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The definition of consent is always a hot topic. But its power flows far beyond sex. Questions of consent emerge everywhere — not only on fashion shoots, in movies, in sex work, and in porn, but also in the nitty gritty of Instagram Ts & Cs, in sharing, deep conversation, and what is fair for your boss to ask of you.

The event series Pillow Talk is a “community organizing on sex, love, and communication,” founded in 2018 by the author Fiona Alison Duncan. For its 20th installment, presented in partnership with Pornhub, Duncan and guest co-director Esra Soraya Padgett brought together a therapist, an actress, a sex worker, a psychoanalyst, and various other geniuses for a broad discussion on the nature of consent — in media, sex, work, and relationships.

Fiona Alison Duncan: CONSENT EVENT was a one-night panel discussion and party with reality TV style confessionals that took place in SoHo this summer. It was the 20th offering in my event and exhibition series Pillow Talk, a spin-off of my literary social practice Hard to Read. Both programs explore language in action. Where Hard to Read is more composed — about reading and writing — at Pillow Talk, we talk; it’s a risky proposition!

On the terrace after the panel, Chloë Sevigny mentioned that she wished we had spoken more about stigma and shame, and I agreed. There were so many things I would have loved to talk about more, like consent with regards to the Earth, the climate, and property. We could have hosted a consent convention, a whole week of programming. Call it CONSENT CON. The topic is sprawling, evergreen, and surprising.

Casting the panel wasn’t easy. In the midst of it, frustrated when we couldn’t find more men to speak, someone told me: “Everyone is scared of your event.” At one point, I rang the artist Richard Prince’s doorbell, seeking to invite him in person since my emails hadn’t yielded a response. That didn’t work. But two weeks and dozens of calls, texts, DMs, and emails later, we finally confirmed a perfect lineup of speakers, plus additional collaborators like Elizabeth Williams, a court illustrator who has drawn the trials of Harvey Weinstein, Ghislaine Maxwell, and R. Kelly.

Fiona Alison Duncan, author and Pillow Talk founder: The seed of this event was Esra’s scholarship on consent. Can you tell us about that research, Esra?

Esra Soraya Padgett, scholar and editor: I’m a linguistic anthropologist. What that means is I study language in everyday life: how meaning travels across spaces and through networks of people. I became interested in the topic of consent and the discrepancy I saw between normative ideas about consent as a single linguistic act that happens one time — or maybe a few times in a closed space (like “no means no” or “yes means yes”) — and the way consent often works in the world, which is that other people decide and talk about consent after the fact, at which point decisions are made around whether someone was even able to consent or not. I wanted to talk to people outside of my discipline and outside of academia about consent, because I thought that they would have interesting things to say, too.

Teniece Divya Johnson, stunt performer and intimacy coordinator: Can I share a working definition of consent? Actually, I’m going to reverse a little bit and talk about intimacy, and re-defining it to mean familiarity and closeness. When we think about intimacy that way, we expand our circle of compassion, caring, empathy, and trust. The working definition of consent that I like to go with is: It must be informed. It also must be freely given. You’re doing this because you want to. No “if/then statements,” right? Consent is a currency of the now, it’s not permission. Consent must also be specific. When we talk about kissing, what kind of kiss is it? Is it a chaste closed-mouthed kiss? Is it an open mouth kiss? Let’s get in there. What’s happening? What’s our ask for our performers? Sometimes we hear the language “enthusiastic yes.” Consent must also be a present yes. When we’re talking about sexual partners and consent, that makes sense, right? But sometimes we’re at work and our characters have to embody situations and circumstances that aren’t pleasing. So we really want to give actors the opportunity to not people-please, and to have some distance between their character and their person. So we ask for a present yes: That’s eye contact, being grounded, avoiding reactions like “Sure, fine. Okay. If that’s what the director needs…” And then finally, and I think this is the most important component of our working definition of consent, consent must be reversible. If you don’t have the opportunity to change your mind, you can’t give consent.

Chloë Sevigny, actress, writer, and director: Can I hire you for my next project? We need you around.

Padgett: One of the things that is coming up is this idea of how to build a system where we have the ability to opt-out or we have reversibility. Mindy, could you talk about this with regards to the Internet and digital rights?

Mindy Seu, technologist, professor, and author of Cyberfeminism Index: Platforms inform our behavior. When we opt into something like Instagram, the terms of service aren’t intended to be read — this speed is how they want us to move online. While the terms of service serve the organization, they are not necessarily terms that serve us as users. (Even this word “users” is quite contentious.) The way we opt into Instagram, then, feels a bit coercive. We want to use this thing that’s fast and free, so we’re going to accept it and see what happens. Then later, when we learn that, oh, I actually don’t like how Instagram filters are using my face data to create this AI, or they use my images for profit without commissioning me, there should be a way for us to be informed of this and opt out or negotiate new terms. It’s interesting to think about how we can change this type of software into a mutable structure. The Internet was founded from the military industrial complex, and therefore we have surveillance and tracking built into all the tools that we use. Google makes money when we click links, so this is a behavior that their interface encourages. It’s all about speed and clicks.

Padgett: When we spoke with all of the speakers before this event, many people mentioned contracts as a document of consent that seems to be very final.

hannah baer, therapist and author of trans girl suicide museum: I think a lot about the way that we all are defined as subjects by the law. The way consent was talked about when I was a young person was as a legal contract, and who is the law for? Who made it? Who does it serve? These kinds of questions come up when you think about consent. There’s the irreversibility of giving legal consent and how it’s designed to reduce liability for one or other party in the encounter, whether that’s a doctor or medical professional, someone in a performing arts setting, or in a sexual situation. It serves us better, I think, to ask: Instead of getting someone’s consent so that they can’t have redress for harm — so that a doctor or photographer or dude at a party isn’t liable for harm they cause — what would it look like to create situations, dynamics, relationships, workplaces, and communities where it isn’t the job of a person who might be about to experience harm to say, “No, I would not like to be harmed,” but instead some other kind of relationship between performers, intimate partners, or coworkers…?

Samantha Urbani, musician and mentor: It’s usually aimed at reducing liability for the person in power, right? Trying to dismantle that whole hierarchy. But it’s such a deep, cultural thing.

Kira Noir, adult performer and Pornhub ambassador: In the adult film industry, people started using what we call “performer advocates” on set. If you feel uncomfortable saying something directly to your scene partner, the director, or photographer, you have somebody who’s not there to have sex with you or to sign your checks. You can raise concerns with them. That came about after 2020 when there was this weird “Me Too”–like movement in the adult film industry. Because of Covid, performers had to stop performing with each other. We all turned to OnlyFans, and that’s when a lot of people discovered they could make their own money without having to rely on directors and that they had been keeping all of these things that had happened to them inside, because they didn’t want to miss out on money. Once we were free from the fear of, “If I speak out against this person, then I won’t get work anymore,” a lot of girls started coming forward with their stories. That really freaked out the studios, because they didn’t want to be responsible for that. A lot of them are really empathetic and don’t want to have that kind of thing happening on set.

Urbani: It’s actually really nice to hear that things improved after a “Me Too” movement, because sometimes something like that will swell up and then dissipate and you go, “Did it actually make a change?” My experience of “Me Too” was very triggering. It involved people figuring out that I had had a relationship with somebody there was suspicion around. Every major music media source reached out to me to get an interview. My one ask was to get approval on the interviews before they came out, and they all said no. That was so crazy to me. It could have been a good opportunity to speak out about things, it could have been very healing and empowering for me, but you’re asking me to explain something traumatic, and to feel like the media handling of the story is doubling down on your exploitation, your lack of control, your feeling of powerlessness. It was so disappointing. A lot of the people wanting to interview me were straight men. It’s like, “Come on, guys, this is obviously not the way to do it.”

Sevigny: Someone said something earlier about sex being a dirty word. Having been involved in so many provocative films that I really believed in, I got a lot of slack for them, and was really attacked in the media over and over again. I still am, and that probably took many years off my life. It ruined relationships and made things confusing at home with my family. How to recover from that? It definitely affected my career. There were a lot of other opportunities that I then passed on because I was scared of reliving what had happened to me in the media.

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Highsnobiety / Elizabeth Williams

Duncan: The media’s handling of these things can be very clumsy, if not violating. This relates to what I wanted to ask Ethan, a photographer and former model who just completed a documentary short about a Texan family who’s grappling with a new state rule that equates gender-affirming care with child abuse. Could you talk about how modeling informed how you work as a photographer, in terms of consent practices, and how that’s evolved into documentary and journalism as a genre?

Ethan James Green, photographer and director: I guess the first thing to say about my going from modeling to being a photographer was realizing that it’s super important for the subject to feel comfortable. I’ve been able to look back at moments when I was a subject, and when I felt good the result was much better. It’s actually very funny, today I modeled for the first time in a very long time, and before we started shooting I had to sign a consent form. It was a great photographer and someone that I look up to, so it was a very quick yes. But I still read over the form, and it almost changed the energy in that moment. I realized how hard it is to say no. I’ve been in many positions before where you feel like you can’t say no. With the documentary project, that was new for me. I think my big takeaway was the responsibility of an edit. With hot mics going the whole time, we had about 20 hours’ worth of footage. Condensing that to 10 minutes, you can tell a lot of different stories. I walked away realizing it’s a very large responsibility, the decisions I make have the potential to really impact someone’s life in a positive or negative way.

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Nick Sethi
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Nick Sethi

Padgett: Chloë, do you have advice that you would give to someone who is new to set life?

Sevigny: Recently, I was on a photoshoot where I was asked to take off my top. There were tons of people in the room. I said to the photographer, who is my friend, “Can you ask everybody else to leave?” Like, yes, I’ve been naked a hundred times, but I’m still really vulnerable and uncomfortable. Luckily, I can vocalize this for myself. But I feel like we need more people around. Agents don’t do it. Managers don’t do it.

Johnson: What a great job navigating “Can you clear the room?” One of the things that was brought up here is: How do we put consent into our own existence? We’ll talk about consent as something general, but what is the language we use? When we’re asking someone what their boundaries are, there’s such people-pleasing, right? I also think our relationship with “no” is scary — saying no, hearing no.

Lexii Foxx, artist and activist: I just want to normalize that no is a complete sentence. That can be a very weary thing in sex work when we’re up in the face of the client, depending on the risk of the work we are doing. Clients, the people that are “funding us” or “helping us,” can see the weakness in us and take advantage of that. I am a sex worker. And sex work is work. Sex work is the reason I’m still standing here. We need to take the demonizing stigma out of sex work and put in the power. We also need education for all of us and to be in a greater support system with each other. Support can show up in many ways. What way can you support? What access can you give? Two words I think of when I think of consent are “privacy” and “safe space.” Safe spaces and safe havens are a dire need for people of color, especially for Black trans women who face high rates of non-fatal and fatal violence. I feel that I am safe here, I don’t feel that I will be in harm’s way of violence, but unfortunately when I leave these doors, that’s not necessarily true.

Liara Roux, sex worker, organizer, and author of Whore of New York: As a sex worker, I definitely was giving a lot of unenthusiastic consent, which sounds terrible. But for me it was just a part of the job. I was like, “All right, I’m going to be doing something that I otherwise wouldn’t do if money wasn’t involved, and I’m going to figure out what my boundaries are, where I feel safe, and what feels comfortable for me to accept this money.” I think because of the way I think about sex, it felt no different than going into Starbucks and working as a barista. I would never go into Starbucks every single day and make people drinks if no one was paying me. I think money is something that’s so important when we consider contracts and consent. If someone is worried about how they’re going to get food or how they’re going to pay their rent, they’re a lot more likely to consent to something that feels violating. If we had more of a social safety net, like universal basic income, universal healthcare, housing, and mental health support, a lot of people would feel more comfortable saying no to things, and there would be time and space for people to negotiate.

Noir: Do you think, when it comes to work, that there can be such a thing as true consent under capitalism? On Twitter, somebody was asking Goth Charlotte if she really felt like she could talk about consent when she was a sex worker. The way they put it was, “You get fucked all day.” She replied, “Everybody gets fucked under capitalism.” We’re all selling our bodies in some way. Some of us are comfortable with working at Starbucks, some of us are comfortable with being sex workers, but I honestly don’t think you can ignore that bit of coercion that’s present whenever you’re trying to work for survival, and I’m sure the majority of people working in America are working because they have to, not because they want to. I love that we’re talking about consent in terms of contracts and other environments, because for me the word consent is so closely tied to sexuality, and what you consent to during a sexual interaction, I forget that it’s everywhere.

Padgett: We have reached the point for Jamieson Webster to intervene as our group analyst.

Jamieson Webster, author and psychoanalyst: As I first started to listen to you, there was this anxiety about being positive. We wanted safe spaces. We wanted to be on the same page. We wanted to feel like communication was possible, that we could negotiate, that we could advocate. Along the edges, in the background, of course, is the threat of violence. There’s coercion, the possibility of breakdown, and there’s obviously trauma. But I think everybody here believes that something magical can happen between people when there is consent. The conversation became about the kind of negotiations that are possible: How can we negotiate if we don’t know? And, of course, one person is always in power in a situation. I heard, I think, the most basic cry then from the group, which is the cry I hear all the time as a psychoanalyst, which is: Will somebody save us? There has to be somebody. Somebody has to be there. Will somebody educate us? Is there anybody? But then you guys found the answer. There isn’t anybody. We have to save ourselves.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Esra Soraya Padgett: Capacious, I thought. Conservative, as an early collaborator described it. Ambitious, said one panelist, the night before the panel. Consent meant too much to some, too little to others — many simply recoiled at the idea of the topic resurfacing (had it gone away?). Any conversation between more than 10 people may be ambitious. But we found people willing to take the plunge.

Consent doesn’t need to be about sex, but its proximity to it can cause panic. Perhaps this is because consent draws out the very complexities that make sex such a potent subject. Violence and pleasure, agency and coercion, desire and regret — our anxieties around sex often hinge on these ambivalences, with consent as the juncture at which our feelings could sway in either direction. It is a lot to bear. And everyone is an expert.

For me, I like thinking about consent because it is a place where meaning and language are so clearly at the forefront. Language means something here, it does something — or at least, that is what we are told. But as the panel cascaded through the many contexts in which we find consent — contracts, labor under capitalism, sexual transactions both for money and pleasure, surveillance and digital tech — there was still so much left to say. I felt one thing for certain: We simply could not get to the root of it. This was the shocking reveal. Not the efficacy of language, but its opposite: the failure of language, and with it, the ineffability of experience.

Head here to get a copy of the new issue of Highsnobiety Magazine.

  • Text:Fiona Allison Duncan & Esra Soraya Padgett
  • Illustrations:Elizabeth Williams
  • Explained by:Fiona Alison Duncan, Esra Soraya Padgett, Lexii Foxx, Ethan James Green, Teniece Divya Johnson, Mindy Seu, hannah baer, Kira Noir, Samantha Urbani, Chloë Sevigny, Liara Roux, and Jamieson Webster

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