Brendan Allen: Here’s the deal. Every once in a while a book comes across in my email that ends up being really, really good, or super important, or both, but about a subject that I have absolutely zero expertise or credibility. A Quick And Easy Guide To Consent is one of those books. Consent is a huge subject that is currently coming up a lot in sports, politics, entertainment, and…. comics.
I am not, by any means, an expert on consent. But I know someone who is!
I really wanted to cover this book, so I pulled in my buddy Jordan Rude to lend his expert opinion on the subject matter. Jordan! My man! Let’s start with your credentials, yeah? Who are you, and why are you here today?
Jordan Rude: Hey Brendan, thanks for talking with me about this seemingly simple, but ultimately complex and impactful topic. I’m a professor of psychology for Bakersfield College in Bakersfield, CA. Aside from teaching psychology courses on topics like social psychology, statistics, research methods, and human sexuality, I’m also the adviser to a couple of student organizations, including the Consent Project of Bakersfield College.
Brendan Allen: This is a big subject. Honestly, bigger than I expected. I was shocked by how little I actually know about consent, and I really appreciate the simple, yet effective, delivery. What did you think of the book?
Jordan Rude: Overall, I am REALLY impressed with this book. Isabella Rotman does a superb job of covering the complex topics of human sexuality that relate to consent.
I like that the book begins with a scenario of sexual activity that is typical and easy to relate to. What I mean is: the scene isn’t overtly aggressive/violent, and yet there is zero verbal communication occurring between the couple. As a reader, you are aware of the inner dialogue of only one of the people involved. When that person increases the intensity of their sexual advances they assume that it is okay because their partner does not say “No.”
When “Sergeant Yes Means Yes of the Consent Calvary” (HA!) enters the scene the sexual consent is explained in a manner that is easy to understand, yet doesn’t water-down or leave out any of the complexity on the topic.
In that first scenario alone, Rotman gives the current definition of affirmative consent (explicit and non-coerced affirmative mutual agreement by someone capable of making such an agreement), which differs from the ‘No means No’ definitions of the past.
When I talk with my human sexuality students about sexual consent, I always make this point: It’s time to move past the notion that consent means one person agrees for the other person to behave sexually on them, or to do something sexual to them. Rather, we should focus on a mutual agreement about what we like (sexually), what we don’t like, and what we are unsure about but are willing to try. Ultimately sex is something that we are doing with each other, not to each other.
There’s a lot to unpack in what I just said, and what Rotman’s book illustrates (literally, ha!) skillfully.
First off, to give affirmative consent a person has to know what you like (sexually), what they don’t like, and what they are unsure about but are willing to try. This type of introspection is rarely (if ever) encouraged. The culminating project for my human sexuality students is a personal sexual philosophy paper where they address this topic head-on. But the majority of them are already sexually active, and they repeatedly say they wish they had formulated this personal philosophy before they were sexually active.
Brendan: Which is one of the things I thought was really cool about how the book wrapped up. Rotman doesn’t just throw this super complex idea at you and run off. There is a ten page checklist included at the end of the book that rattles off more things than I have ever even considered, with “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” and “fantasy,” checkboxes.
Makes it easier to decide “in the moment,” if the activity you’re considering or being asked to engage in aligns with your personal sexual philosophy if you have actually sat down and thought it out and weighed it in advance.
Jordan: Right. Now let’s pretend that a young person has come to a conclusion about their personal sexual philosophy…that’s great, now how do you communicate with a sexual partner? Rotman states that affirmative consent comes naturally when you share mutual sexual philosophies with a partner. I like that idea, but communicating about sex is not something that is reinforced in our culture.
In fact, many are taught to feel shame and guilt for even experiencing sexual desire, so where would they begin to talk sex with their sexual partners? When I ask my students how a person may express a sexual request with their partner, they always say the same thing: “make the request sexy,” or “couldn’t you turn the request into part of the foreplay?”
Inevitably a student will say “This would make sex even better.” Rotman provides fantastic concrete examples of using this type of language.
The obvious follow-up question is why haven’t more people championed this idea of sexual consent communication. Again my students supply great feedback: “I’ve never seen anybody do this (in the movies, TV, etc…),” or “I can’t think clearly when I’m in that moment.” Books like Rotman’s are important because they provide these examples (with illustrations!).
People also assume that silence isn’t a “No,” or that ambiguous sounds aren’t a “No,” to which the interpretation is sort of a “Yes by default.” This is more of the older “No means no” perspective on the topic of sexual consent. Rotman (again) gives several concrete examples of scenarios where only “Yes means yes.”
I could go on and on about how much I like this book. I deeply appreciate that the topic of sexual consent is presented in a very realistic and complex manner. I would love to see the team that put together this book focus on an entire human sexuality book.
Brendan Allen: You touched on this a little already, but why do you think books like this are so important right now?
Jordan Rude: I think books like this are important right now because they can provide knowledge on a foundational aspect of all human life: sex. It seems obvious to say that we wouldn’t be here without sex, many are highly motivated to pursue sex, and most of will want to have good sex. Books like this are important for empowering people to think about and communicate their desires and boundaries.
Most people are taught about sex from sexual education classes, which typically focus on the workings of the sexual reproductive systems and sexually transmitted diseases, and (if the students are lucky) the topic of consent from the “no means no” perspective.
I think we need to have a real discussion about comprehensive sexual education, which includes a curriculum based on a modern perspective (including affirmative consent) informed by current research from the physical and behavioral and social sciences. This book and books like it are an excellent teaching tool.
I’m not surprised that artists are filling in this gap. I can’t remember who to attribute this quote to, but it went something like, “There’s no place that science goes where philosophy hasn’t already been, and there’s no place where philosophy can go where the artists haven’t been.”
As a side note, when we first started talking about doing this piece, you brought it to my attention that there are individuals in the Graphic Novel/Illustrated Fiction industry who have been called out for their sexually predatory or non consensual sexual behavior. I find this to be particularly hypocritical behavior when these people are involved in creating and marketing works of art that are loved for the heroic characters.
When I reflect on what constitutes heroic behavior, I think an important aspect is recognizing that heroes deviate from social norms. When most do nothing because the responsibility of action is too daunting, or we freeze in place out of fear, or we run away, a hero breaks these norms to take responsibility for their actions and confront the problem. If the norm is to discredit survivors of sexual assault, coerce people in to non-consensual sex, it’s time to change that script.
We can all be a part of changing these norms surrounding sexual behavior, and books like this help to foster that empowerment.
Brendan Allen: With that sentiment in mind, who would you recommend the Quick and Easy Guide to Consent to?
Jordan Rude: I think this book is good for every adult to read to catch up on the current definition of sexual consent, but I also think the book is a great resource for people before they are sexually active. I would suggest junior high school/middle school. Ultimately, it would be fantastic if parents and children read this book together which could help facilitate a meaningful conversation.
Brendan Allen: Word. Thanks again for doing this with me today. I really appreciate your perspective. Do you have anything you want to plug before we end this thing?
Jordan Rude: Thank you for reaching out, Brendan. It was a pleasure to talk with you.
Rainn is a great resource. Many communities also have programs/nonprofits, like Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault in Kern County here in Bakersfield where we’re from.
I also should plug the student organization that I advise: the Consent Project of Bakersfield College. I am extremely proud of the level of dedication and commitment to the betterment of the community that my students display regularly.
A Quick and Easy Guide to Consent, Limerence Press/Oni-Lion Forge Publishing, releases 28th October 2020. Written, drawn, & lettered by Isabella Rotman, with color by Luke Howard.