There is just too much to say about Stacey May Fowles in one short paragraph and now TCP is already one sentence behind. I first had the pleasure of enjoying her writing in the anthology Yes Means Yes, where she discusses consent and sexualized power in such an extraordinarily insightful way, it honestly ended up being a huge inspiration for this project! There is still much of Stacey May’s consent-influenced writing I have not gotten the chance to explore, yet. She writes novels, frequently pens articles, and fortunately consents to thorough interviews. Now it seems only perfect to finally meet, discuss, and learn more from what is and I’m sure will continue to be a motivating voice for consent.
The Consensual Project: For you, why is consent so sexy?
SMF: How is it not? Something simply can’t be sexy unless it is consensual, so that’s one very easy explanation. Beyond that, the knowledge that your partner is enthusiastic about what you’re sharing with them is a wonderful, exhilarating thing.
I grew up feeling like sex was something that happened to you, something that you were supposed to be afraid of and not something you actively participated in enjoying. I was taught by people I looked up to to carry the burden of potential sexual threat, whether it was reputation, or violence, or disease, or pregnancy. It took me a long time to shake that feeling, and I only did so when I had partners that were actively interested in hearing what was pleasurable, enjoyable and safe for me. In some ways, even stating your sexual needs (and what you don’t need) is a revolutionary act. I’d like to think that climate is changing, but I feel like we have a long way to go before women are considered respected equals in sexual satisfaction and happiness.
Once you submerge yourself in a model of enthusiastic consent you come to realize that nothing could be sexier, and that it expands our sexuality into a healthy, ongoing dialogue that has the power to make so many aspects of our lives more positive and empowered.
TCP: Is there anything related to consent that you’ve been happily surprised by?
SMF: A lot of people are resistant to a kind of system of consent that involves making checklists or answering questions on paper, or having long discussions outside of “the bedroom” about what kinds activities you’re both interested in. In fact, I recently read a self-help book for women where the author suggested that talking about sexual wants, needs and comfort levels over coffee was strange. “Who does that?” the author asked. Well, I do. And I love it.
It’s surprisingly sexy to have these kinds of conversations, and the bonus is that it allows couples to try and enjoy things that they may not have previously considered. When the focus is pleasure, respect and comfort, the act of establishing limits can actually have the benefit of limitless consensual possibilities.
TCP: What is a phenomenon in hookup culture that you like?
SMF: I’ve always heard the phrase “hookup culture” used by sources who are terrified that women are harming themselves by seeking out and enjoying sex, and by having the agency to dictate when and where it happens. Because of this I’m wary of the general idea; it suggests that sexual relationships can’t be meaningful, important, respectful, valuable and fun, regardless of how “casual” they are. This idea that a woman’s sexual agency is somehow dangerous and damaging is at the root of the hand-wringing, slut-shaming media fear of “hooking up.”
For me there is actually no such thing as a slut – a slut is just a made-up idea, a lie created by people interested in keeping women afraid of sex and pleasure. Mainstream culture generally fears female sexuality and polices it as a result, and I suppose there are aspects of “hookup culture” that can potentially liberate us from that, if only the notion that yes, women (shock! horror!)want and enjoy sex too.
The lie is that women are not supposed to enjoy or want sex, but rather that they should perform and exist for male pleasure. The easiest way to reinforce that inequity is to tell women they can’t maintain respect, they can’t be “good,” if they “hookup” and have sex when they want to. The heterosexual norm is that men are always “taking” sex and women are always “giving it up,” instead of the act being a mutually satisfying experience between two people. A woman who has sex because she wants to, because she enjoys it, is often slapped with labels of disdain because female sexual agency terrifies the status quo. “Hookup culture” feels like another one of those labels to me.
Bottom line is that as long as people are making genuinely informed, safe sexual choices, as long as they want and choose to have sex, and as long as they are respecting their sexual partners while they do so, we don’t need to call it anything other than healthy and positive. No cultural label required.
TCP: Who has been the most influential figure(s) in your life when it comes to consent?
SMF: I have some really phenomenal women in my life who are constantly influencing and opening up my thoughts on consent in extremely positive ways. They are always enthusiastic about discussing and calling out the sexism they face in their daily lives, whether it’s the way women are depicted in the media, treated in the workplace, or excluded from positions of power. When the activism fatigue sets in (as it always seems to do) they’re around to be supportive and blow off some steam. I believe that having a healthy community of people in one’s life to raise these issues with is so important to feeling empowered that real change is possible. I feel blessed every day they’re in my life.
Beyond that Jaclyn Friedman, feminist activist (and the editor of Yes Means Yes), has been a huge inspiration to me. She is intelligent, candid, and fearless around issues of slut-shaming and sexual violence. She never shies away from standing up to the status quo and she’s an extremely valuable voice in the conversation about consent.
TCP: First was “no means no” then progressed “yes means yes”, do you think there is something next? If so, what?
SMF: I’d like to think that the “next” we’re striving for is a world where we all live free of the threat of sexual violence. All the work we do is to achieve a culture where we no longer need to have this dialogue, to do these interviews, to fight this fight. Only in believing that world is possible can we make it so.
There needs to be a mainstream admission that yes, we do live in a rape culture that falsely excuses sexual violence as natural and inevitable, and that puts the responsibility on women to be vigilant gatekeepers. This idea that “men can’t help it” is not only damaging to women, it’s damaging to all of us. Until we stop putting the responsibility of consent and safety all on women, until we stop shaming and blaming them, we’ll never achieve equality or healthy, empowered, pleasurable, and safe sexual relationships. That achievement is the “next” I think so many of us are striving for.
TCP: If you could envision your perfect society, where rape culture had been fully replaced by cultures of consent, what would be some examples of it? Or should I say, what would it look like?
SMF: I think the key is that we’d be engaging men, not just women, in an open dialogue about consent and their responsibilities toward fighting sexual violence. Up until this point it feels like the conversation has only been with women and about women, hinging on their potential victimization. In order for us to get to a place where rape culture is dismantled, the focus needs to shift to engage everyone in making it so. If we’re only having a dialogue about a woman’s skirt length, what route she took home, how many drinks she had, or whether or not she put herself in danger, we’re not getting to the root of the problem. In fact we’re ignoring it completely and making it worse.
In a better world, the responsibility would always be on the rapist not to rape. Regardless of whatever good intentions people have by creating codes of women’s conduct, collectively we have to focus on protecting women, not policing their behaviour. This myth that women “invite rape” by acting or dressing a certain way excuses the actions of criminals and perpetuates rape culture. There is simply nothing a woman can do or say that causes rape – rape is an act of violence, a crime, caused in part by cultural tolerance. When we tell women that they better not “dress slutty” or have too much to drink, we’re telling them that we won’t protect them and that we won’t punish those who commit crimes against them. We’re telling rapists they can get away with it.
TCP: What is the ultimate goal(s) of your work?
SMF: In my writing, both fiction and non-fiction, I’ve always just wanted to connect with someone who was feeling the same way as I do about difficult issues – feminist, sexual, or otherwise. I believe I’ve succeeded if I’ve made that connection, if someone identifies and feels a sense of relief because they’ve seen themselves in my work. Some people have accused me of being too personal in my written work, but for every note I get saying I should “be careful” I get another note from someone thanking me for talking openly about the difficult issues that they themselves have faced.
If as writers we can make people feel less alone, I think we’ve succeeded.