For queer people, sex and sexuality can often be difficult to navigate. There are so many ways to experience pleasure or to understand how our concepts of physical and mental sensuality piece together with our identity. At best, we embrace a less-conservative understanding. Kink, BDSM, polyamory and even non-penetrative sex seem to be more embraced in our community.
When we come out, this can be overwhelming. Growing up, we don’t get a “birds and the bees” talk, at least not one that answers our questions. We venture out into this exciting world of sexual self-discovery like we are finding our way in the dark. Everything fragile and exciting, right, maybe wrong, and mostly awakening.
In Chapter 2 of “Unsafe Words: Queering Consent in the #MeToo Era,” Alexander Cheves reflects on having sex in “a nearly pitch-black backroom with music so loud that conversation is impossible and, in practice, frowned on.” His story uncovers some of the myriad of questions about how we view and navigate consent as a queer community.
It is part of local author Trevor Hoppe and co-Editor Shantel Gabriel Buggs’ latest project. Hoppe is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and a Charlotte resident. Buggs is an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Florida State University.
As Hoppe and Buggs write in the introduction text, “the sexual lives of queer people, too, are more complicated than a straightforward binary of either pleasurable or dangerous activity. Some queers seek safety in sex while others do not; for some, sex can be a means to explore various ways of being outside of a heteronormative and homonormative world.”
The collection of 13 essays from a diverse group of leading queer academics, activists, artists and advocates seeks to tackle tough questions about sex, power, consent and harm. “When we ask what the #MeToo moment means for queer folks, what we are really asking is both what can the #MeToo moment teach queer people about consent and what can queers contribute to this ongoing conversation in a way that does not erase their queerness,” continue Hoppe and Buggs in the introduction.
Based on many of the authors’ lived experiences, and informed by kink and queer perspectives, the book explores the meanings of ethical sex and harm in diverse racial, sexual and gendered contexts. It includes the experiences of Black, Latino, Asian, nonbinary, transgender, gay, lesbian and sex worker voices and perspectives. “The #MeToo debate over the past 5 years has almost exclusively focused on relationships between powerful straight white men and women,” says Hoppe. “This excludes many marginalized communities.”
Hoppe and Buggs point out that use of the word “queer” is not limited to same-sex loving individuals either. The book examines the ways that anyone might experience something that disrupts, as they say, “fundamental heteronormative assumptions about sex.”
Take for instance the story by Mistress Velvet, for whom the book is dedicated. Velvet became well-known in 2018 when a Huffington Post article highlighted their practice of requiring white male clientele to pay reparations and read Black feminist theory before being dominated by them. Their clients were almost exclusively cis-heterosexual. Velvet died before the book’s release.
The practice of BDSM not only addressed the needs of Velvet’s clients but also her own understanding of race, gender and sexuality. The essay, written in a mix of both first and third person, explores the revolutionary and reflective moments that show up in this act of Black femme domination. “I am less interested in devaluing work that arguably may or may not institute systemic change and more invested in elevating the multifaceted ways in which Black women can experience liberation and consensuality, both individually and collectively,” writes Velvet.
The editors ask an important question in the collection they’ve assembled in “Unsafe Words,” – “If queer relationships are necessarily marked by differently gendered power dynamics (as well as racialized and classed dynamics), how is all this power negotiated?”
Part of the answer also might mean that LGBTQ people need to talk more openly about our experiences, or rather learn how to.
In Blu Buchanan’s essay “Before Consent, after Harm,” the writer asks the reader to “reconsider consent as collective, relational, and public.”
Buchanan recounts their first bathhouse experience and the ways we translate consent through our bodies and as community in queer spaces. “Long looks, head shakes, grazed hands, even the positioning of one’s body took on meaning, communicating in rapid fire with each person you came across your interest in and consent to particular kinds of sexual activities.” As they point out, these spaces have what is supposed to be an understood set of rules and “predicated on a shared knowledge.”
They then point out how this model falls short for many in the queer community. It assumes that everyone knows the rules and understands how to, as they put it, “engage (and disengage).” While not going into too much detail, Buchanan personally reflects on a time when this form of consent was violated and resulted in sexual violence.
If we learn to talk about our own experiences, we give more credence to communication. When we expect communication, we respect its importance as well. How that happens in a community, or (for lack of a better word) familial/fraternal, relationship is questioned. “The goal of transformative justice – which is integral to our reoriented definition of consent – is not to prevent all harm but to reduce it through structural interventions and to create pathways to repair,” writes Buchanan.
“Unsafe Words” is divided into two sections. “Queering Consent” considers the nature of consent and power. “Responding to Sexual Harm” debates how queer communities ought to evaluate and eventually redress sexual harm.
By telling a “queerer side of the #MeToo story,” Hoppe and Buggs ask us to consider our personal experiences and assumptions around consent in order “to promote more ethical and more pleasurable sex for everyone.”
“Unsafe Words: Queering Consent in the #MeToo Era is available from Rutgers University Press as part of their Q+ Public Series, which champions queer voices in media that explore questions of urgent concern for LGBTQ communities. For more information, visit www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/unsafe-words/9781978825406