My identities as an agender survivor of polyvictimization working in anti-violence settles a lot more comfortably onto my awkward bones when I return again and again to asking what consent means to me and my partners. I never assume the answer is static or as frozen as trauma may have made me in the past. This process is the premise of Learning Good Consent: On Healthy Relationships and Survivor Support, an evocative collection of essays, zines, and reflections by survivors and their partners on how consent can sink us into our bones in ways which were previously stolen and forbidden. But they write that the impact is bigger than sewing up our hearts with tinsel and neon string: By bringing conversations of radical consent into our bedrooms and communities, they hope to dream tidal waves where rape and sexual assault no longer exist.
As a survivor whose experiences of violence came before I had any understanding of consent, I, like many trans and nonbinary survivors of child sexual abuse, had to painstakingly and painfully scaffold and scrape together definitions of consent from the ground zero working with bad information. As survivor Shanon Parez-Darby wrote incisively in their contribution, ‘The Thing After,’ “I have this muscle memory of distrust.” When navigating consent, survivors have to work through this traumatic muscle memory, massaging it out into new, liberated ways of being that are finally safe, respectful, and even pleasurable. The massaging out takes shape, Learning Good Consent contributors emphatically explain. In part by learning to center conversations of consent in all of our relationships- even non-sexual and romantic ones. For some survivors, this is a huge relief! It feels a lot safer to practice consent in nonsexual situations than sexual ones, whether it’s learning to ask housemates before switching out their laundry and asking kids before giving hugs and high fives. For others, it feels completely awkward to try to ask for what we want when our friends are ordering pizza- to even figure out how to feel and then name what that is in the first place. That’s okay. Coming unfrozen from a place of trauma where we have no choice about what happens to our bodies, what they feel and come in contact with, is a process.
The good news is, Learning Good Consent emphasizes in the introduction that “We don’t need to be healed to do this work.” We don’t need to be experts at practicing consent in our nonsexual relationships before we “level up” to practicing radical consensual sex and then again to bring it to our communities to help heal communally from the effects of our other many traumas: racism, ableism, capitalism and classism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, misandry, misogynoir, and cissexism, etc. We can stumble through it exactly as we are, expanding and collapsing our definitions of consent as we go along. This can be especially meaningful for trans and nonbinary survivors who are engaged in both activism and healing work: They happen simultaneously and we are already “healed enough” to start exactly where we are to create the kinds of changes our hearts ache and pound to see.
What also resonated with me as an agender/genderqueer survivor is the fluidity of consent. It demands constant redefinition by everyone involved, which allows trans and nonbinary survivors to continuously redefine the limits and pleasures of our bodies for ourselves and the people we now choose to come in contact with. An excerpt from Staci Haines’ book The Survivors Guide to Sex: How to Have An Empowered Sex Life After Child Sexual Abuse offers this advice about experiencing embodied consent: “Consent does not always feel comfortable, easy, and joyous. Sometimes a consensual experience can bring up sadness, anger, or feelings of abandonment. It’s important to learn the difference between experiencing [hard] feelings and wanting to stop what you are doing. You can do this by paying attention to your body and learning its language.” Sometimes what feels good to my body will in other moments trigger massive panic attacks if I don’t listen to my inner dialogues. While that fluidity could be exasperating, I am coming to make a fragile peace with it by learning to hold it with as much tenderness, wonder, and appreciation as I do my gender. Not everyone can appreciate it or treat it appropriately, but it’s possible to find the right people who will hold our queer survivor bodies with their queer consents respectfully and lovingly, towards consensual pleasure and liberation for all.
 Yes, I recognize that some readers will read that hugging young children is supposed to be a nonsexual act and feel shock. With that probably comes waves of grief and anger, or an overwhelming blank of numbness. It’s okay to sit with that experience of betrayal with compassionate attention as part of learning more about consent. It will pass. If you need immediate help, please reach out to RAINN (800-656-4673)
Disability and Youth Trauma Specialist
Tristen Taggart is an agender antiviolence activist pursuing their Bachelor’s Degree in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies and Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University. Tristen joined FORGE as a Policy and Programming Intern in 2018 and now works as the Disability and Youth Trauma Specialist. Tristen is a queer survivor, community activist, scholar, and direct-support volunteer with an evolving focus on the intersections and divergences of queer survivorship, disability justice, and abolition in the lives of young people. They are thrilled to bring their passion and curiosity to FORGE from their hometown in Richmond, Virginia.