What does consent look like, in a world where touch can kill?


This essay discusses sexual violence and mentions r/pe

by Donnie Moreland 

I must have written this sentence ten times before settling on the question of this piece, as the only way to begin—what does consent look like, in a world where touch can kill? This isn’t an universal inquiry, but a meditation on that which I am, as a cis-het Black man. 

Permission is often posited as a matter of inconvenience, which it can be reduced to, when valuing the imminence and urgency of our moral considerations in community. We openly negotiate the conditions of the bodies worth to value ‘no’, depending on a proximity to sliding consequence. But the biopolitics of COVID-19 shifts, more eradicates those negotiations: permission is survival. 

RELATED: It’s past time for Black men to become traitors to the male privilege that protects us

Yet, it has always been for whomever of us falls into the scaling crosshairs of white hunters, with a hunger for our last gasps. More relatively, for the categories of Black which are not heterosexual, monotheistic and male identifying who suffer the temper of cis-het brothers, frantically hiding away our tethers to gendered brutalities in community. 

However, a pandemic unmasks those who hold steady to those lines, still. When touch can kill, we learn much from who chooses to ignore the quelling of the fingers to hold, hug, fight, push, kiss, fuck (read: rape) without permission. 

And this is no moral observation. The husband who holds his partner’s hand when the hours become months and the father who wipes away his son’s tears, when normal becomes a memory, are not sites of my investigation. We will share our bodies, in the presence of kin, blood relation or not, but it is with what authority that I am inquiring. 

Even when permission is given, with what conditions are we given over the flesh of others, who do not share the interdependencies of Black maleness and cisheteronormativity. This is what, with an opportunity of solitude, we might begin to deconstruct. Permission, touch,  death between both and what becomes of Black cis-het masculinities—our hands—when absorbing permission is an act of killing. 

Thinking permission is reframing value. Centering the phallus, in the heteronormative imagination, there isn’t much room for that which isn’t in radius of the genitals. It’s about sex and access to ejaculation. Less ‘why won’t they’ and more, ‘what might they need to be able to’. More ‘who might’ and less, ‘why would they not’. Our relationship to consent is, again, an inconvenience to the point of gratification. 

This isn’t a charge, but a comment on condition. How we’ve become, to see the body as far as the penis erects, even of our own value, but that’s saying nothing novel. And yet it’s an estimation which is necessary to see what it is we see in the word “permission.” But rethinking this term, and how far we might value permission, is rethinking touch. The symbology of engagements and our control of how these encounters are read. The best sites for consideration are, not with any of our ethnic cohorts, but with other Black cis-het men. The veiled spiritual candor, of cis het Black men, is its most visible when we dance our dance. 

I can’t suggest I have ever once thought to demand another Black man request my permission before we shook hands, hugged, fought, etc. Maybe to share space. A whispered, “do you mind?” if I wanted to sit next to someone, possibly, which is as thoughtless a social courtesy as “excuse me”.

In fact, the last time I requested consent from another Black man, with a matter pertaining to their body, was when I worked as a mental health practitioner at a Crisis Care residence and needed to knock while performing rounds as part of my nightly ritual. It was a fraughtless exercise, as we were always going to enter, despite resistance. In fact, resistance demanded we intrude. 

I can’t draw a moment of requested permission, because I learned to defend my body, less any practice of measurable consideration. I never thought to value my body aside, to estimate its weaknesses if it were ever challenged and succumbed to a greater force—the body of another boy. If I felt uncomfortable around other boys, I prepared to fight. Being unnerved was more a mark on what I didn’t have—the physical strength to defend myself. What I did have—a right to spatial sovereignty—I had no reference of meaning.  

When I was a child, I saw a group of boys berating a schoolyard buddy. All of the performers here, Black boys. I screamed for them to stop. Some distance between us, I assumed they’d might retreat. They did not. They covered ground and beat me, senseless. When I regained myself, I was furious. Not that they had abused my body. Disrupted something so fragile in our safety. But that I couldn’t defend myself. 

I felt weak and wanted to take away what they took from me. I know I am not alone in the observations of what my inner child has lost because I didn’t realize my body was worth losing. This doesn’t change much even among allies. Friends who you may give a “yo, chill bro”, are never told why they arouse your discontent, but more given a warning that if they continue with such behaviors, they should expect a fight. You make up for your losses, again, by taking something from them. 

This is our rearing in the masculine, and not just something leftover from our mammalian/amphibious ancestry. These are the considerations of consent, if it could even be called that, among those we see ourselves in. Those boys and men we don’t imagine fucking, so “worry” about permission eludes us, which for me, is a disaster impending when we collide, in a moment where even our greetings might mean ruin. 

There is nothing offered from a man, in a man, when safety is no more than defense for us. Again, as a comment on condition. Thus, we scour elsewhere to find home, be fed. But when you know to take, you will take. You will take a pound to gain an ounce. But what if we’re starved? How might we survive, or would we even? 

This, to include us, who suggest something about “being good men”. All of us, who apply a kind of pressure so that others contort to shapes of our needs. The need to control and rearrange what occurs outside of our bodies, so that our vulnerabilities are tended. When that power—which we often object to wielding in an offensive position against inquisition of our own crimes—is shifted, we will become vulnerable. And it is in that prospect where we discover a crossroad—to unravel and undo some of what we’ve acquired by birthright or risk losses inconsequential of piety to the masculine. 

And we’ve arrived at the question of resolution and I believe the intention of that inquiry is what twists us up and troubles us, as what often occurs when action precedes thought. It is one thing to suggest that boundaries matter, but when there is no school of thought about how we come to learn that which informs permission, then we will fail in believing our hands might partition what we allow, what we don’t and why another might allow us and why they might not. Might consent be given over because refusal is a precursor to harm—taking the body, as we know to do. 

These are the questions. What would be easy to do, as I have certainly, is fall on the philosophies of Adrienne Marie Brown, bell hooks, Alice Walker and so on to rescript womanist ethics to fit our vocabulary. But this is a temporally non-consensual act of appropriation. We need our own grammar. 

RELATED: Black men need space to talk about their own sexual pleasure outside of domination

One that puts on display our gendered hegemony, its harms, where we benefit and requires a brutal inquiry in shaping, amongst ourselves—even if ideologically disperate. One that asks what allows us to profit from the grief of others, when our bodies are comendered by white thieves to only turn to take from the flesh of those who sound a battlecry in the name of all black folks, as we witnessed with the assault of Iyanna Dior in such intimate proximity of the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. 

One that asks why the tragedy of Oluwatoyin Salau is still fucking possible. One that asks why Black humanity has been tied to Black cis-het masculinity, for such a time, and what might be the residue of this ontological tradition when we think about Blackness, being and Blackness and Blackness mattering. 

We’ll call it work language. Only then might we suggest, with our histories of harm, that we can be trusted to, less agree, but know the eternal modes of consent—in, and out, of a global pandemic. Because, as stated previously, permission is survival—especially for Black folks, and especially in proximity of us.

Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.