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Yes Means Yassss: Improving Consent Education Among Queer Men
I am often met with envy when explaining the concept of Grindr to acquaintances who are unfamiliar with the smartphone app. Grindr’s location-based, sex-driven functionality certainly sounds like quite an exciting prospect for the average sexually active undergraduate student and could be an empowering or promising option for folks. I can imagine that the ability to find no-strings-attached hookups with individuals in your general proximity may be quite appealing to the untrained, heterosexual eye. However, I typically leave conversations with Grindr newbies highly aware of the fact that I have omitted the multitude of negative experiences I have had while making use of the app.
I know I’m not exactly making the best case for Grindr. After all, the app has created unprecedented accessibility for MSM (men who have sex with men) seeking sexual relationships. Many individuals have used it in order to make friends and even seek out career opportunities. I commend the app for facilitating a new-found sense of sexual liberation for queer men and recognizing that it could be an empowering form of fostering connection. When shifting the discussion of Grindr towards consent discourse, however, my applause ends there.
My tumultuous relationship with Grindr largely stems from the constant unsolicited text and picture-based sexual advances and requests made by other users. It is certainly a normalized facet of the Grindr experience. Those who call out this behaviour typically do so from a place of lookism, sexism, and racism rampant in the gay community (see also: “No fats, no femmes, no Asians”. Whether one finds these images unsightly is a different matter entirely, but I think it speaks to a broader issue at play — consent education is seriously lacking within queer spaces.
This is certainly of no surprise. Canada has a dark and lengthy history of stigmatizing and criminalizing gay sex, and I imagine that addressing problematic aspects of sexual behavior in the gay community sits lower on the list of concerns when there is an ongoing fight to freely engage in sexual behavior in the first place. Project Mariewould be a recent and notable example of this fight - officers disguised in non-uniformed clothes targeted a popular cruising spot (a space where MSM search for sexual partners) and arrested 76 men on grounds of indecent exposure or lewd acts. Quite frankly, I can’t picture a two-week sting, dozens of by-law infractions, and public protests occurring if these alleged “sex crimes” were performed by heterosexual individuals. It leaves a very important question: how does one navigate the complexities of saying “no” if they are a part of a community that continues to struggle for the ability and respect to say “yes” and just be free to engage in sexual activity in general?
LGBTQ+-designated commercial spaces are typically centered around nightlife entertainment, where drugs and alcohol are often present. A prime example would be a darkroom, which put simply is a room in a club or a bathhouse where it is completely dark and individuals have sex in it. These types of spaces, largely unheard of by the general heterosexual public, have been central to the sexual liberation and culture of the gay community. How does one navigate consent in such a space? Is it freely given upon entry? If you’re engaging in sex with one person and others join in, do they need to explicitly ask for permission? Due to potential influences of drugs and/or alcohol, what if you don’t even notice? Clearly consent can become muddled by numerous underlying factors, but discussion on the topic is required nonetheless for a positive sexual experience regardless of someone’s sexuality.
Despite some progress being made in same-sex/queer consent education in public school curricula, conservative administrations often fight to overturn it. Ontarian sexual health education recently rolled back to its former 1998 curriculum, which now fails to discuss consent entirely. This is a huge impact for queer folks who may not be in a position to disclose their identity with their parents or peers. While some community-based resources certainly exist, there are few social spaces where queer men can equip themselves with tools necessary for healthy sexual relationships.
Admittedly, I don’t have all the answers to the numerous questions I have asked and am speaking from my own lived experience and knowledge. By no means do I think we should do away with sexual spaces that fulfill the needs and desires of queer men. The ability to freely access these spaces is a right that countless queer people fought to attain. I just think that the activities occurring within them should be done so safely and with the freely given and ongoing consent of all individuals involved. Potential starting points to address challenges regarding consent within gay male relationships could include the normalization of ongoing consent communication in sexual spaces like dark rooms and bath houses. MSM are significantly more likely to use nonverbal behavior to indicate consent whether this behaviour perpetuates the lack of consent discourse amongst gay/bisexual men or is a symptom of it is speculative. Regardless, I don’t believe that normalization on consent can occur without educational tools necessary to facilitate the discussion. Progressive sexual health education that is inclusive of gay/bisexual relationships may not address the finer self-indulgent details of darkroom sex for instance, but could provide the resources necessary to address problematic consent behaviour within the gay community. I have experienced consent as a foundational aspect of sexual relationships within other communities, so why not this one?
About the Author: Tristan Raymond is a 2nd year transfer student from Ryerson University in Toronto and is currently majoring in Psychology and minoring in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at SFU. He has been a member of the Active Bystander Network since Fall 2019 and hopes to continue on as a member for the 2019-2020 year. He is particularly interested in learning how to incorporate an intersectional feminist lens into psychological research methodology.