The discussion, moderated by Randall Jenson, executive director of SocialScope Productions — known for its “50 Faggots” documentaries — included responses from experts in the field of sexual violence and victim advocacy such as Lisa Gilmore of the Center on Halsted, Lara Brooks of the Broadway Youth Center and Sharmili Majmudar of Rape Victim Advocates.
“Think about what consent looks like,” Jenson said in his opening remarks. “How do you define consent?”
The purpose of the event, he said, was to broaden the understanding of sexual violence in the LGBT community as it relates to gender identity and sexual orientation, present opportunities to envision strategies of prevention and create community accountability by shifting community norms around consent.
The expert panel responded to scenarios presented in video interviews with victims of sexual violence, which inspired much discussion on the topics of community accountability and intervention, the legal ramifications of HIV transmission, sex work, what constitutes sexual violence, and who — in queer relationships — is authorized to give consent.
Majmudar, who is the executive director at Rape Victim Advocates, one of the city’s leading resources for victims of sexual violence, said much of the problem with determining consent is that as a society, Americans fail at communication around sex — even in the LGBT community.
“We are horrible as a nation about talking about sex,” Majmudar said. “This is a common piece when we talk about consent. We can’t talk about consent without talking about sex.”
In terms of holding the community accountable for responding to sexual violence as witnesses, the experts agreed that work needs to be done to educate and create safer spaces.
“I want to be part of a community that is practicing accountability,” said Brooks, who is executive director of the Broadway Youth Center, which serves and empowers disenfranchised youth. “What kind of community are we creating when we are with folks in the world? How do we participate as colluders and bystanders?
“Talk to your people about becoming an activated bystander. It’s about practicing the world we ant to live in and we’re going to build it together,” Brooks added.
Another video elicited questions on the legal and criminal ramifications of consent and where the LGBTs fit into the justice system when prosecuting sexual crimes. Some in attendance voiced questions about sexual crimes after the video, an interview with a man who recounts details of a relationship he had when he was 16 with a man nearly twice his age, and subsequently acquiring HIV from the man.
In turn, the experts briefly wondered if the older man knew his HIV status when having unprotected sex with the victim interviewed.
“I just don’t have a clear picture in my mind of people who know they are positive and don’t talk about their status,” said Lisa Gilmore, director of education and victim advocacy at Center on Halsted. “This brings up a lot of stuff for me that I’m still working on — I’m still in progress on that.”
Much of the problem with sexual crimes, however, is that the laws weren’t written with everyone in mind, the experts said.
“The root cause here is that queerness has been historically criminalized,” said Brooks. “The state gives us a prescription for consent that works for very few queer people. It doesn’t work for me and the communities I’m a part of — a narrative likes this brings up important questions about navigating relationships.”
Majmudar agreed, saying the legal system is “one size fits all” and that LGBT people and their relationships don’t necessarily function within it.
“I think this idea of violence and who is authorized to give consent legally — it’s not something that magically happens when you turn a certain age,” she added, confronting various state laws which dictate the age of when a person is legally able to have consensual sex. In Illinois, the age is 17.
In addition, the language we use to talk about sexual crimes is often incorrect, Majmudar said, after watching a video in which a man describes experiences during his childhood in which he witnessed his older brothers raping a young girl who was taken in by his mother as a foster child. In the interview decades later, the man is asked what his brothers did to the girl, and he described what he saw as “they had sex with her.”
Majmudar and the other experts on the panel questioned why he didn’t simply describe what they were doing as rape.
“We constantly use consensual language to describe non-consenual acts,” she said. “Fox example, ‘He was convicted of having sex with an 11-year-old.’”
The panel also discussed sex work in the transgender community and the policing of people of color in non-affirming spaces.
The advocates urged students and other members of the audience to consider volunteer opportunities at their respective organizations and to become more aware of resources available to victims of sexual crime.
“A lot of people say, ‘I had this experience of violence and abuse and I don’t know what my options are,’” Gilmore said. “The systems for victims are not built for queer people, so it’s important to think about what resources are available to them and how we can assist them without being someone that re-victimizes people.”
Majmudar closed by reminding the panel and audience members that talking about consent is not easy.
“Consent is necessary — sometimes difficult,” she said. “It doesn’t just roll off peoples’ tongues. It takes practice. We should be talking about it with friends and not necessarily just our sexual partners.”