Karen Pollock interviews Kitty Stryker – queer sex educator, writer and activist – about her latest book and what consent should look like from a queer, kink and sex worker-positive perspective.
Kitty Stryker is a freelance writer, antifascist activist, and queer sex educator who has been working specifically in the realm of consent for 6+ years. Reading her work in publications such as Buzzfeed, Vice, Wear Your Voice, Ravishly, The Frisky, The Guardian, I was struck by how accessible she made concepts that can feel very academic. She has published in a variety of books, ranging in themes from fat activism to the inauguration protests to her experiences as a sex worker
TQ: Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed about your work and new book, Ask; Building Consent Culture. What prompted you to put this book together now?
Kitty: Thanks for interviewing me! I’ve wanted to put a book on consent culture together for a couple of years now, but the time is really right for it now. We have a proud sexual assaulter in charge of our country. People are debating whether slipping a condom off during sex is rape or just a “sex trend”. Videos show toddlers can understand consent, yet college campuses can’t define it or protect it.
We need things to change, and we need them to change fast.
Consent culture is a challenge to and push against rape culture. I wanted to help create something better, something that didn’t offer THE solution, but did signal boost many potential solutions as a way of transforming us as a society into doers rather than just observers. I wanted to create a book that wasn’t filled with inaccessible, academic language, something that would shake things up and lead us to question why we’re putting up with our boundaries being crossed every day. Why have we allowed that to be normalized? How could we turn it around?
So, I started an IndieGoGo to fund a book tour up the West Coast – if I make enough, I’ll be able to do the East Coast and the UK as well, which is where another pocket of our authors are from.
Rape culture is a term that provokes strong emotions. How would you define it and why do we need it?
I think we need the term rape culture because it’s unsettling and it makes people stop and think. Shakesville defines it very well and very extensively in her piece “Rape Culture 101” – “Rape culture is the myriad ways in which rape is tacitly and overtly abetted and encouraged having saturated every corner of our culture so thoroughly that people can’t easily wrap their heads around what the rape culture actually is”. I can’t really say it better than that.
That said, I also think that a broader term that’s a little more useful is entitlement culture – people get very hung up on rape culture only being about sex and dating, when it covers a lot more ground. Entitlement culture, however, spans our sense of entitlement from people hugging us to explanations when a boundary is set. I think using entitlement culture as a term helps people consider why they feel they have a right to a certain behaviour or reaction from someone else… and if that is, in fact, fair.
Often, the BDSM community has struggled with consent – how can people defend it from attacks by those opposed to kink, whilst promoting the central importance of consent?
When I started the Safe/ward project, my classes on consent were very targeted to the BDSM community specifically. One of the things I would bring up is that if we can’t be trusted to police ourselves as a mutually accountable community, then outside forces will feel the need to step in. I think many communities, especially alt-sex ones, hope that if they can prevent any word of misdeeds from slipping out into the public then we’ll be safe from criticism and persecution. Unfortunately, that secretive attitude means that we develop a (honestly kind of fair) reputation for covering up for abusers to avoid legal issues.
If kinky communities want to give more than lip service to caring about consent, they need to understand intersectionality, and how systems of oppression can work to coerce people, as well as having systems of accountability in place that aren’t centered around the criminal justice system.
Some people might struggle with the idea of a former sex worker educating people about consent. What would you say to them?
I generally say that being a sex worker taught me a lot about consent and communicating boundaries clearly! Learning that my consent mattered whether I was paid for my time or not made my patience for people pushing my boundaries outside of sex work go down drastically. I gained a lot of confidence, perhaps because I had a lot of practice saying “no”. If anything, I think it’s like a masterclass in consent, because society will say if you’ve been paid for something, you don’t really get to define the parameters of that work relationship, but I didn’t find that to be true. Pushing against what I had been taught about capitalism and coercion and how inevitable that was showed me it was something I could do.
Ask is an anthology; is there a reason you wanted to do it this way?
Many books about rape culture a) focus on sexual consent exclusively and b) are written almost exclusively by white, cis, middle class women.
I want to move the conversation forward, to expand that conversation to include Black folks, brown folks, indigenous folks, trans folks, nonbinary folks, and other marginalized populations that rarely get a place at the table. An anthology was a great way to use my platform to signal boost marginalized people’s voices, which is, to me, integral to the consent culture I’m teaching.
Additionally, I wanted to talk about how the ways we treat consent in places outside the bedroom – places like schools, or jails, or hospitals – informs how we treat consent in relationships. There’s lot of books that talk about consent and sex, but not so many talking about consent in other environments where it’s equally influencing how people behave (or misbehave).
What would consent culture look like to you?
For me, consent culture is striving to center consent in your interactions over “winning” or getting what you want at the expense of another. It means listening for both clear boundaries and boundaries that are perhaps a little more convoluted – it means asking questions to confirm, being willing to renegotiate, and responding positively to the word “no”. It means offering outs, and respecting people’s autonomy. And it means constantly educating yourself – my understanding of consent is a living work in progress, and I hope I never stop peeling back and interrogating the layers I find as I dive deeper into this topic.