Review by Pam Harvey.
It is difficult to witness current affairs without hearing stories involving issues of consent. By itself, Harvey Weinstein’s exposure has caused an avalanche of stories about the misuse of power and sexual assault. It would be easy to feel, then, that consent is mainly about sex. After reading Ask: Building a Consent Culture (Thorntree Press, 2017), Kitty Stryker’s timely collection of essays authored by diverse and articulate writers, it is obvious that consent – as a concept, as a language, as a fundamental aspect of respect – is so much more.
Ask is a collection of twenty-two essays broken into themes that represent contexts where consent culture needs to be built: the bedroom, school, jail, the workplace, home, the hospital, and the community. The range of essays within each theme broaden the topic immensely. Ask does not confine its discussions to situations of sexual consent, but questions aspects of consent across day-to-day life events. The essays range from reflective to academic, from posting recommendations to expressing comment. All are passionate and personal.
Readers will find many voices in this book that resonate with them. To me, Joellen Notte’s essay on issues of consent when you have a mental illness was a poignant, important entry that gets to the heart of what the book is about. It articulated complex emotions about living with mental illness, and how society reinforces old stereotypes, particularly about sex and love and who ‘deserves’ it. Av Flox’s following essay on legal consent frameworks and the dynamisms of consent reinforces the understanding that people need to operate from an ethical base and not just a legal one. Porscha Coleman’s and Zev Ubu Hoffman’s exploration of consent in consensual sexual communities showed that respect and mindfulness form the basis of a good consent culture wherever it is. Laura Kate Dale’s ‘To keep a roof over my head, I consented to delaying my transition’ is a heart-breaking reflection on families and coercion.
One of (many) encouraging aspects of Ask are some practical guidelines for how consent culture could be developed and integrated. Starting with an understanding of what consent means, and the language of its use, many essays talked about the early development of guidelines and rules for people to work with. Others offered ways of educating about consent using adult play (such as improvised role play) and role-modelling.
There are essays in this book I wish I had read decades ago, and want to share now with my colleagues, friends and children. Reading Akilah S. Richard’s thoughts on bodily autonomy for kids should be compulsory for all who care for children. Virgie Tovar’s ‘Fatphobia and consent’ was the platform for a long and rich conversation with my daughter about respect, social media and common decency. The glimpse into Takeallah Rivera’s less-than-perfect birthing experience resonated deeply, and has many lessons for health professionals and healthcare organisations.
That the book has a mainly USA-based focus was not a problem for this Australian reviewer. While the specifics in some essays may be contextual (eg. the discussion of particular laws or practices), there is enough humanistic content in this book to make it very generalizable. Stryker’s goal for the book was to provide writing from diverse authors, including non-cisgender, and she has achieved an accessible, important source of material that should encourage discussion of the most crucial kind. I hope this book takes off into the wider world and makes a difference.
Pam Harvey is a writer and educationalist working in medical education. Her PhD investigates narrative identity in adolescents with chronic illness in fiction.