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The Consent Workshop TCW Chat: Jade Bentil

This week we had a conversation with yet another interesting individual the importance of having the consent education and also taking action as a society. 

Jade Bentil is a London-based Black Feminist Historian, public speaker and writer. Her scholarship centres the experiences of women of African descent and their long histories of feminist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist activism. In charting the global legacies of Black feminisms, Jade strives to disrupt dominant narratives of feminist history, which erase the pioneering contributions of women organising and theorising at the very boundaries of society. She will be further developing her historical research on Black Feminism as a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford in Autumn 2019. Find her on Twitter @divanificent.

Understanding Consent

What does consent mean to you?

For me, consent as a framework for understanding gendered sexual relations and rape culture more widely, is both a useful organising tool, and also an analytic that needs to be held up for greater critical inspection. On an interpersonal level, consent means understanding and respecting sexual boundaries and bodily autonomy. It means creating spaces and contexts in which pleasure is an ongoing experience that is mutually cultivated and communicated between all parties involved.

More critically, however, consent as an analytic tool must always contend with the material power dynamics that produce gendered sexual violence. Rape culture, as the dominant sociopolitical climate in which we engage in sexual relations, is rooted in patriarchy, which means that for women, non-binary people and people positioned more widely as “non-men”, gendered hierarchies always exist within our sexual interactions with men. In order to facilitate a richer and more profound movement around dismantling rape culture, we have to contend with the fact that creating cultures of consent cannot be decontextualised from patriarchal violence. Understanding how patriarchy creates and reinforces an inequitable, coercive and abusive sexual climate for women and non-binary people is just as important as understanding the verbalised agency that comes with saying “No”.

Who would you say is responsible for consent education, parents, schools, activists?

I think all areas of our societies and communities are responsible for consent education because rape culture is so deeply embedded, both historically and in our contemporary moment, within institutions, organisations, schools and our homes that it is going to take a collective force to upend it. Cultivating a culture of consent has to start at the very beginning of our lives. What we learn in our primary years is foundational, as the process of socialisation by a variety of external forces begins to be internalized and replicated so early on. Parents and caregivers have to teach their children how to establish, enforce and respect healthy boundaries around their bodies and the bodies of others. Schools need to provide sex education that is not only LGBTQ+ inclusive, but also recognises and challenges the patriarchal context in which rape culture is manifested. I think to dismantle rape culture, schools, parents and activists all have to not only work together to provide sex education for children and young people, but also, each of these spaces have to do the introspective work of challenging and uprooting how rape culture is upheld in various school policies, social interactions, and intimate relationships.

In what ways can we learn to be more clear about our own sexual boundaries and make the giving of our consent more transparent?

I find this question a complex one to grapple with. Whilst victims and survivors of sexual assault can and do communicate what their sexual boundaries are, the reality is that these can and are routinely violated most predominantly by men, because rape, by and large, is an act of gender-based violence. Working with non-binary people, women and people positioned outside the scope of patriarchal power in order to communicate our sexual boundaries is important. Patriarchy, as an oppressive system, seeks to silence us voicing both our pleasure and displeasure. Yet, if we only focus on this approach, it can also mean that we do not grapple with the reality and function of rape in patriarchal culture. Ultimately, it places the onus on the potential victim/survivor to communicate and verbalise their consent in specific ways to “avoid” having these boundaries violated. To dismantle the culture of sexual violence, we have to start with centring the structural and material effects of rape on those who are marginalised along the axis of gender. Through this approach, we can better enforce boundaries on a society-wide level that holds abusers accountable and makes visible how rape culture is central to the system of misogyny and patriarchal dominance.

Why is early consent and sex education important and what is the ideal age to begin teaching young children about consent?

In terms of sex education, I do not know that there is an exact “ideal” age to being teaching young children. Having open and age-appropriate conversations about our different bodies, sex and gendered power dynamics should be normalised as part and parcel of the many conversations that we have with children. Such conversations should not be a single event – it needs to be an ongoing process as they grow up. In doing so, we can begin to eradicate cultural silences, coercive dimensions and abuse that are produced around sex that ultimately solidify rape culture.

If you had a friend with a problematic view about consent, what steps would you take to educate this person and what would you define as Consent 101?

I think I would start by talking through that person’s own personal boundaries in a general sense – what do they hold to be important? What happens when someone violates these boundaries and parameters? How does it make them feel? Why is it important that those around them respect these boundaries? Following on from that conversation, I would then situate consent within the context of sexual boundaries and talk about how it is an ongoing, shared process. Not only can consent be withdrawn at any time, the person asserting that boundary said what they said – there is no space for “negotiation” (coercion). Likewise, I would highlight that the terms in which sex is agreed upon is central to consensual experiences. For example, if all the parties involved agreed to using a condom, removing without consent at any stage thereafter is rape. After speaking through consent at this interpersonal level, I would then position the framework within a structural analysis of rape culture and patriarchal oppression. These conversations need to both highlight how rape culture functions on an interpersonal level, and then, how this is part of a wider, normalised system of gender-based violence.

Sexual Assault Resources

Despite the increase in talks about consent, there are still high numbers of rape cases every day. How else would you suggest tackling this?

As I mentioned previously, I think we have to be critical about the role of rape as a social practice that is central to the maintenance of patriarchy. I also think we need to complicate our understandings of consent. What does consent look like within the sociopolitical context of rape culture? How does an inequitable power dynamic shape sexual relations? How do we create safe(r) and liberated spaces for sexual pleasure and exploration that is not rooted in violence? Whose voice is listened to and heard when we assert our sexual boundaries? How do our understandings and frameworks of consent intersect with race, gender, class, sexuality and disability? Even if a sexual experience is consensual, how might rape culture still manifest within our intimate spaces? These are the harder questions that I think we need to collectively begin to think through in order to deconstruct rape culture.

Do you think governments around the world are friendly to victims of sexual assault? In a perfect world, what would they be doing right?

I absolutely do not think governments around the world facilitate cultures of care towards victims and survivors of sexual assault. As a Black feminist whose politics are very much centred within the praxis of abolitionist feminism, I think governments and the state more widely, as an ongoing colonial project, both enforce and reinforce rape culture. Victims and survivors of sexual assault are criminalised throughout their interactions with the police (who also uphold rape culture, as sexual assault is part of the systematic violence of police brutality). These experiences of criminalisation for victims and survivors intersect with race, gender, class, sexuality, disability and citizenship.  The very small percentage of rapists and abusers who are convicted are then disappeared to prison, where the cycle of sexual violence continues. Likewise, as the policing of national borders will always be violent, women incarcerated in detention centres also face sexual abuse from those who work in the carceral system.

So, in the future that I imagine, governments and the state at large would not be involved as the so-called “mediator” between victims/survivors of sexual assault and the perpetrators of such violence. My feminism is not a carceral feminism as I do not believe that increased criminalisation, the police, or the apparatus of the carceral state in its entirety can ever deliver transformative justice for gender-oppressed people. A system that produces sexual violence and protects abusers cannot then be called upon to dismantle it.

What would you say are the appropriate consequences for sexual predators?

For me, the appropriate consequences for sexual predation are rooted in survivor-led approaches to transformative justice. Whilst I recognise the incredible work that so many organisations are doing around harm reduction within the restrictive confines of the system that currently exists, I do think this work must always be done with the long-term vision of abolition. As opposed to seeking solutions that perpetuate rape culture and further strengthen carceral capitalism, survivor-led programmes implement a community-based method of accountability. This not only prioritises what justice looks like for each survivor, but also focuses on how the cycle of sexual violence can be dismantled and rehabilitation can take shape for both the perpetrator and the community. This reimagining of justice disrupts the state co-opting, moulding and ultimately, disregarding the voices of victims and survivors. There are organisers and activists currently doing critical work on transforming how we view and implement justice for sexual assault victims and survivors. In the UK, the direct-action, abolitionist feminist organization Sisters Uncut have been key in the movement to create forms of justice that facilitate a space for healing for victims and survivors and long-term social change.

Representation In Media

What do you think about the representation of black women in the media and how that contributes to rape culture?

I think Black women’s representation in the media and how that contributes to rape culture is fundamentally shaped by history – as a historian, it would be difficult for me to isolate such violence within the present-day. Throughout both slavery and colonialism, Black women’s bodies were systematically subjected to white patriarchal dominance and sexual violence. Black women have had our bodily autonomy violated on all levels, from rape on the plantation to sterilisation abuses throughout the twentieth century. This history serves to position Black women as being fundamentally “unrapeable”, because under imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, our bodies are not seen or treated as our own. Such racialised and gendered violence is at the very foundations of the present-day manifestation of rape culture. This very much shapes how Black women are framed within the media and how we are presented in imagery and narratives that are not created/published/platformed by us. We are both hypersexualised and desexualised, fetishised and objectified. Black women’s positionality within the media is part of the ongoing historical violence of misogynoir.

What can we learn from history to curb the problems today?

Understanding the historical context in which rape culture has mutated into what we are confronting today, I think it’s important that we centralise the voices, experiences and theoretical perspectives of marginalised peoples who work critically on sexual violence. So this not only means foregrounding the voices and work of Black non-binary people and women, sex workers, people who are migrants, disability activists, those who experience ongoing economic violence; people who experience all of these axes at the same time. It also means making the synoptic links between the different forms of oppression that we are facing. You cannot dismantle rape culture without decriminalising sex work. You cannot dismantle rape culture without dismantling the prison industrial complex. You cannot dismantle rape culture without full reproductive justice. You cannot dismantle rape culture without LGTBQ+ inclusive sex education. And you cannot dismantle rape culture without dismantling imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, cis-hetero patriarchy.

Would you say the black community finds it difficult to deal with issues of sexual education because of sensitivity?

I think whilst it is absolutely crucial that we disrupt cultural silences when it comes to sexual education and rape culture in Black communities, I am always wary of the tendency to pathologise Black communities as being uniquely unable to grapple with both. This view obscures the fact that rape culture is systemically entrenched globally and collapses us within an unnuanced and singular white gaze. I think across various cultures, both within and outside of Black communities, there is a lot of shame, silence and pushback against sex education. This is rooted in white supremacist patriarchy, queerphobia, and conservative codes of sexual behaviour.

How can we overcome the obstacle of cultural barriers to be able to properly discuss and have these conversations?

I think we overcome the obstacle of cultural barriers by refusing to be silent and resisting the oppressive norms of respectability politics. Within Black communities specifically, whilst there are cultural silences and repressive scripts in which rape culture is upheld, Black women and Black LGBTQ+ feminists, organisers, activists and health workers have done incredible work in raising our collective consciousness around decolonised sexual education, both within and outside of the mainstream gaze. Speaking to the UK context as a Black British feminist, the work of Decolonizing Contraception in particular has been foundational in disrupting colonised narratives around sexual health and bodily autonomy.

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