As regular readers know, I’ve been writing a lot about consent again recently. One of the areas that’s come up for me is consent in my relationships with people who connect with my work. On the one hand, several people who’ve treated me in lovely ways have expressed anxiety about whether it was okay. On the other hand, there’ve been a few situations where I’ve been left uncomfortable – even frightened – and like I haven’t been treated consensually. In this post I want to explore consent in the reader/writer relationship, although many of the points probably apply to all kinds of creative workers, and perhaps to those in more caring and service professions as well.
Awkwardness and Obligation
I notice that this feels an awkward post to write. It’s a terrific privilege to be able to be a full-time writer. I’m very aware that the thing that makes it possible at all is people buying my books, supporting my Patreon, and recommending my work to others in their lives. I’m hugely fortunate to have perhaps a few hundred people who really connect with my stuff and actively support me in these kinds of ways.
I’m also aware of how much the feedback from these folks means to me. Knowing that I’ve connected with somebody through my work – perhaps helped them in some way – is gold. It affirms that I’m a decent writer who creates quality stuff, which is huge in itself. Beyond that it’s also massively personally validating. Most of what I write comes out of my own struggles. Turning those into something that connects with other people, is useful for them, perhaps even helps them to navigate similar struggles more easily, feels like a form of self-compassion too: healing even.
The reason for my awkwardness in writing this post is that I realise that a part of me feels that, because of my gratitude to my readers, it isn’t really okay to set any limits or boundaries around how they treat me. That can mean that when I’m asked for something that I can’t – or don’t want to – give, it’s hard to say ‘no’ or be honest about my response.
It’s been helpful for me to think about this in relation to consent because of course that’s a big red flag right there! It’s a problem if a person feels they have to take sexual harassment from their boss because that boss is helping them in their career. It’s a problem if a person feels they have to have sex with a partner because they’re obligated to by the nature of their relationship. It’s a problem if a person feels they have to remain in a relationship that isn’t good for them because of what their partner has done for them or feels entitled to. Consent is extremely hard to achieve under any of those conditions.
Power and the Reader/Writer Relationship
Of course being able to freely consent is made more difficult – even sometimes impossible – under imbalances of power. Power between a reader and writer is a complex one. Often I’m in a position of far greater cultural power than a reader. I’m the person speaking up on a stage, whose work is known about publicly, and who is recognised for their art in a way that many sadly are not (and privilege and marginalisation come into that big time of course).
Also the writer/reader relationship is a dynamic where one person is far more significant in the other person’s life than vice versa. I know this well from my own relationship with Pema Chödrön. This is somebody who accompanies me through my life everyday, who I regard as my main teacher, and who has shaped my life in hugely significant ways. They’re also somebody who in all likelihood has no clue that I even exist! If I ever did get to spend time with her it would be a few minutes where I got to ask her a question at an event in front of everyone else, if I was quick getting to the front of the queue. Readers can feel let down if a writer who they have met before doesn’t recognise them the next time they meet, but again there is such an imbalance that that writer met tens or hundreds of readers at the same event, whereas that reader probably only met the one writer. Personally, being somebody who struggles cognitively to recognise faces really doesn’t help with this!
These power imbalances are one of the reasons that I think very carefully about the kinds of connections or relationships that might be possible with people who’ve come to know me through my work in the first instance.
However, there’s also power in engaging with somebody’s work as a reader. I see myself as in service to my communities through what I do, and it’s very important to me to serve them well. Reader responses certainly have the power to impact me significantly.
When I do an event or engage on social media I’m there for my readers, and part of the deal is to be in service to them: to answer their questions honestly, to be available to them, to give them my time and presence. There’s an imbalance that the reader will know far more about me than I know about them, and that can be pretty vulnerable.
Also people have a lot of power these days if they want to hurt somebody, as I’ve experienced myself when bullied online, and witnessed in other writers who have been on the receiving end of trolling or stalking behaviour. Painful experience has shown me that many journalists will pick up on individual tweets or comments to craft a news story without doing any fact-checking, meaning that a completely false depiction of your work can get out there widely. It’s scary indeed to put yourself out there knowing that might be the response.
How Can I Do My Best Work?
The reader/writer relationship is one of the most important relationships in my life. I want to be in service to my readers, recognising the privileges they afford me, opening up through my work in ways that enrich it, and delighting in the sense of connection I have with those who engage with what I write. How can I balance this with keeping myself safe-enough, being clear about my boundaries, and not accepting non-consensual behaviour?
One thing that has helped me to navigate these questions is to ask myself under what conditions I do my best work: creating the kind of writing which I know readers enjoy and find helpful, and being available and real through my writing and when I do events. The answer to this is when I’m treating myself consensually and being treated consensually by others. For example, I need to do a fair amount of self-care around my writing because I’m often writing on vulnerable and painful topics. I need people to respect the boundaries I put in place to make that spaciousness and self-care possible (e.g. only doing a couple of gigs a month, and not being able to respond to people immediately). Similarly my collaborative work requires going into a bubble. I need people to respect that bubble time. Finally, I can be more available to everyone who wants to engage with me on social media, or in real life, if one or two people aren’t taking all my time or depleting my energy with inappropriate demands.
We should be able to require consensual behaviour from others simply because we all deserve to be treated consensually, but for those of us who struggle with recognising this for ourselves it can be useful to remind ourselves that we’ll be better for everyone if we’re treated with consent.
No Pedestal Please
I’m going to be brave and set out here the ways I am – and am not – up for being treated by folks who enjoy my work. I hope this might be useful for other people in all kinds of professions to consider, in exploring their own needs, wants, limits and boundaries. For example, people in any kind of caring or service profession need to consider what is – and isn’t – an acceptable way for clients or customers to treat them. Charlotte Shane has written about this very thoughtfully in relation to sex work, with many of her points applying well to other professions where the work involves caring for others or giving others a pleasant experience.
Hopefully this post will also be useful for all of us to reflect on in relation to how we treat people we admire, or who we come across in a professional context. I certainly haven’t always thought about this well in the past. I remember occasions where my desperation around my own struggles meant that I probably made a speaker quite uncomfortable with my personal questions at the end of their talk. Certainly I’ve been guilty of putting writers on a pedestal because I’ve connected with their work, and then being angry with them when they’ve behaved imperfectly. I feel very aware now that pedestalling people is not a kind thing to do, however much it may feel like it. It’s a form of objectification which gets in the way of any kind of mutual human relationship, and you’re setting the pedestalled person up for a painful fall when they inevitably turn out to be a vulnerable messy human like everyone else.
Yes, No and Maybe
One activity that’s often recommended to ensure sexual consent is ‘yes, no, maybe’. You make a list of all of the possible erotic activities you might engage with and then figure out which ones are a ‘yes’ for you, which a ‘no’, and which a ‘maybe’. You can add more detailed notes to each one as well, to explain what version of that activity you’re up for, what it means for you, or under what conditions you’d be up for it happening, etc. Then you can compare notes with people you’re thinking of having sex with and find out where your overlaps are, as well as your limits.
So here’s my personal ‘yes, no, maybe’ list for engaging with people who like my work, read my books, listen to my podcast, come to my events, etc. To figure it out I followed Sophia Graham’s excellent advice for tuning into your body and feelings to tell when you’re in self-consent.
Hell Yes (and please be aware…)
These are the things I’ve felt great about pretty much every time they’ve happened. Obviously it’s still important to check out whether they’re okay in a specific situation, but generally they’re likely to be a positive thing for me.
- Telling me that my work has been meaningful or helpful to you. As I’ve said, this means a huge amount to me. Coming up to me at an event, tagging me online, or sending me a brief email or tweet feels great, and I will likely respond positively. Where it would feel uncomfortable is if there was a sense that I should now engage with you further, for example talking with you for a lot longer than other people at an event, or getting into a back-and-forth conversation on social media or email.
- Sharing my stuff on social media or leaving reviews. This is gold for a writer and I love seeing people sharing pics of themselves with my books, or recommending them to their followers. Where it would feel uncomfortable would be if you were singling me out as the only author you do this about, suggesting that my work would be great for everyone (it’ll inevitably connect with some people but not others), or tagging me in things all the time in ways that put me under pressure to engage.
- Asking me to sign something or take a selfie. People who ask me to sign their books, take a selfie with me, etc. are often apologetic about it. Personally I love doing this, it feels like being a ‘proper writer’! I guess the only times it would feel uncomfortable would be if it was interrupting me when I was obviously having a tough time, or supporting somebody else who was, or clearly super busy with something. It’s also always worth checking with someone before you share a pic of them publicly. I’m likely to agree but it’s nice to be asked.
These are my limits: things which overstep my boundaries and feel intrusive, frightening, or highly uncomfortable if people do them.
- Demanding/expecting my help when you’re in crisis: Several times people I don’t know have messaged me demanding an immediate conversation with me because they’re in crisis. Often they send multiple messages, and/or come through on inappropriate channels like phone rather than email. I will block people who do this because it’s simply not something that I can offer, and it’s not consensual behaviour. There are a number of great free services that offer crisis support, please go there.
- Announcing/assuming that we are friends: Sometimes people have assumed that they’re in a friendship with me because they’ve connected with my work or had a conversation or two with me. Please be clear, for me the development of close relationships of all kinds – including friendship – is a long, slow, careful, process. It needs to be in order to ensure that the relationships I develop are consensual and mutually nourishing. Being a survivor with a history which includes sexual assault, school/workplace bullying, and controlling relationships this is particularly vital. It’s never okay to announce privately or publicly that you’re in any kind of relationship with somebody without checking that they also see it that way, and feel comfortable with such declarations.
- Public shaming or bullying: Never okay, I will simply block you and report you. If you feel like the time at the end of my talk is a good one to publicly or privately share your opinion that people like me are damaging or don’t really exist, please believe me it isn’t. In fact no time is the time for expressing that opinion. Think how you would feel about somebody expressing that opinion about people like you. Go do your work please.
Maybe, Maybe Not
These are the things that I need people to be careful about. Please follow the consent checklist (below). Ensure you’re making it possible for me to say ‘yes, no, or maybe’. Understand the conditions under which these things do and do not feel okay for me.
- Asking/telling me about a personal situation: I have had great conversations with people after events, at workshops, and so on when they’ve shared what’s going on for them, so I definitely wouldn’t say ‘never’ to this, but please be mindful that it’s not always something I can offer. It’s certainly worth checking whether I do have capacity for it first, making it as easy as possible for me to say if I don’t, and giving me a head’s up about the kind of thing it might be about in case it might be personally triggering. If our contact is online generally long messages about people’s personal situations are not something I can engage with. They feel intrusive, particularly when the person doesn’t check out first whether it might be something I’m wiling to receive. They’re also a form of unpaid labour. Please remember that I only have limited time and energy to engage with such things, so engaging with you in this way may well mean I have less available for engaging with others who’d been hoping to do so.
- Suggesting a longer exchange: A part of my life that I enjoy is meeting with other creatives, therapists, activists, and academics who I connect with to talk about our work, network, offer mutual support, informal mentoring, etc. However it feels tough when somebody just assumes that I’ll be up for doing this with them. Generally it’s only something I feel comfortable doing with folks where our areas overlap significantly, where I feel a good connection, and where I have some sense of them being a safe-enough person from mutual friends and colleagues. If the other person is actually looking for something from me rather than a mutual conversation then it’s good if they can be clear about that.
- Suggesting I do some work for you or your organisation: In addition to writing I support other folks in my community around their creative projects, and I engage in media interviews, panel discussions, workshops, and the like. Generally I’m happy to receive requests from people to do these kinds of things. However it’s important that these are clear about what’s wanted, and what’s being offered in return. This is my job so I can very rarely offer such things for free, and politically please remember that it’s important to compensate people – particularly marginalised folks – for their labour. Mostly my diary is now pretty full up several months in advance, and for self-care I need to build space around bigger events – so it’s important to have decent advance notice. I also already have close collaborators who I create with and I only build such key relationships very slowly. Please also inform yourself about my work before asking. I’ve had frustrating unpaid exchanges with people who are really looking for someone to edit their work for example, or who want trainings on topics which are not really my wheelhouse.
- Offering constructive criticism: I definitely want to hear when I’ve got things wrong, and to keep thinking about how I can improve my work, particularly in relation to accessibility and inclusivity. However, offering criticism is definitely something that needs to be done consensually. It’s important to check first whether feedback is welcomed and – if so – in what form, recognising the potential impact on the other person of receiving it. If there’s an error in a book, it would be better to contact the publishers rather than me directly and they can liaise with me about any changes. Writers often have to filter criticism which is just bullying/trolling, that which is another perspective but doesn’t mean their perspective is wrong, and that which is definitely valid and requires them to make changes or apologise for something they’ve put out there. I’m working on developing a small pool of trusted people to help me navigate this kind of process, and would recommend other writers do similarly. Generally if the criticism is not done consensually I won’t engage with it.
The Consent Checklist
Whatever kind of contact we’re having, hopefully the consent checklist I wrote provides a clear steer on how I’d love for you to go about it.
- Consent as the aim: Is it more important to you that I’m in consent than that you get the thing you want from me? Will you recognise that it’s a big compliment to your way of interacting and communicating if I can say ‘no’ or express my boundaries?
- Informed consent: Have you fully informed me about what you’re asking for and/or offering, why, and where you are coming from with this?
- Ongoing consent: Are you checking in before, during, and after the encounter – with yourself and with me – that you’ve made it possible for me to be in consent?
- Relational consent: Have you expressed your needs, limits, wants, and boundaries, and encouraged me to do so as well?
- Consent and wanting: Have you enabled me to express what I want and don’t want, and what I consent to and don’t consent to? Have you been clear about where you’re at with these things with yourself?
- Multiple options beyond a default script: Are you aware of the default script for ‘success’ in this situation, and have you shifted this to multiple options and an agreement to default to the lesser one on the table? For example, instead of asking me to speak at your event, perhaps you could let me know about that event and say you’d love me to be involved in some way, listing a few different options for involvement and checking out how I might feel about those.
- Power awareness: Are you aware of the cultural and personal power imbalances between us and their potential impact on capacity for each of us to feel free-enough and safe-enough to be in consent?
- Accountability: Can you notice if you haven’t been consensual and name that?
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I enjoyed this month’s piece, but wasn’t going to comment. However, after a refreshing night’s sleep on this sunny morning I really felt that your piece resonated with me. Is it about boundaries? About protection of self and others and how we connect?
Much of this seems a good basis for having structure around how we interact. I feel that this is important for all, but especially those with ‘hidden disabilities’ like prosopagnosia as you mentioned, and ASD or a psychological vulnerability from trauma.
I particularly took on board your emphasis on the importance of consent, and how without it, hurt and trauma can arise. Be it from physical, sexual, shaming, or deliberate trolling. To violate this can lead to aggravating emotional scars, and leave those who for whatever reason are more vulnerable to greater harm.
As you related prosopagnosia means that somebody can not recognise faces easily. Similar to ASD, this can lead to immense difficulties and potential harms.
I loved you’re references to people to read up on. Meditation, and psychological. Something I find helpful with sport.
I felt that this is a good way to sum up how I felt after reading this. It was balanced and reflective and loving. Both of self and others. The only point I’d like to raise is… sometimes we push away to protect ourselves. How do we know when to trust?
No communication online or however brief is something to invest in. But it can lead to further growth on both sides, and generate warmth. We all are learning. Trust can be hard. Could you write some more on boundaries from your perspective. How to manage fear, and balance it with awareness of risk?
Thanks for this reflective piece.
Thanks so much for your reflections Jamie. So much there that I resonate with. Yes I am definitely planning to write more about boundaries – how we can navigate being open and vulnerable enough, with also keeping ourselves safe-enough and holding our boundaries.
Until I get around to writing about it myself, I would highly recommend Sophia Graham’s writing on this topic – super clear and all about finding that middle way between pushing away to protect ourself and letting people in too easily without having built trust and consent:
The respect I have for your writing (as a separate entity if you like; writing I find enjoyable and helpful) must extend to the respect I have for you as an individual i.e. the respect and space you need from ‘us out there’. I agree that those blurred lines need to be explicit. We as readers need to be told that. There is nothing wrong with being reminded that just because we like someone’s writing that this gives us carte blanche to trample over a writer’s self-expression and personal boundaries just because it means something to us. Surely we can’t assume a writer welcomes all comments however inappropriate or worse, insidious, they are. Sadly we all need to be reminded because this is this is where breakdowns in collaboration and free speech lie and it will be a sad world if we jeopardise this in future
Thanks so much for getting it Siobhán, and for this response. Greatly appreciated.