival strategy has become our default.

Some may call this Patriarchy, or even Kyriarchy. You may hear it referred to as colonialism or imperialism. I call it Dominance Culture.

Not to be confused with the term “dominant culture”, although right now in our world it is the predominant culture: Dominance Culture is the Roman Empire stretching across Europe and destroying indigenous cultures to replace with its own; it’s the residential school system of Canada that was part of a cultural genocide, and the internment of Japanese-Canadians in the 1940s; it’s the imperialistic attitudes that continue today, wherein social circumstances award social privilege. It’s racism, sexism, and ableism.
It’s your employer not letting you sit down during your eight hour shift doing retail, even though your back and your feet hurt. It’s the man on the bus groping another man’s ass, and the woman at the spa saying derogatory things about her friend who couldn’t afford to go. It’s pushing someone out of the way in the line up for boxing day sales. It’s the activist who chastises others for their lack of education about an issue- without realizing that not everyone has had access to education.
It’s a person thinking that bullying an alleged abuser is going to help them heal from their own abuse or somehow give them back their power. It’s the politician who ignores the voices of the people who voted for them, and decides to dictate to them what’s in their ‘best interest’ without bothering to go through a process of informed consent.
It’s also playing small so as not to draw negative or unwanted attention: at work, at a club, biking to school, or at a family gathering. It’s believing that the only way to restore our power after loosing it is to hold on to, and weaponise our identities as victims.

Trauma not transformed will be trauma transferred.
~ Ashley Judd

Let’s be clear: your anger is valid. Your anger needs to be heard. Aggression is different from anger. Aggression is when we channel our anger in to trying to achieve power and dominance over a situation, over-riding the autonomy of others. Anger needs to be heard, and to open the door to healing.

If we don’t resolve our trauma, we end up transferring it. Perhaps indirectly, or perhaps directly. Maybe intentionally, or perhaps unintentionally. We are the products of humans adapting generationally to every increasingly complex levels of trauma– all born from a social script that overrides individual sovereignty, and disregards the holistic nature of being in relationship with all things.

What are every day things we can do to combat Dominance Culture in ourselves? This is the conversation we invite you to engage in.

How can we dismantle the systems of dominance, and embrace organisational structures in our work and community groups where leadership is shared, not hoarded?

How do we form circles of accountability?

How might each of us heal our own wounds, and find greater spaces of empathy and compassion to engage from, so that we are not perpetuating further hurt?

How can we empower everyone to feel strong in their own voice?

How do we step out of a culture of Dominance and into one of Consent?


Why Consent? Reflections on a Summer of Consent Culture

Earlier this year, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) organized a Consent Summit in Seattle, a part of their “Consent Counts” program. Victor and I were fortunate enough to attend and engage with other Consent-minded educators, community members, advocates, and activists. What followed was a whirlwind summer for our team, and a neglected blog. As the leaves are starting to turn, and the hectic summer schedule is fading like my festival tan, it feels like a great time to reflect* on that season of sun and exploration.

“How do we explain consent to our community members that makes it easy to understand and incorporate in their own lives?”  ~Susan Wright, NCSF

Susan Wright posed this question as part of her opening plenary, and it’s been something that I’ve taken with me throughout this summer. How do we most effectively educate and engage our communities in consent culture? How do we talk with our friends? Our neighbours?

The answer? Connect.
“But, how?” I hear you saying…

Have one-on-one conversations
Some of my favourite education moments from this summer came from conversations that started with the simple question “what does consent mean to you?” (followed second only by conversations that started with sharing our buttons or yes/no cards). You likely know the the language, the culture, the customs, the people, of the community you exist in and have personal connections within it. You’re the best person to have those conversations. Think it won’t make a difference? I challenge you to give it a try to see the results.

Hugs anyone? Photo credit: David_M

Model consent in your interactions within your community
Some communities that I’m a member of are a very huggy bunch. Some of us in those communities have some pretty strong boundaries around who we’ll hug, or if we’ll hug at all. I’ve seen an incredible ripple effect happening just by asking before sharing a consensual hug with someone. Same with asking (and waiting for a “yes!”) before I get a little closer on the dance floor. Not in a hugging community? Think about other ways that you connect and interact and start there.

Give people something to think about
I’ve always been a bathroom reader, and, it turns out, so are a lot of people I know. Creating portapotty and washroom posters for festivals and other events has turned out to be a great way to connect people with the idea of consent this summer. Saucy mad libs while you use the loo, anyone?

Consent Mad Libs: May I (verb) your (adjective) (noun)
Did you see this in a portapotty near you? Nod to the Bass Coast Harm Reduction team for this signage inspiration.

Not at an event where posters are an option? We heard that our custom “What’s your Yes/No?” cards shared during Vancouver Pride Weekend festivities sparked a lot of thought!

Create a space where mistakes are ok
We can educate and engage people all we want, but if we don’t give people space to process and learn from their mistakes, our hard work will be for naught. Creating a conversation around consent and how to handle and respond to consent accidents fosters a space where people are more open to cultivating consent culture. Knowing the Battleaxe of Consent won’t meet your skull because you forgot to ask someone before you hugged them is a huge sigh of relief for many people new to consent culture. Owning up to mistakes and learning from them is always easier in a place where we don’t expect everyone to be perfect all the time.

As we ease into the autumn, expect more reflection and more education tools around here. We’ve got to do something to keep ourselves occupied while the daylight hours are on the decline.

What are the ways you see consent being presented in your community that make it easy for you to understand and integrate into your daily life?

*These reflections are through my (dynamic) lens as an educator who happens to be a highly educated, newly middle class, white, queer, cis woman.

About the author: Kim Dee is a passionate educator with over 16 years of teaching, facilitation, and outreach training and experience. She values experiential learning and believes that any experience can become a chance for reflection and growth. She holds a PhD in evolution and behaviour and is presently pursuing a certificate in collaborative conflict resolution. A long-time social and environmental advocate, Kim is a co-founder of the Vancouver-based Consent Crew. She is an enthusiastic and committed volunteer, dedicated to creating safer, inclusive spaces in all communities in which she participates.

Consent Quickies: Boundaries

Two of The Consent Crew’s favourite consent conversation starters are simply, “What’s your Yes?” and “What’s your No?”*

Have you ever asked yourself those questions before you went out to an event? Before you had a conversation with people important to you? Before you’ve been intimate with someone? If you’ve spent some time reflecting on your yeses and noes (your boundaries), you might have noticed it’s a lot easier to be clear with yourself and others. Since clear communication is a key for consent, we encourage you to take some time and ask yourself, “what’s my yes/no/maybe?”

*Interested in these images as conversation starters? Get in touch with us! They make great business card-sized questions.

Should consent be sexy?

Brainstorming consent, one word at a time.
Brainstorming consent, one word at a time.

Consent is…
We often start out our Consent Crew workshops with a brainstorming session where we ask participants to complete the phrase, “Consent is ______.” Almost without fail, someone in the crowd says, “sexy.” Sometimes, this person is trying to get a reaction out of the group. Usually, this is one of the most common phrases about consent that person’s heard and it’s stuck with them.

You might wonder why it IS so catchy. It likely has to do with a marketing method called emotional branding. This builds brands using statements that directly appeal to the target audience’s emotional state, desires, and needs. Many of us have a strong desire to feel attractive or sexy, so, “consent is sexy” kinda makes sense. How? Maybe if we’re not getting consent (or giving consent), we’re not being sexy and that possible lack of sexiness or attractiveness can touch our fear and desire to belong triggers.

And that part, that sexy bit, is where the potential problem happens. “But,” I hear you say, “people repeat it! People remember it! People fill in the “consent is ______” with it! We should keep using it because it’s working, right?”

Except, it might be sending the wrong message.

Credit: Schuh
Credit: Schuh

The intent here is well-meaning enough. It attempts to shift the conversation from “don’t get raped” to “don’t rape.” It tries to bring attention to consent in a slightly salacious way. But, using that “consent is sexy” message can imply a few rather unfortunate things:

  1. Sex without consent is, well, just unsexy sex.

Except, sex without consent isn’t unsexy, it’s sexual assault.

Conversely, sex with consent isn’t always going to be sexy, either. Let’s face it, sex can be awkward (“you want me to put what where?”) and less than satisfying or super-exciting at times.

  1. Saying “no” to sex offered with consent makes someone unsexy.

“Oh, he/she/they asked to have sex and I’ve heard consent is sexy, so if I say no…”
Remember that emotional marketing thing I mentioned above? Yeah, that’s it. That’s where use of “consent is sexy” gets a little wobbly and makes me personally uncomfortable. Sometimes, being asked for consent doesn’t feel mutual if we think that the asker is operating on an “I asked if you’d have sex. If you say, yes, you’re even sexier,” kind of attitude. Seems rather, um, coerced, right?

  1. Consent is only needed during sex or sexy times.

Consent isn’t just about those encounters. Sure, it can feel empowering and sensual, and be part of amazing moments of connection, and a hell of a turn-on in times of mutual invitations to intimacy. But, it’s not just about sex.

Consent is about all times, and all interactions. From a cupcake offered to a friend, to a cup of tea, to a hug, to sweet tender kisses on foreheads, to wanting to share someone’s space while they dance. Consent is integral in all of those interactions, but, “consent is sexy” doesn’t really work in any of those examples.

  1. All people are sexual or want to be sexual.

Not everyone wants to be sexual or have sex, or sees it as a positive thing. “Consent is sexy” can be a really isolating phrase for people who are asexual or have heavy sexual traumas.

So, how should we fill in that blank?

Let’s consider stepping outside of the “sexy” realm. Let’s seriously consider that consent is always important. Consent is respect for others and their autonomy. It’s about a respect that acknowledges we all know what is best for us and our own bodies, in all interactions, not just when we’re trying to obtain sexual intimacy.

I’m not saying we should stop using this phrase all together. Maybe, just maybe, my experience at a party was better because someone heard “consent is sexy” at some college orientation, and then they respected my space more or chose not to initiate unwanted sexual encounters. Maybe it does get through to some people…but…

I challenge us all to get more creative and inclusive!


Still want a catchy phrase for marketing? We’d suggest…

Consent is…
…mutual respect

Or maybe just…

What’s your favourite way to fill in the “consent is ______” blank?