Excerpts from Terms of Play: Poetics on Consent as Method
Author(s): Violet Livingston
Violet Livingston (she/her) is a queer femme writer, consent educator, and contemporary circus artist. All of her writing blurs genres, and can be found in: Hippocampus Magazine, Slag Glass City, Fourth Genre, Third Coast, Constellations: A Cultural Rhetorics Journal, Peitho, and in her circus shows (LACES) and zines (most recently, “Consent Games for Circus,” which has been distributed internationally, and “When You Come Back”). She has a PhD in queer rhetorics, sits on the Board of Directors of The Firecracker Foundation, and is in her second year of professional circus school at the New England Center for Circus Arts. She dreams of writing and doing artistic direction for a circus company with the purpose of using multiple genres to tell stories that both remind us of our humanity and change how we understand what it means to be human.Tags: 23-1, consent, lyric writing, queer rhetorics, rhetorical listening
A: Age of Consent
The necklace came wrapped in a cloud of cotton, tucked inside an emerald green department store box. Sterling silver, circular as the unanswerable, the necklace coiled, like the segments of a wooden snake toy, through the center of a small heart. We weren’t jewelry people. I’d rarely seen gifts that fancy given as a gift in my immediate family. So, the necklace was imbued with an out-of-proportion, almost magical significance. The gift was both the talisman against evil, and the evil itself.
Snakes attack the unsuspecting from their slithering places on the ground.
He came right through the front door to a holiday dinner the year I turned thirteen, bearing gifts, and looking for tacit permission. Through the tall grass, he slid onto the scene in a low-set, silver muscle car, which, in retrospect, wasn’t even that cool. He was a snake, too, hair slicked back, dressed in the false innocence of whiteness. He had a way of smooth moving, then, striking without cause.
He spit metallic venom, hissed when infuriated, which he often was, especially when I acted childish. He was much older. Said, shhhhhhhh, don’t tell your father. He’ll kill us, like we were in this together. He was quietly violent, omnipresent. Then left the sting of distance.
I was not ready. I was thirteen. I crept upstairs to my room, which had a canopy bed, dotted in simple, embroidered flowers. I crossed my eyes at them, like a kid would do to make the image of a snake appear.
I un-clipped the necklace from my throat, scrunched up my nose to stop the tears, and thought, grow up! He’s not going to like you, if you act like a baby.
The monster in my closet, the part I’m afraid to admit–I unwrapped the necklace myself, heart thrumming with the new sensation of being wanted. I let him. I felt proud, that he chose me a silvery snakeskin collar, fitted close to the throat. I let him fasten it on. I did. But I was too young to know what the ritual meant.
My sister-in-law has already taught her four-year-old consent.
“Do you want to hug?” my niece asks me, holding her summer brown arms out wide.
“I would love a hug! Thanks for asking.”
“Okay! Are you ready?”
To practice consent, you need to enter our worlds, queer places, where queer people aspire to explicitly negotiate our relationships, making sure everyone is mutually satisfied. You need to enter our discourse to understand consent.
The action of entry requires knowing particular discourses, bound by particular rules. These discourses should be, but are not always, flexible to allow for nuance and shifts in accepted knowledge (Hawkins, Borich, and Capello). Entering an academic discipline is no different, though many queer people find it challenging to get in. Honestly, I don’t want to get in, unless you want me here. Do you want me here? Does this text feel okay to you?
There is also the ongoing question of who can enter into the discourse of queer rhetorics (Oleksiak). I mean, the question of: if one enters into queer discourse, does that make them queer? Am I queer if I like queer discourse? Do queers want to be taken in completely, or is being known too well by straight people dangerous?
Here is an entry point. Here is a whole, queer world, opening up to you.
Let me tell you a bit about our House Rules.
D: Dress Code
In sixth grade, my guidance counselor shuffled me into her office just before third hour during registration week. “I see you signed up for Drafting Class. That class will be filled with boys. Wouldn’t you be happier in Art Class?” This, and furrowed brows, and empathetic head nodding, made me suspect I was in trouble. But I was twelve, with the kind of untarnished optimism that sticks around until folks start saying, “can’t,” “don’t,” “shouldn’t,” “wouldn’t.”
I had been drawing floor plans since I was a kid, rearranging my parents’ furniture while they worked. There was no reason in my mind why girls wouldn’t want to build. I registered for Drafting Class, rushing home from school to tell my Dad. He gave me one of his mechanical pencils, the kind with soft lead that doesn’t make scratch marks on the paper. Someday, you can build me and your Mom a house” he said.
On the first day of class, I had eyes like possibility. I’d swing my feet off the edge of the metal stool because they didn’t quite touch the ground. My head on the slant-topped, wooden desk, fists clenched around my new pencil, I’d concentrate hard.
Drafting Class was hard. I loved to watch my ideas translate from mind to paper to reality. When I get older, I want to work with my hands. I want to make what I see real. I want to create.
The end of the semester came quick. I knew I’d get an ‘A.’ I turned my work in early, helping other students who didn’t get the calculations right. There were few eraser marks on my assignments.
I was last in line for grades, trying to get my final project exactly right. When it was my turn, the line of boy bodies, shoulder-to-shoulder, still milling around my teacher’s desk, parted to let me pass. The teacher cleared his throat, motioned me closer, and put one heavy hand on my right shoulder. “You’re good at drawing, but you’re a distraction to the boys,” he said. “Take this note to your parents. Maybe next semester you’ll listen when I tell you not to wear those tight black pants to class.”
His hand was fire, burning, burning. My face turned red and I was running out of that classroom, down the hall, down the stairs, burst out the hard metal school doors, and didn’t stop till I was on my front porch, hot tears, finally falling from my eyes.
I crumpled his note in a small, angry fist. I made it so small it barely existed. I didn’t tell my parents why I got a B+ until years later.
I do create now, with words. I stack them like bricks, like defenses against the series of lessons we teach girls about their bodies, where they belong, and how to survive. If I was twelve still, I’d tell myself to let those boys see me cry. They might remember the moment and act differently in the future. I’d tell myself to keep dreaming new ideas into reality. To use my voice. To turn around, lift my chin, and tell that teacher he’s being a sexist dick.
Consent is a fantasy. When we live there together, tenderness has transformative potential.
These stories are true. I’ve taken artistic license to protect the identities of those who certainly did these queer things, and many more.
These fragments are stories. What the pieces offer queer rhetorical theory, what they mean, is for you to discern.
You don’t need to have the same fantasy as me, to want what I want, think how I think, write how I write.
Just listen to my rhythm, be in the same room, mulling over this queer lyric.
Queerness is reaching for you. Reach back.
Feel free to make noise, exclaim, groan, express your perspective. Feel free to move your body close, or far away. Your feedback is a gift to me. Your most tender response, in its first form, is my guidance.
the body of this essay,
unusually slim and swinging,
a poem where there ought
to be a thesis.
I: Initial Negotiation
In the initial negotiation of consent, which must take place again with each new encounter, two or more people collaborate on the scene. You could think of this initial negotiation like choosing possibilities from a menu, based on likes and dislikes. You could think of this as what we call in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, “invention,” the beautifully recursive process of coming up with ideas, which happens in community with other people, through comingling your ideas with new ideas.
Tina Horn writes about these initial negotiations as part of the pleasure of the process of negotiating consent, a listening moment. Narrating the story of The Gates, a community where consent is central, Horn writes, “When looking for a flexible gig to support my rock-and-roll lifestyle, I [Tina Horn] typed the word ‘dominatrix’ into the Adult Gigs section of San Francisco Craigslist” (Love Not Given Lightly 13-14).
When you book a session at The Gates, you arrive right on
time. You ring the bell, and step through the front door to a glass-walled porch filled with
potted houseplants. The door to the house swings open, and you enter…
Your mistress sits opposite you on another, smaller couch. She may be in a dress, or a
robe, but she is not naked or in fetish gear. One of the rules of the house is: negotiation is
conducted between two consenting adults with as little distraction as possible…
What are you in the mood for today?
What’s your fantasy? What are your turn-ons?
What are you curious about,
and what is an absolute boundary? (Horn 58-59)?
Only once the players have engaged in these initial negotiations will the person or people intended to direct the action of the scene begin.
“Rhetorical listening,” Krista Ratcliffe suggests, depends on metonymy, the places where connections do not seem to exist. Rhetorical listening means caring more about what people are saying than you do about making an argument. It means holding complexities in order to listen across cultures, knowing you don’t always get the last word.
Listening to Mia Mingus, whose work focuses on disability justice and transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse, consent fails sometimes in practice. In “Feeling the Weight: Some Beginning Notes on Disability, Access, and Love,” Mingus explains:
The weight of inaccessibility is not logistical. It is not just about ramps, ASL interpreters, straws and elevators. It is a shifting, changing wall—an ocean—between you and I. It is just as much feeling and trauma as it is material and concrete. It is something felt, not just talked about … It is an echoing loneliness; part shame, part guilt, part constant apology and thank you. It is knowing that no matter how the conditions around me change, my body will still not be able to do certain things—it will still need other people, it will still signal dependence, it will still be disabled.
In a later essay, Mia Mingus goes on to write that consent can’t always work for disabled people, who so often need to participate in “forced intimacy,” meaning “a term that I have been using for years to refer to the common, daily experiences of disabled people being expected to share personal parts of ourselves to survive in an ableist world” (Everyday Feminism).
N: Negotiation of Power and Identities
Falcon and I sit on the edge of the mattress on the floor, lacing our boots. She wears her hair in a bisexual bob, and her boots so they fit snug under leather pants that outline her broad hips in rivets. I bet she set those rivets herself, sprawled on the floor of our shared room.
We found the original, 8-hole boots I wore in the free pile, a size-and-a-half too big. When I put them on, it’s the only time I feel connected to the earth. Strays, throwaway kids, that’s what we are. We pick stuff out of the trash just like we found each other.
Falcon drives us to City Club, a Detroit goth club at Cass and Bagley, in the basement of the Ramada Inn. She doesn’t drink and drive, and she doesn’t let me pre-drink because I’m kind of a lightweight.
We adorn ourselves at the mirror, narrating our plans in detail—I will get a single shot from the blue-white neon-lit bar right when we get in. Then we’ll throb dance to industrial music until our bodies ache, perch on the velvet couch so she can smoke a cigarette, and I can sit enveloped in her cloud.
Falcon turns her back to me, fishing around in her jewelry drawer. She only speaks in commands. “Here. Put this on.” She turns, thrusting a leather collar into my palms with skillful confidence.
I try to hide a smile.
“No one will bother you if you wear this—that’s all it means,” she says, without ceremony. Our leather means we were a pack.
She drives. I sit beside her.
We kick dance to our heart’s content. I don’t even listen to this moody ass music outside City Club. It’s the clamor and din I come for, the erratic bodies bobbing together in an underground room. I just like the way noise makes me feel bliss inside.
The club closes at 4am. We arrive after midnight, stay the whole night, and early into the morning. I fall asleep in the car on the drive home, wrapped in Falcon’s ratty, oversized hoodie. “Baby,” she strokes my hair to bring me gently awake at Coney Island, “do you want some French Fries?”
Who am I? is too concrete a question to concern me in that moment. Here is what I know: I get an electric surge of shared power from walking side-by-side with Falcon, two femmes minding our own business, but not taking any shit. The feeling is not a sexual one, but I am too new to relationships to know the difference.
She is magnificent, a bird of prey with talons sharp enough to protect us both. I like imagining I am safe because I am beside her.
Home to our shared room past 5am. Snug in separate beds, I wait until she flips the lights off to call into the dark,
“Falcon? I think I might be gay.”
“You’re not gay. Go to sleep!”
P: Personal Professional Ad
Poet and consent scholar, seeking word circus
You: flexible about prose style, up for verbal acrobatics. Me: consent educator with a PhD in the desired disciplines, talents include foot juggling (balls, careers) and swinging (trapeze). For thirteen years, I maintained a long-term partnership with a woman so butch her gender frequently set off the “Groin Alarm” while going through airport security. I am entranced by pansexuality, chefs of all genders. That is to say, I’m drawn to gender queerness and sexual queerness. I desire to be fed and given long-term commitment. Skills include: storytelling, lyricism, power dynamics, rope work, meaning I like to tie myself in knots, intellectual contortion. I teach what I practice. Write to me at: email@example.com. Let’s get to a mutual YES.
P: Play is Negotiated, never Assumed
Too seldom in academia do our professional rituals and games involve a consent process. The race to seek out a tenure track position (akin, I’ve been told, to seeking out a spouse to marry), the “publish or perish” mindset (a contest about whose voices will be invited in and listened to), and even the ways crucial budgetary decisions get made at the institutional level (a hierarchical arrangement) are all deeply non-consensual in ways they don’t have to be. Power play is assumed, not negotiated.
The job market acts based on whether candidates have successfully connected with the right people, those who can help them enter the discipline. Are you the right kind of queer to have friends? It is a game of shifting boundaries, hardcore power dynamics based on being extroverted and well-liked, and unclear rules.
This is for all the quiet queers. This is for all the queers juggling multiple marginalized identities. So much of academia feels decidedly not queer, not inclusive. It’s not your fault if you don’t get let in, if you don’t feel your work is respected as central to your discipline. Participation in power games should be negotiated, never assumed.
P: Power (some tenets)
There is no play without power.
Language is powerful.
Practicing consent means knowing your own power, and using it well.
Power is always in flux, which means we need to check our own power constantly.
For an action to be consensual, any mental, emotional, physical, spiritual power play needs to happen within a consent framework.
These are adult games, with a specific context and pre-negotiated rules.
Q: Queer Sexual Ethics
Consent is a measure of ethics in relationships. Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, authors of The New Topping Book and The New Bottoming Book (2001) describe consent ethics:
The games we play are marked by their ethics, by the players’ insistence on high consciousness, by the respect in which we hold consent. Power games exist in many forms in our culture, often unconscious and often unsafe … (6).
Consent is an active collaboration for the benefit, well-being, and pleasure of all persons concerned (9).
There are scenes of Dominance and submission all around us and within us. Queer consent discourse asks us to notice and question whether or not they are consensual. “Sexual rhetoric,” queer rhetorics scholars Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes write in their introduction to Sexual Rhetorics: Methods, Identities, Publics, “is the self-conscious and critical engagement with discourses of sexuality that exposes both their naturalization and their queering, their torqueing to create different or counterdiscourses…” (1).
Consent is a queer discourse. You don’t have to be queer to use it. Which of the stories I’ve told so far are consensual?
One way to shame someone, to put them in their place, and arrange the power dynamics so that you have more power, is to require them to perform a repetitive, but ultimately fruitless task.
Please let me into the discipline.
Please let me have tenure.
Desire becomes shame because we risked wanting.
My Kindergarten teacher behaved this way. I really liked my teacher, who had a hollowed out television with a curtain replacing the back, so we could climb inside and imagine we were on screen. She invited us to be creative, to experiment and play.
That is why I’ll never forget the day I was caught as an accessory to my peers throwing Lincoln Logs in the sink. My teacher brought me aside in the hallway and asked, “Did you throw toys in the sink? Yes, or No?”
“NO!” I said. I had only watched the twins in my class through them in.
“Are you telling me you watched the twins throw the Lincoln Logs in the sink, and didn’t come tell me?” the teacher said.
It is hard now, not to laugh at the specificity of the offense. But my teacher had me blocked into a classic, though un-negotiated Dominant/submissive corner. We are taught teachers have authority and power.
I had no chance of performing a power reversal. (I was a child). I had no choice but to admit I was complicit. (I had known, and did nothing).
My punishment was writing “I will NOT throw Lincoln Logs into the sink” one hundred times.
I was a very obedient child, so it was a rush to know I had committed a small mistake: I had indeed watched the twins throw the toys in the sink. I still remember how the shame of punishment burned in my cheeks when we got caught standing around the sink, the way it made me feel both embarrassed to be alive, and alive.
So, what do you say? Queer and trans* folks are knocking on the margins of your discourse. Here are our stories, theories, poetics. Are you interested?
Circle: yes, or no.
Y: Yes, an Expression of Desire
Let queerness sing. Let queerness come through you like your spirit does. Take up the expanses of your sentences any way that serves your message. Throw away archaic rules about grammar and syntax. Throw away archaic rules about blazers and keeping your legs crossed. Your style is exquisite. Promise you won’t straighten it. If mainstream journals won’t publish your work, publish it yourself, Riot Grrrl style in zine form. Don’t beg unless you’ve negotiated it.
- Alexander, Jonathan and Jacqueline Rhodes. Sexual Rhetorics: Methods, Identities, Publics. Routledge, 2016.
- Bizzell, Patricia, Chris Schroeder, and Helen Fox, editors. Alt/Dis: Alternative Discourses and the Academy. Heinemann, 2002. Easton, Dossie and Janet W. Hardy. The New Topping Book. Greenery Press, 2001.
- Hawkins, Ames, Barrie Jean Borich, K. Bradford, and Mary Cappello. “Courting the Peculiar: The Ever-Changing Queerness of Creative Nonfiction.” Slag Glass City 1 (November 2014).
- Horn, Tina. Love Not Given Lightly: Profiles from the Edge of Sex. Three L Media, 2015.
- Mingus, Mia. “This is Why Consent Doesn’t Exist for Disabled People.” Everyday Feminism. 20 August 2017.
- —. “Feeling the Weight: Some Beginning Notes on Disability, Access, and Love” Makeshift Magazine, 10. 8 May 2012.
- Oleksiak, Timothy. “Composing in a Sling: BDSM, Power, and Non-Identification.” Pre/Text vol. 24, nos. 1-4, 2018, pp. 9-24.
- Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Gender, Identification, and Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP: 2005.