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Writing Networks for Social Justice

Column —

Teaching Consent When a Perp is Running for President

Trigger Warning (TW): This piece might be triggering to survivors of sexual assault. Please take whatever form of care you need.

Spring 2017, a meme (by @queentrash__) keeps going around that says:

High School Teachers: "I'm not going to share my political beliefs. It's unprofessional."

College Teachers: "What is the square root of fuck Tump?"

I show the meme to first-year writing students, although I know it's potentially an avenue to thorny conversations about free speech.

I don't need to say "fuck Trump." Every time he opens his mouth, racist, xenophobic, ableist, misogynist rhetoric tumbles out. The election provides the opportune moment for analysis.

Profoundly non-consensual rhetoric

Before learning Trump was running against Hillary Clinton for 45th President of the United States, I had already planned to teach "The Art and Practice of Consent," a first-year writing course.

I hadn’t thought about that guy in years, a smarmy billionaire once recorded saying, "I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything ... Grab them by the pussy."1

During the campaign cycle, his face was everywhere, an admitted sexual perpetrator, given an international platform.

Daily Reading List:

Instead of:

Read/Listen to/View:

Teaching a feminist first-year writing course on consent means responding to timely events. Some days we're supposed to read about trigger warnings, but we need to talk about a Presidential candidate being a sexual perpetrator instead.

"Which would you rather talk about–the rhetoric of trigger warnings, or the rhetoric of the election?" All three sections of my class say: the election.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Consent is the art of using language and our bodies to negotiate boundaries, limits, desire, and risk, among other elements. Discuss with your small group how Donald Trump's statement about grabbing women does or does not violate consent.
  2. Written response: In Michelle Obama's 2016 speech "This is Not Normal," what is her revision to rape culture? What does she mean about Trump's language and our culture by "this is not normal"?

    This was not just a "lewd conversation". This wasn't just locker-room banter. This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predatory behavior, and actually bragging about kissing and groping women, using language so obscene that many of us were worried about our children hearing it when we turn on the TV...

    It is cruel. It's frightening. And the truth is, it hurts.

    ...This is not normal. This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful. It is intolerable. And it doesn't matter what party you belong to - Democrat, Republican, independent - no woman deserves to be treated this way. None of us deserves this kind of abuse (Obama).

  3. Artists may use rage / humor to promote consent culture. Listen to the Petrol Girls' song "Touch Me Again."

    My domain my temple and my territory my pleasure
    Cut cut cut it out
    My desire my right to choose or to refuse this encounter
    Cut cut cut it out
    My agency that non consensual contact tries to take from me
    Cut cut cut it out

  4. Watch Kim Boekbinder's "Pussy Grabs Back." How do rage and humor function as rhetorical strategies to "grab back" at sexist and misogynist rhetoric?

    The video features cut outs of 1950s-style paper dolls with cat heads, dancing. It samples Trump's own words, using them to critique the rhetoric of perpetration in a cut 'n paste style.

    "Hey, when you're a star they let you do it."
    "You can do anything."
    "Grab 'em by the pussy."
    Pussy grabs back. . .

Question: How do we make consent culture normal?

Answer: Cut n' paste a world where consent is valued.

In Feminist Rhetorical Practices, Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch tell writing instructors to understand feminist rhetorics as "a social phenomenon, rather than more simply a public phenomenon."2

To recognize women's ideas, and I would also say queer and trans people's ideas, we need to understand "social circulation"-how they're "transmitted through language and relationships"-rather than only valuing ideas broadcast widely in the public sphere.3

Consent culture circulates through social networks, including social media. In these spaces, young women, queer and trans people, and pro-feminist men theorize consent, telling stories using their own languages and images, or remixing ones found online.

Quickly I learn some students have Tumblr, a blogging platform used predominantly by youth and a haven for underground culture and ideas. They are already blogging, making gifs, theorizing about what it means for a perpetrator to run for President.

Some spent their teens scanning Scarleteen sex ed articles and exploring their bodies.4 But some have religious families or had abstinence-only sex ed. Some grew up places with scarce internet access, where inclusive sex ed websites were banned.

I am as direct as possible when telling them what I know:

"1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be a victim of sexual abuse perpetrated before age 18" (National Center for Victims of Crime statistics).

1 in 8 lesbians, half of bisexual men, and 4 of 10 gay men, and 64% of transgender people are survivors (National Center for Lesbian Rights).

An empirical study done by social scientists K. Lalor and R. McElvaney in 2010 suggests these children are "13.7 times more likely to experience sexual assault in their first year of college."5

When it's over. . .

After people march in the streets, when the Inauguration and the school year end, we have a known perpetrator as President. Everyone I talk to feels stunned and numb.

It won't be until May 2017, while walking around the Chicago Zine Fest, when these stories will come. I pick up a copy of Ifer Moore's zine Trump Reminds Me of My Rape and start to paste together the pieces.

Teaching three classes as first-year students put language to their terror. How I choked out some words, feeling responsible as a teacher and a rhetor for knowing what to say. How the classroom became an intimate space, taut with possibility and risk, ruled by consent as a common ethical dilemma.

All of the makings of a good story.

Emotion. Students cried hard, as if in mourning.

Action. Students spent the class with hoodies up; and we knew without words what it meant.

Desire for connection. Students asked for a hug.

Powerful speech. They made passionate appeals for their queer siblings, immigrant neighbors, or Muslim families, to be safe.

Writing deeply and talking openly about consent means we all had to come up with language for consent in community, and in conflict.

I want to be powerful enough to say the students with the red hats reconsidered. They finally understood what the big deal was about consent. But that would be fiction. This has been a politically traumatic year.

. . .the memories arrange themselves, with seemingly no order

2016, sitting in a coffee shop writing about consent class, I glance over at the guy at the table over, who has his dick out of his shorts. Calmly, I get up to discuss this with the barista who says, "that guy? It happens all the time."

It happens all the time.

Out of town for a wedding, my partner and I go on a hike. I am doing a handstand on some rocks, when a man nearby takes out his phone camera and says, "let me come around this side of you, so I can get a look at your tits."

It happens all the time. Like the track is skipping.

"Alt-right" speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, who got internet famous for saying rape is just a fantasy, is paid to speak on campus.

It happens all the time.

The former University Physician, a local Osteopath, is accused by more than 80 people, mostly female gymnasts, of sexual assault, as well as federal child pornography charges.6

It happens all the time.

A student discloses that they are already a survivor. The tenth time that semester,

I learn to be grateful when the disclosure happens in a neutral space, an office with an open-door policy, awash in ideal lighting and carefully tended plants. Though more likely, it happens by surprise–when I am up past midnight reading personal essays, while students mingle in the hallway after class.

It happens all the time. When it does, I lean on federal Title IX regulations, revised in 2015, requiring all federally funded

colleges and universities to get students the resources they are entitled to under the law (U.S. Department of Education). Even as I know they can and will be taken away.7

I devour Ifer Moore's brilliant, lyrical zine, Trump Reminds Me of My Rape, a collection of ten vignettes, with illustrations hand drawn by K.V. Natan. Moore writes, "Here I've collected memories that haunt me along with the images that calmed me."

I get a persistent image. Using the sharpest blade to cut away every bit of language suggesting violence is ever deserved. We sharpen our consent language and prepare to defend ourselves.


  1. Fahrenthold, David A. "Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation about Women in 2005." Washington Post, 8 Oct. 2016.
  2. Royster, Jacqueline Jones and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP: 100-101.
  3. ibid. 101
  4. Scarleteen: Sex Education for the Real World is a free, comprehensive sex ed website aimed at teens and young adults. <http://www.scarleteen.com/>
  5. Lalor, K. and R. McElvaney. "Child Sexual Abuse, Links to Later Sexual Exploitation/High-Risk Sexual Behavior, and Prevention/Treatment Programs." Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, vol. 11, no. 4, 2010, pp. 9.
  6. Connor, Tracy. "Gymnastics Doctor Larry Nassar Faces Sex-Abuse Accusers in Court." NBC News. 12 May 2017.
  7. Benjamin Wermund, "DeVos to scrap Obama- era Sexual Assault Policy." Politico. 7 Sept. 2017.

Works Cited

Boekbinder, Kim. "Pussy Grabs Back." Bandcamp, [date unknown], kimboekbinder.bandcamp.com/track/pussy-grabs-back. Accessed on 30 June 2017.

Fahrenthold, David A. "Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation about Women in 2005." Washington Post, 8 Oct. 2016.

Gay, Roxane. "The Safety of Illusion/The Illusion of Safety." The Rumpus, 28 Aug. 2012, therumpus.net/2012/08/the-illusion-of-safetythe- safety-of-illusion/. Accessed on 30 June 2017.

Lalor, K. and R. McElvaney. "Child Sexual Abuse, Links to Later Sexual Exploitation/ High-Risk Sexual Behavior, and Prevention/ Treatment Programs." Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, vol. 11, no. 4, 2010, pp. 159-177.

Logue, Josh. "The Next Ann Coulter." Inside Higher Ed, 19 Feb. 2016, insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/19/student-protests- and-university-cancellations-follow- milo-yiannopoulos-speaking-tour?utm_ source=slate&utm_medium=referral&utm_ term=partner. Accessed on 30 June 2017.

Moore, Ifer.Trump Reminds Me of My Rape. Self-published zine, 2017. Available at ifermoore.bigcartel.com/product/trump-reminds-me-of-my-rape.

National Center for Victims of Crime. "Child Sexual Abuse Statistics." n.d., victimsofcrime.org. Accessed on 30 June 2017.

Obama, Michelle. "The Full Transcript of Michelle Obama's Powerful New Hampshire Speech." The Guardian, 14 October 2016, theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/14/michelle-obama-speech-transcript-donald-trump. Accessed on 30 June 2017.

Petrol Girls. "Touch Me Again." Talk of Violence. YouTube, uploaded by , 18 Nov. 2016, youtube.com/watch?v=M8TZsBGgoMc. Accessed on 30 June 2017.

@queentrash__ . "College Profs Meme." Twitter, 26 January 2017, 3:29pm, twitter.com/queentrash /status/824716006606016512. Accessed on 30 June 2017.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP.

Rugnetta, Mike. "What's the Deal with Campus Trigger Warnings?" PBS Digital Studios, 16 Sept. 2015, youtube.com/watch?v=XvoYtUhjRWM. Accessed on 30 June 2017.

Shaw-Thornburg, Angela. "This is a Trigger Warning." The Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 June 2014, chronicle.com/article/This-Is-a-Trigger-Warning/147031. Accessed on 30 June 2017.

"University of Chicago: 'We Do Not Support So-called 'Trigger Warnings.'" TIME Ideas, 25 Aug. 2015, time.com/4466021/uchicago-trigger-warnings/. Accessed on 30 June 2017.

US Department of Education. "Title IX & Sex Discrimination."April 2015, www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/tix_dis.html. Accessed on 30 June 2017.

About the Author

Violet Livingston is a queer femme storyteller who writes about consent. She works as an assistant professor in the department of Writing, Rhetoric, & American Cultures and in the Residential College in Arts & Humanities at Michigan State University. Her writing is published in Peitho, Harlot, and A Guide to Composition Pedagogies (2nd ed).