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The Interdisciplinary Work of Lyss England

Posts tagged consent

Check out this very cool live podcast recorded LIVE in front of an audience at Masterbate Festival: Threesome on October 20, 2018 in Port Hope, Ontario.

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This show features:

– Live improvised music by Marko Lipovsek and Nelson Denis
– Interviews with a whole pile of audience members where they tell us their favourite sex tips
– A live performance of her original song “Don’t Send it to Me” (about receiving dick pics) by Amelia Merhar
– A live interview between myself and event host, Miranda Lukaniuk Lipovsek
– A live performance of her original song “Wanna Screw Ya” by Bella Muerta
– Interviews with all of the performers and crew from Masterbate this year who share their favourite sex tips with us

WARNING: This episode contains explicitly sexual content. It’s probably not appropriate for people who aren’t adults.

BIG THANKS to my friends at Two Blue Shirts Productions for gifting me the excellent quality recordings of the live performance pieces!

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CW: bodies, trauma, rape, rape culture, body modification, consent, coercion, violence, assault, police mention, racism, transmisogyny, sexism, ableism, healing
I’ve always loved body modification- tattoos, piercings, weird hair. I have my ear lobes stretched, and have for a long time. I have 17 tattoos, and have had pink, purple, blue, white, and red hair. At various points in my life, I’ve pierced my eyebrow, labret, lip, nostril, ears x like a million, bellybutton, and nipples. I also have my septum pierced. I think part of it is that I like to shock people (it weeds out those who are judgmental based on appearance really easily), I like to set myself apart from the preps (as any Good Punk does), and I simply appreciate the aesthetic. As a sexual assault survivor and a person in recovery from an eating disorder, I have also found found an immense amount of healing through the choice to modify my body in a way that suits my aesthetic in a way that is permanent (tattoos), or semi-permanent (piercings and hair). I get the choice. I get to consent. As an artist, I get to treat my body as a canvas. My body tells my stories in a way that I can always hold with me. I can see them, and I know they are real, even when I’m not sure what else is. I like the way I look because I love my body modifications. Modifying my body has been a hugely liberating, empowering, and healing process for me.
I grew up in a Suburb of Toronto that has since become a Big City. Then, I lived in a mid-size University Town full of hippies, anarchists, and students. For a period of time I also spent a lot of time in the Toronto Punk Scene. In all of those places, I found my people. I had a community of people who, like me, considered their bodies art forms that told their stories. To them, the ways I choose to modify my body weren’t overly shocking. In fact, my modifications really weren’t particularly radical at all. After I finished my undergrad, I moved to the Small Town where my partner had grown up. in this Small Town, there is a vibrant music, theatre, and art community, and on top of that, it seemed like the ideal place where we could slowly build our careers and raise our one-day, hypothetical family. 
In spite of the vibrant arts community and the small, but mighty radical community (which looks a lot different than the radical communities of the University Town and Toronto Punk Scene), I began to run into the problem my preppy parents had always warned me about: the vast majority of people in this Small Town took one look at me and identified me as not only a New Girl, but a Freak. In the 3 years I’ve lived here, I have grown to be a part of this community, and I have a lot of love for it. But I have also experienced violence based on the way I’ve chosen to modify my body. 
Now, I should note here that I chose to modify my body, and I chose to settle in a Small Town. There are many demographics of people who experience violence based on things that are not choice, but are visible and significant parts of who they are. As a white woman, I do not experience the violence that people of colour face in my community, and systemically. When my Small Town’s police association chose to launch a “Blue Lives Matter” campaign to make money to benefit the police, I had the privilege to make noise about how inappropriate that was without the fear of being harassed or attacked. As someone who is identified as cis by others, I do not experience the violence that visibly and openly transgender people face in my community. I can use a public restroom without people following me in and inquiring about my genitals. As a person who, more often than not, passes as able-bodied (even though I’m not), I do not experience the same types of violence as people in the community who are visibly disabled and/or who use visible mobility aids. I am able to shop in the stores downtown. The level that these acts of violence exist on are systemic, and they thrive in my Small Town. The violence that I am talking about regarding my body modifications does not diminish the fact that there are people in my community who experience violence on levels that I am privileged enough to never have to experience. 

That being said, I am a disabled, mad, modified femme who has experienced violence that is rooted in these subject positions and the power structures they exist in in the context of my life and the social world around me. I could write a million essays on gender-based violence and ableism and madness (okay, I already have and will continue to), but this essay isn’t about those things directly as much as it is about the violence I’ve experienced because I have chosen to modify my body. Even more specifically, this essay is about my septum piercing being a site of violence. My horseshoe-shaped, silver, 16 gauge septum ring.

Sometimes these acts of violence are subtle. Sometimes they’re off-handed comments about how it looks weird, or about how other people don’t like it. I know it may seem like a stretch to consider those things violent, but when one thing about you is a constant source of harassment, that begins to feel a lot like emotional abuse. And that shit feels violent.

It felt violent when a manager told me I could have the job if I took out my septum ring because it made me look like a freak.
It felt violent when another manager brought up that, although she liked my look, some clients may not feel comfortable receiving counselling from me because of my septum ring, and that this has been an issue in the past.
It felt violent when people came into bars I used to work in and told me I’d be so pretty without my septum ring and that I should take it out.
It felt violent when family members told me the same thing.
It felt violent when a youth I was working with told me I was stupid for having a septum piercing. 
I could go on for a while, but I won’t bore you. I will share the most explicitly violent thing that happened regarding my septum piercing though:
 I was working with a youth who loved candy. We went into the dollar store to buy some, and I lead him to the candy aisle. We were intercepted by a middle-aged woman who reached out, grabbed my septum ring, and held on to it tightly while telling my client that this was the best way to “keep my under control”. Shocked, I reached up, held onto the woman’s wrist, and gentle peeled her fingers off of my face. She continued ranting about how I needed to be controlled with a piercing like that, and then reached up and grabbed it again. I blocked her with my own arm, turned my back to her, and made space for my client to pass by me. He was scared and shocked and had a lot of questions I didn’t know how to answer, like, “why did she do that to you?”. 
The escalation of violence regarding my septum ring lead me to take it out (that, and because I felt as though my manager had a point that that particular form of body modification may isolate me from clients, which is the last thing I want, wrong or not). I no longer felt safe wearing my septum ring in public. I felt exposed, vulnerable. I like the way I look with it in, so I continued to wear it at home, but took it out when I was in public. After a few months without it, I put it back in today. I’ll still take it out for work, but on my days off, I want to try it out again.

The fact that anyone feels as though it’s appropriate to police what anyone does with their body or their expression of self feels really fucked up to me. It feels like a violation. The fixation on the way other people look fosters such a toxic culture of alienation and unattainable perfection. It took me a long time to learn that perfect isn’t a thing, and that my stories and how I choose to tell them (including my obsession with embodying them) are a hell of a lot more authentic that meeting a beauty standard set out by anyone but myself. But my believing that didn’t stop that act of violence from happening to me.

I mean, let’s call it what it is. Rape culture. Rape culture is all about coercing people into believing that they’re living authentically and that their identities were formed through consensual experiences. Rape culture it about deciding what is best for other people, touching people without their consent, maintaining control, and stripping control away from people who may question the authority of hegemonic society. Rape culture is why a middle-aged woman felt it was reasonable to grab something that was attached to my face and tell my male client that violating my personal space, body, and choices was the Right Thing to Do.

And I’ve gotta tell you, it sure did feel similar to being raped. I mean, obviously not in such an intense way, but my brain did the trauma thing. I remember freezing and thinking, “she is holding something that is attached to my face and she’s won’t let go” and then snapping into flight mode the same way I remember freezing and thinking, “he is inside of me, and he won’t listen to me saying no” and then snapping into flight mode.

I wish I could say that this essay is a call to action. A call to respect other peoples’ choices regarding how they express themselves, physically or otherwise. A call to get consent before touching people. A call to respect the boundaries of survivors regarding their own healing (and to give people the benefit of the doubt if they choose not disclose their survivor status to you). But it’s not. It’s just one of my stories.

Okay, I don’t really know what the revolution will look like. To me, it’s already happening. It looks like: community gardens/ community meetings/ learning to take care of ourselves (whatever that means)/ community dinners/ debriefs/ sober spaces/ systemic institutions that are honestly willing to accept feedback/ spaces that aren’t sober/ art groups/engaging in discussion about what caring for one another looks like. The reason those things feel revolutionary to me is the focus on simultaneously taking care of myself and also actively caring for the people (and other non-human beings) in my life. 
Standpoint theory is a postmodern feminist assertion that day to day experience is what shapes a person’s knowledge of the world, which informs the way they experience the world and shapes their identity. Scholars such as Sandra Harding, Nancy Heartsick, Patricia Hill Collins, and Dorothy Smith have written about it, and a lot of modern-day feminism is approached according to it. You and I went to a theatre to see a play and I sat front and centre and you sat on the back, stage right. After the play, we sit down for coffee and discuss. You saw things that I didn’t see and I noticed things you didn’t notice because we had different perspectives of the performance. Similarly, if you are a straight, masculine person of colour, you are going to experience things differently than I, a queer, femme, white person. Intersectionality is the concept that identity is comprised of multiple standpoints, all of which work together to inform the experiences and identity of a person. Identity informs experience because the world we live in is one comprised of thousands of years worth of historically informed power dynamics which are embedded in defining concepts that construct social and legal systems. Comprehending identity according to standpoint theory and intersectionality can be difficult, because once you think about yourself in relation to these concepts, you’re faced with the realty that you’re privileged in some ways, and likely being systemically oppressed (oppression = systemic power + prejudice) in some ways as well. This is a complex reality to be faced with. But when you start to explore it, beautiful things happen.
Finding your “authentic self” is, simply, a never ending process. It’s a process full of checking in with yourself about what qualities and subject positions make up your identity, and how you perform your identity in relation to the social world. To me, finding for my authentic self means analyzing my subject positions, and it also means being honest about my capacity to actively care for both myself and others. As with many things, it comes down to balance. Being honest with myself about my capacity. This requires me to make myself vulnerable enough to be authentic with myself. It’s been a far from linear journey towards recognizing my capacity in this sense. I am a person who gives until I am depleted. This may sound like a positive quality, and in some ways, it is. But in other ways, it’s rooted in selfishness. I get off on caring or other people. Call it mommy issues, call it a saviour complex, either way, caring for others makes me feel good. But this can be problematic in that not only does it deplete myself, but it leads me to inserting myself into peoples’ lives because I identify them as needing to be cared for. 
This is where the concept of capacity comes in. When I get that urge to care, I ask myself: What is my capacity to engage in the situation? Sometimes, the answer is that I am feeling relatively emotionally well, relatively physically well, and I have the time to allow to providing care for someone. Sometimes, I am struggling with pain or mental health shit that lessens my capacity. Sometimes, I don’t have time. Sometimes, I weigh the amount of emotional labour the other person has contributed outward when they had the capacity and the balance is off for me. 
The next question I ask myself is: why do I feel that someone may benefit from my emotional labour? Sometimes, the answer is that I have skills or knowledge that may be useful. Sometimes, it’s that the person has explicitly asked for support, advice, counselling, or another form of active caring. Sometimes, the answer is that I feel compelled to do something that I think may make someone else’s life easier or happier, whether they agree or not. 
As always, consent is key when caring, and it’s a much more complicated concept than someone asking for emotional labour or not. Ideally, we would live in a society where consent is always given verbally and explicitly. “I need support/advice/help/validation, is it within your capacity too engage in this kind of emotional labour”. I actually have groups of friends where we do this and people will actually reflect and acknowledge whether or not they have the capacity to engage, and in what way. I feel that moving towards this kind of mutual, consensual exchange of emotional labour is absolutely revolutionary. Of course, there are situations where people (ie. me) assume predetermined consent, or where people are physically and emotionally unable to take care of themselves in a way that puts themselves or others in danger. This is where this concept gets really complicated, and I can’t even begin to think of answers. But this is where discussions come into play. The almighty exchange of knowledge based in lived experience.
So, now you’re thinking about authenticity, capacity, and emotional labour, but what next? I think that with this process, there eventually comes a sense of assertiveness. I understand my Self, my capacity, my needs, and I am comfortable asking for them and receiving them. There also comes a time and place where you find a sense of “okayness”. I am okay with my Self and what is happening in this moment because I am in it, and it will pass one way or another in a way that will contribute to my process and my experience of the world. Sometimes this is simple, other times, it may challenge the very essence of your sense of Self, and it feels like you’re back where you began. This concept of “okayness” is often referring to as “radical acceptance”.
How are these concepts revolutionary? By actively caring for both your Self and the people around you, it alters the workings of our social world. First on a personal level, and then an interpersonal one. It shifts focus from productivity, to an ethic of care, which is arguably far more complicated, but also more sustainable. This shift toward an ethic of care then expands:
Self -> interpersonal ->  social systems -> physical environment.
When we learn to prioritize an ethic of care in accordance to the capacity of each of our authentic selves, that is absolutely revolutionary. 

I’m considering applying for a fellowship with a magazine I’ve been reading since I was fifteen, trying to figure out which category to apply under. I generally write about feelings and relationships and mental health and other emo stuff like that. The closest category I can apply under is “Pop-culture Criticism”. I say to the group of people sitting in my living room, “I need a topic to write about. Think ‘Pop-culture Criticism’”.  
“Why don’t you write about us?” she says.
I say she, because I don’t know what to refer to her as. We’ve jokingly referred to each other as our “girlfriend”, but is she my girlfriend? I’ve had sex with her twice, we talk every day and hang out almost every day. She comes over and makes me dinner while I’m at a fundraising committee meeting, and then sits close to me. She told her mom about “us”. She refers to “us”.
“That’s actually a really good idea,” my partner says, after a three second moment of silence.
My partner and I have been together for almost eight years- literally my entire adult life. We have a punk rock love story for the ages, and there’s not a doubt in my mind that this dude is the love of my life. We’ve grown together, and we want the same things for our future. I don’t feel held back, instead, I feel safe and grounded in our relationship. 
I think about it: I could write something about romantic/platonic/intimate relationships that differ from typical monogamous (and polyamorous, for that matter) relationships. I could write something about consent and communication in relationships in the context of this…thing we have going on. I could write about navigating jealousy. I could write about the body feels or gender feels this has brought up for me. I could write about feeling like I’m living the bisexual dream- and about feeling conflicted about the fact that I even feel that way. I could write about exploring my sexuality for the first time in my adult life. I could write about how vulnerable I’m making myself by writing about this whole Thing.
And then I realized that I don’t even know what to refer to her as. Maybe I better stick to writing about the whole process and touching on each of those things for now. This whole Thing is still so fresh, and, worst case, what if I screw it all up because of something I write and it puts an end to it all!?

Two years ago, I met a girl through community theatre who I thought was a total babe. We became close friends and periodically flirted, even sexted. I shared the sexts with my partner, and we flirted in front of him. He was into it. I also made sure that she realized that I was sharing our flirtation with my partner. She was into that. I tried to hint that I’d like to sleep with her, but when she found out that the deal my partner and I had established was that I could have sex with other women when he was involved, she never acted on anything.

Then, one night, she and I went for a walk to catch Pokemon (don’t judge us), and we found ourselves down by the beach. We walked along the beach, and just as we were about to head back into town, she said, “I want to talk to you about something. I’ve been having feelings for you…” and then she kissed me. Right there, under the stars, on the beach. I followed that with something like, “hold on, I need a smoke”.

I lit a cigarette, and she told me that she had discussed her feelings with my partner, who had told her that he thought I would likely be receptive to her initiating something between us. He was right. He also told her that she and I could discuss what capacity we were comfortable with having him involved in. We discussed some specific boundaries and what we were both looking for, as we walked back towards my apartment. I texted my partner: “hey, are you down to have sex with _____ with me?”. He texted back: “hell yeah”. We got back to my place, and the three of us discussed our specific boundaries and committed to open communication, regardless of what happened from there. Then, I said, “sooo are we gonna go to the bedroom or not?”, and we all got up and practically ran to the bedroom.

It felt like being 14 in that I was nervous but SO excited. I’ll spare you the details, but it was awesome. After, we checked in,  smoked a couple joints, and she went home. Since then, we’ve spent almost every day together, and had sex a second time. It was even better the second time, and it’s looking like this is going to be an ongoing thing. She and my partner are friends, but, believe it not, they’re both really into ME. How freakin’ neat is that!?

The things that have come up because of this Thing are interesting, and even a little bit surprising for me. First of all, I never thought I would feel comfortable having a third person share the intimacy that my partner and I share. I guess I’m lightening up… learning to enjoy myself for the sake of enjoying myself. Feel good for the sake of feeling good. She makes me feel good, and so does my partner.

It feels really good to take things slow and redefine a friend relationship into something that doesn’t even really have a name. It feels really good to share this experience with my partner, and bring a whole new level of communication, trust, and intimacy to our relationship. It feels really good to explore my gender and my sexuality. It feels really good to feel queer (not that I haven’t always been queer, but it feels different to be in an intimate relationship with another woman after being exclusively with a cis man for so long). It feels really good to confront body image issues I have. It feels really good to confront the way that my gender is tied in with those body image issues, and that those body image issues are just the tip of the gender-shit iceberg. It feels really good to heal alongside another woman- one who I think is beautiful, and caring, and fun. It feels really good to let my partner witness and engage with this entire process. This Thing feels really good in general.

I can’t wait to continue exploring this process, and to find the language to describe this Thing. I’m also looking forward to navigating the bridges we will, inevitably have to cross, such as: to what extent are each of us/will each of us become emotionally involved? How sustainable is this Thing? What happens when she meets someone and wants to be in a relationship with them? How will this change our friendship in the long run? How will this change the way each of us are in relationships moving forward?

I think that, as long as we all remain committed to communicating honestly and openly, the possibilities are endless. And, if nothing else, this is a Thing that feels good.

This is a survivor’s love letter to my (current) sex life and how i got there and it contains discussion around consent, sexual assault, death of a parent, compulsive sexuality, self-objectification, sex work, and my healing process around sex. 
When I was growing up, my mom was, like, the pioneer of sex positivity. She was always straight up with me about sex. She told me that she had always enjoyed it, and that, one day, I probably would too. She was right. Two weeks before my sixteenth birthday, I had slow, clumsy, missionary sex with my boyfriend and I thought it was the most incredible thing in the entire world. It satisfied all of the things I craved: passion/intensity/being in the moment/being the centre of attention.

I kept waiting for mom to be well enough so that I could tell her about it and have her actually comprehend. She died 4 days before I turned sixteen: January 1, 2007. I spent the next couple of years feeling pretty fucked up and using sex as a distraction. If you were in a band, I was going to fuck you. It was compulsive. It wasn’t a healthy coping mechanism.

I had this friend who was very emotionally manipulative. He was also a pretty good distraction. I was making out with him one day and he took off my clothes. We were naked, and he was on top of me. I said, “wait, I’m not ready for this” and he didn’t stop. I didn’t say “no”. I remember thinking: holy shit, he’s inside of me and I don’t want him inside of me. Time froze. I was watching myself from outside of my body. I couldn’t move. All I could think of was: I need this to be over now. I finished him off. It was over. I smoked a cigarette. Frozen. 

It wasn’t the first time I wished that I (and the boys I was surrounded by) had a better understanding of consent. There was the time when I was fourteen and the cutest boy whose brother was on my brother’s hockey team told me he wanted to tell me something to took me outside and pushed me up against the wall and stuck his tongue in my mouth. He thought it was passionate and romantic. I felt violated because I had thought that he had actually wanted to talk to me. There was the time I was fifteen and my boyfriend told me that all of his friends girlfriends suck their boyfriends dicks and that I should do that too because its just what peoples’ girlfriends did. And I wanted him to like me, so I did. There was the time that I was three and my grandfather took me to the fire station where he worked and one of the men there…well, you get the point.

I told you this part because I want you to understand how I got to where I am, and why it is something that feels so significant to me. 

When I met my partner, I was legitimately shocked when he waited until I said, “you know, you can kiss me if you want to” to make a move. It felt like… I didn’t know what sex was until I fucked him. I felt safe, and in that safety, I felt capable of genuinely exploring my sexuality. Lucky for me, he was very excited at that prospect. When he made a bunch of money off a movie he was in, he took me to a feminist sex shop and spoiled me with toys I didn’t even know how to use. We did shit that made his “pervy” promiscuous bandmates squirm when they heard about it. And I felt safe.

Almost eight years later, our sex life is still going strong.

One thing I should probably tell you, if we’re gonna talk about me and sex, is that nothing gets me off more than objectifying myself. This is different than being objectified, because it’s something that I consent to. I want to the be the desired object in the context of my lover and anyone else who I choose to let observe. On my terms.

For a while, I moderated a blog of nudes selfie-style photos. I always took them myself, I chose what was posted, and I moderated the response from behind my computer. I was able to be intentional in the way I chose to display my body as a sexual object. It turns me on to feel desired, but it turned me on even more knowing that I was the one who had the power to display it the way I wanted to. And I felt safe.

In the last couple of years, I’ve also delved into camming. Again, I liked being able to objectify myself on my own terms. However, the men (yes, specifically the men) who choose to interact with people in that context have a tendency to be pushy about what they want to see, and seem to feel as though they’re entitled to act this way because they’re paying to watch. I don’t like that part, so my involvement with camming is limited for that reason.

Most recently, my partner and I have expanded our sex life to include a beautiful woman who I both love to play with, and love to spend time with. Our relationship is very different than me and my partner’s relationship, but it’s significant to me. And significant to my sex life. With her, it’s a whole different kind of pleasure. And I feel safe.

I feel blessed to have multiple relationships in my life now where I have power over how I experience my sexuality in a way that allows me to fulfill my deepest desires. I am grateful to work through these kinds of relationships with people who are committed to being honest and open and communicating every step of the way.

But the reality of the situation is that too many people, especially young people, do not communicate consent verbally. Too often consent is implicit. Just because I got naked with that boy when I was seventeen, doesn’t mean I wanted to have sex with him, but he thought that’s what it meant. And I should acknowledge that there are complex gendered components to all of his that I could talk about for days, but that’s a whole other essay.

I’ve found, in all of my various sexploits, that, aside from being straight-up fucking mandatory, communicating wants and needs and desires and boundaries is incredibly sexy. What better way to get what you want out of your sex life than telling someone exactly what you want them to do to you or what you want to do them and receiving explicit confirmation that that’s pleasurable and satisfying for them too?

I’m grateful for the perspective I have, the way I’ve experienced different power dynamics in relation to my sex life- even the ones that have fucked me up. Because it got me here, to this incredible place where I feel so good in relation to my sex life. And feeling good in the moment is enough on it’s own.