Consent, Mistakes, and Ripples: reflections on a mess

It’s crazy how the universe works sometimes. I’ve been talking a lot recently, in my personal life, about how things that have happened in the past have the power to fuck things up in the present. Experience from my past, and the feelings they bring up even years later, cause ripples in my life, both in myself and in the people around me. Sometimes a small event that triggers me becomes a huge milestone moment in my life when I don’t want it to, because the ripples can rock into the brains and feelings of other people and cause them to relive their trauma, or can bring up major issues that have not been confronted, and so on. What I mean to say is, something that happened in the past, that seems to be dead and buried, can come back and bite you, whether it was your fault or not, whether you want it to bite you (or anybody else) or not. The past is the foundation of the present, and sometimes it’s a moldy nasty awful foundation we wish we could demolish. But we can’t. Or we’d fall, too.

This is all a roundabout way of getting to the topic at hand: a behind-the-scenes style video clip from 2009, featuring feminist pornographer, author, activist, and artist Madison Young after a long day of shooting, talking with her costar about an experience she had in college. I can hear the sighs from readers already. Anytime you hear about “an experience” someone had “in college,” you know that whatever comes next is going to be some horror show. Well, yeah. Madison apparently had a sexual experience with another student, which was called into question the next day because it had taken place while both people were intoxicated–a fact which made the entire episode “against the rules” at the college they attended, which had a strict no-sex-whatsoever-while-drunk policy. This policy was ostensibly in place to prevent drunken incidents of non-consensual sex between students, and seems to be one of those good ideas that’s completely not practical. The woman with whom Madison had sex while drunk apparently woke up the next day concerned that they had violated this rule, and the matter was taken to the authorities. Madison, it seems, was almost kicked out school for breaking this rule. In the video, Madison talks about the whole experience, apparently in a way that she thought was very sarcastic, but which to some viewers sounds highly inappropriate.

This video has surfaced come to light suddenly, and has caused a firestorm of critique within the feminist porn community, much of which has been playing out on Twitter, but which has also led to some big-time articles and notes from Kitty Stryker and a The Feminist Porn Awards.

The video clip has since been removed from YouTube, and I didn’t get a chance to watch it while it was up. So I’m not an authority on what was actually said or the tones of voice used. But, from what I’m reading around the Interwebz, Madison was, at least in her mind, making fun of the college’s SOPP (sex policy) by sarcastically retelling the story of the experience. The mocking tone she was using, she says, was aimed at the policy itself, not at the woman Madison was intimate with. She was poking fun at how a consensual act between two adults who were intoxicated at the time was, according to the rules set up by the college, still not technically consensual, and how any sweeping rule like that can’t ever hope to work in the real world. But apparently, taken out of context in a video clip, the tone and words she used while talking about all of this made it seem as if Madison had not gotten the other woman’s consent and was making fun of her for having a problem with what happened. Which, yes, would have been totally horrible. Nonconsensual sex is not ok and it is never ok to make jokes about it.

Again, I haven’t seen this video, and I will admit that I’m coming at this issue from a biased place. I adore Madison Young and have been a fan of her work for years. She and I are colleagues and kinda-friends, and while I realize that this might blind me to any existing bad side she has, I also like to think that I know her well enough to believe her when she says that the conversation in the video clip was meant as a joke, and that the mocking tone was aimed at the ineffectual rule she technically broke. I want to extend my support to her in this difficult time. She has made it her life’s mission since college to promote the sexual agency of humans by acting as a radical feminist artist within the constructs of mainstream pornography and by making her own feminist porn, by starting her own art gallery and now movement (Femina Potens) that celebrates agency and empowerment through sex and the body for all people, by teaching and lecturing on issues of consent and positivity, and by generally being an unrelenting advocate for consent and kindness and goodness in all things. I do not believe that she would take advantage of someone, but if she had done so when she was younger, I do not believe that she would then go on to make fun of it, much less on video that would be distributed to a wide audience. I think she wouldn’t do that, not just because it would reflect badly on her to do so, but because the very idea of doing so goes against everything she believes in and stands for.

But that doesn’t mean that she didn’t say some things in that video clip that could potentially be hurtful, triggering, harmful, or outright bad.

And that’s where the whole issue I was talking about before comes up: things that happen in the past can and do send ripples into our futures and the futures of other people over which we simply do not have control. Especially things that happen when we’re young and we don’t know what we’re doing with ourselves.

I say this because, years after my own worst experience with sexual assault (I say “worst” experience because I’ve since realized that I’ve had many experiences that fall under the category of sexual assault, but one of them was particularly traumatic), I was trying to figure out what had happened to me and how I felt about it. I gravitated toward writing/thinking/talking about sex as a result, and I started working on what would become WHACK! Magazine. When it started, WHACK! was meant to be a joke magazine that would promote a web series we were developing. The web series was going to be about young people who wrote for a porn industry magazine, so we invented fake identities and started writing ridiculous, Onion-esque articles making fun of pornography and the people in it. We thought we were hilarious. One of our founding members did political cartoon-style Photoshop bits using still shots from porn movies to poke fun at everything from industry-insider tropes to porn stars themselves. We used language that was degrading and offensive, telling ourselves it was ok because it was just comedy and everyone we were mocking would get that we were just having a laugh. Satire, we called it. Over time, as WHACK! somehow morphed from the Onion of Porn into an actual news website that did real (and, I like to think, much more respectful and humanistic) interviews with porn stars, reviews, and commentary on the industry. We stopped with the satire, although we kept up a sort of tongue-in-cheek aesthetic with most of what we did. We turned our focus to taking pornography and all the people in it seriously, and we ended up doing some really good work that I’m very proud of. Working on WHACK! taught me so much about the sex industry, and what I learned was that the people involved are often courageous, hard-working, intelligent, and beautiful people who deserve all the respect I can give them. And I am still striving to pay them that respect.

But looking back, I’m ashamed that I participated in some of what happened early in the history of WHACK! Knowing what I know now, I realize that I walked into an industry I knew almost nothing about, armed in the flimsy breastplate of “comedy,” and fucked up a whole lot of people’s days. I thought everybody would be in on our jokes, get a laugh out of our mockery, and then go have a beer together or something. I thought, “Hey, we’re on their side! We love them! They’ll think we’re great!” But how can you be on somebody’s side if you’re so busy making fun of them that you don’t take the time to get to know them? You can’t just start calling people names and assume that they’ll be cool with because you meant it with love. Especially when they have no idea who you are. And you sure as shit can’t expect them to take the time to sit you down and explain to you, calmly and rationally, why what you’re doing isn’t nearly as funny as you think it is, or why you need to check yourself. Instead they’re going to get pissed and yell at you on Twitter and tell their friends not to talk to you, because that’s a lot easier and it feels better in the moment. And, shit, most people in porn have way too much to do to spend time and energy on a twenty-something upstart who’s trying to get her head on straight about sex and is going about it all wrong.

The reason I’m bringing all of this up, specifically, is because it’s an example from my past about how we can all do really shitty things that, in hindsight, are clearly shitty. But when we’re involved in them we really think we’re having a laugh and that everybody will get the joke, and if they don’t, fuck ’em. And there’s a certain level of legitimacy to that, of course–if we’re worrying constantly about what other people think, we won’t get very far. But there’s a difference between worrying what other people think and doing something that is legitimately insensitive and offensive. I definitely participated in, or at least stood behind, some things that were insensitive and offensive. Whether they were also funny or not is up for debate, but it’s not a matter of conjecture as to whether they were hurtful. They were. And I feel deeply sorry for being a part of that. But I can’t change what I did. It happened. There are ripples.

Since that time I have changed my perspective. I’ve gotten to know a lot more about people, and especially about people in the porn industry. I’ve come to respect many of them hugely, and to write from a place of respect and love as often as I can. I am always trying to learn more about all of this. I am an advocate for feminism and ethics in pornography, for the promotion of consent in porn and in the world at large, and for a more open dialogue about all of these topics. I believe that I do some small amount of good in the world, now that I have more perspective on all of this. And I hope to do much more.

But when I started? Shit. I was an asshole.

When I heard about this issue with Madison, it sounded to me like somebody who had a vendetta against this woman, who has spent her whole adult life doing good things, got ahold of this video clip, cut it up to make it as far removed from its context as possible, and put it online to make her look bad. That’s crappy. And it occurred to me that somebody absolutely could do the same thing to me if they wanted to. And that could potentially ruin me. So I decided to just say this right here and now: I screwed up in the past. I feel like an asshole for it. I’m so sorry if anything I participated in hurt anyone, and I’m sure it did. I wish I could take it back. But I can’t. What I can do is aim to do better for the rest of my time on earth. But I know I’ll screw up again, probably again without realizing it. Onward and upward. We have to keep trying.

So, now, rather than go on a witch hunts and Twitter fire-bombing campaigns, to further thin the ranks of a growing but still-small movement (feminist porn and consent activism and inclusivity in sex positivity), this is a good opportunity for people to come together to talk about the fact that all of us, even the most shining, beautiful examples of Good Human Beings, have done things we shouldn’t have. We have all said things that could be hurtful. We have all acted in ways that make us ashamed. We all have skeletons in our closets. And we all have to be aware that when we try to be shining examples of Good Human Beings, we are putting ourselves into the spotlight. And that there may be people who want to throw the skeletons from our closets into the spotlight with us, to make us look bad or to get some kind of revenge or to try to assuage the hurt they feel from what we did to them. That’s scary, but it’s true. We’re vulnerable. All of us. And so we have to try be humble, willing to admit when we’re wrong, honest, and forgiving of ourselves and others.

So I’m trying to show solidarity with Madison by saying a few things:

1) I think Madison Young is a wonderful person. I don’t think she intended to hurt anyone with the video in question. I don’t know exactly what was said or exactly what she did in college, but I believe that she had good intentions, even if they weren’t executed very well.

2) I have also done things–many things–that at the time I thought were harmless. But in retrospect, they probably weren’t. If somebody wanted to hurt my reputation, it would be incredibly easy to do. Ripples. They don’t stop when we want them to.

3) It’s important for people in the feminist porn/activism/sex-positive community, who are involved in the examination of consent, agency, and sexual empowerment to be critical of themselves and one another. It is important to be honest and open and transparent, and to strive every day to be good people and to live our beliefs, because honesty is the first stepping stone in active, enthusiastic consent and the the first footstep on the path to a more sexually open, empowered world. But transparency leaves no room for throwing stones–glass houses and all that.

4) And so it’s also important to remember that we have all done things we shouldn’t have. Some things are more clearly wrong, and sometimes it’s all a matter of context. But regardless of intent and context at the moment these things happen, I think it’s massively important that as a community of people who are trying to make the world a better place, we focus on being supportive of one another. We need to help each other see when someone is being hurt and try to move toward healing that hurt. We need to admit when we are the cause of pain, and do what we can to mitigate it. We need to try to be better next time. But in order for that next time to be better, we have to be given the chance to have a next time. So when something like this happens it’s important the conversation be had publicly, that it be had calmly and rationally, and that everyone is willing to listen to everyone else. Infighting does not a successful movement make, ever. Transparency, love, and the willingness to move forward–stronger and better than we were before–does.

Furthermore, this is a great opportunity for everyone involved to re-examine what, to them, constitutes consent and how to talk about these issues with respect. It’s a perfect time to reflect on the existing structures that allow even the most radical of activists to fall easily into language patterns that reinforce patriarchal, hurtful, offensive ideas and cultural memes–Madison apparently did this in her video, and I did it at WHACK! The fact that this type of language is so readily available in our cultural consciousness is an indication of how deeply it pervades our brains, and it’s important to recognize that in order to take an stronger stance against perpetuating it. This is an opportunity for the Feminist Porn Awards (the de facto gatekeepers of this community) to redefine what they consider acceptable behaviors for the people they nominate and award (and they are doing so). It’s, all around, a perfect time for people who believe in love, sex, and feminism to come together to get better, to apologize where apologies are necessary, and to move forward with clearer goals and intentions. And I hope that’s what happens.

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