In January, when a woman accused actor Aziz Ansari of pressuring her into sexual acts, it stoked an already white-hot national conversation about consent and sexuality. But Oakland writer and activist Kitty Stryker, who released Ask: Building Consent Culture late last year, has been studying the nitty-gritty of consent for years.
Stryker is a former pro domme, porn star, and escort. Four years ago, she founded a website for LGBT, kinky, and polyamorous folks craving a more nuanced and thoughtful approach — what she calls “sex-critical” — to consent and relationships. She’s also involved with anti-fascist activism in the Bay Area, and co-founded the leftist protest group Struggalo Circus, an offshoot of the Insane Clown Posse-adjacent Juggalo movement.
Stryker’s interest in consent culture, though, came after a conversation with a friend in the local kink community during a night of wine and movies.
“We started talking about times we had been assaulted but had dismissed that as part of the [BDSM] submissive experience,” she says. Even though the BDSM community is touted as one that’s very thoughtful about consent, that’s not the reality, she says. “There’s no consent culture there. Your sexuality is currency.”
When Stryker started planning the anthology, she knew she wanted it to be written largely by marginalized folks — Black and brown writers, as well as transgender and nonbinary individuals. But most publishers rejected the concept, telling her that only a book featuring famous cisgender white feminists would make money. Ultimately, she found a home with Thorntree Press. At least half the anthology is authored by marginalized writers, though it’s bookended by two well-known white feminists: Laurie Penny and Carol Queen.
She used Penny and Queen as a kind of “bait-and-switch,” she says, “to help get people to pay attention … and expose them to things they aren’t familiar with or wouldn’t initially be attracted to.”
Ask doesn’t restrict itself to what happens in the bedroom. It looks at consent at school, in prisons, at work, at home, in the hospital, and in the world at-large. Essayists examine ideas like bodily autonomy for kids, teaching consent culture in schools, the ways in which fat women are granted less agency, and what it’s like to give birth while Black — a minefield that tennis star Serena Williams recently wrote about, when she nearly died from a blood clot after the birth of her daughter.
Ask isn’t a how-to guide. Stryker wanted the book to be much more nuanced and open-ended.
“I felt it was important not to tell people how to feel or what to do,” she says. “I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to the issues brought up in the book.”
Stryker will take the book on the road to the Pacific Northwest in March, including an intimate, daylong symposium on consent March 10 in Portland. But she’s already thinking ahead to her next project: she’d like to produce a book about concepts of consent around the world, excluding Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and likely Western Europe.
Ideally, she’d hire editors from different parts of the globe to make sure she doesn’t interfere with writers’ perspectives.
“A lot of the way we talk about consent here is very Western, very white, and very heterosexual,” she says. “I’m curious to see how the idea resonates elsewhere.”
Stryker says it’s been interesting watching mainstream society grapple with ideas of consent as more and more Hollywood men are outed for bad behavior and sexual assault. Although she’s glad people are feeling increasingly empowered to speak out, it’s painful for many survivors to cope with the constant barrage of new allegations. The ones she knows are tired and overwhelmed by it all, she says.
At the same time, Stryker would like to see more perpetrators speaking up and admitting they have hurt people — before someone accuses them. And she’d like to see less criticism of the apologies that follow such accusations. Our culture doesn’t really teach people how to apologize gracefully or take responsibility for their actions; people need time to learn, she says.
“It’s good that some of these men who have been called out in Hollywood are apologizing at all,” she says. “Yes, some have not really been apologies, but the fact that they’re not saying, ‘This bitch is lying’ is huge, culturally.”