Permission. Such a pleasing word to say and reassuring idea. Permission to board, captain? Permission to hunt pheasant on your back forty, Farmer John? Permission to tickle your earlobes with a feather, Rapunzel?
It’s an evolved word, one that requires empathy, self awareness, golden-rule sensibility. And, critically, seeking permission also necessitates honoring the yes or no response.
So, healthy societies rely on permission-seeking for stability, and recognize that it needs to be celebrated and reinforced at all ages—perhaps, most importantly, in the realm of teenagers and sex. Recognizing this, Kitty Stryker created Ask: Building Consent Culture, “an empowering, informative anthology of essays to help young people define their personal boundaries,” according to the recent Foreword review by Claire Foster.
Wanting to know more about this groundbreaking project, we asked Claire to chase down Kitty for an interview.
Ask has such a strong, cohesive message, which can be difficult to do in an anthology. At the same time, I was impressed by the diversity of identity, experience, and voice in Ask. How did you select the anthology’s contributors?
I wanted to prioritize marginalized writers above all, so I made a call for submissions specifically asking for POC and trans/NB contributors two months before I asked the general public. I also had a few people in mind that I wanted to ask specifically, because they had really clever and important things to say but often not access to platforms on which to say them. I was very lucky to have some contributors who veered more towards academia, and others whose voice was much more casual. I’ve found that a lot of anthologies tend to lean too heavily in one direction or the other, and I wanted mine to speak to a large variety of readers. I knew not every piece would speak to every person, and that was ok with me.
Ask is for younger readers, or people who may be in a phase of experimentation. Do you wish you’d had access to this kind of information when you were younger? Why?
I’m delighted you think this an anthology that’s accessible and interesting for younger readers, as that wasn’t specifically the intent! I definitely wish that I had access to this kind of anthology and range of voices when I was younger. So much of the reading I did about rape culture growing up was overwhelmingly by heterosexual, middle class, cisgender white women, which is a perspective that gets a lot more attention but speaks to such a narrow experience. It certainly didn’t speak to much of my experience.
One of the major points in Ask is that healthy sexual relationships—or really all relationships—rely on healthy communication. If sex education included consent and communication, how do you think our society would be different?
I would like to think that if discussions of consent and communication were more prominent in our sex education, that the results would spread into other areas of life. I believe that having healthier models when it comes to romantic and sexual relationships has an impact in how we navigate our professional and family lives, as well—knowing how to have boundaries and how to respect other people’s boundaries is vital for good interpersonal connection! I think it could inform various professional experiences as well. Would we respect bodily autonomy more in medical or legal situations if we were taught earlier on to respect it in our personal interactions?
Sex is such a taboo subject, especially for younger people. What are some of the obstacles you’ve come up against as an educator, and how do you navigate this highly sensitive terrain?
I think there’s a tendency to conflate educating people on a topic with encouraging them to engage in a behavior. We see this with a lot of harm reduction—there’s a push against acknowledging that people are going to do something regardless, so we can either teach them how to do it safely, or we can ignore it/condemn it and hope the behavior stops. I think it’s shortsighted not to offer as much education as possible, but as a culture, we are very reluctant to recognize that younger people have sexual desires. We want to protect their innocence, and I think unfortunately the end result is not preparing them for having agency. I try to balance this by answering younger people’s questions more than I direct what I feel they should know, so it’s more interactive and respondent to their concerns.
Was there anything you wanted to include in Ask that didn’t make the final cut? What was the toughest editorial decision you had to make, and why?
I was really hoping for a piece exploring the complexity of consent and necrophilia, but the writer went in a different direction and ultimately I wanted people to write about things they were interested in!
The hardest editorial decision I had to make was in really strongly editing one of the pieces. I didn’t want it to be my voice, but I also had to meet a deadline and I really wanted the piece included! Thankfully the author and I worked together and I ensured they approved of all final edits before it went into the final draft. Honestly, I was very lucky to have such a talented and responsive community of writers involved, it was pretty smooth sailing.