Commentary  Some Queer Eyes Speak Consent

In Response to "My Eyes Don't Speak Consent"

content warning: police violence, homophobia, sexual assault

On November 19, The McGill Daily published a response to their feature “This is No Longer a Safe Place.” The feature detailed the many tactics that police across the province use in order to purge public spaces of men who have sex with men. The response raised a number of concerns, some of which we would like to address here.

The authors of the response took issue with the following sentence:

“By dehistoricizing the defendant’s act, security and police effectively polemicized the defendant’s act — an act that is otherwise common, mundane, harmless, and dare I say, hot.”

According to them, this sentence trivialized the experiences of survivors. However, the sentence was describing a specific sexual interaction—an interaction which, let us recall, was intentionally provoked, and therefore consensually entered into, by a plainclothes agent posing as a gay man. We do not suggest that being witness to a sexual act without having consented to it is hot. The sentence by no means precludes the possibility of non-consensual relations within the context of cruising.

Nonetheless, the tension they raise is an important one. Though we do not claim to resolve it, we have discussed it in a previous piece, a slightly modified excerpt of which follows:

“Informally designated semi-private public sex zones might be a way to reconcile the tension that exists between the need to protect victims of sexual violence from unnecessary triggers and queer sexual liberation. They would protect victims of sexual violence against unexpected triggers all the while providing those who wish to engage in more public or exhibistionistic forms of sexual activity with a safe space in which to do so. This solution is far from original; prior to the police projects discussed in this essay, Parc Angrignon, Parc Lafontaine, Parc Maisonneuve, and Parc Marie-Victorin, as well as their public washrooms, were informally designated as semi-private public sex zones. The problem is not that men who have sex with men recklessly disregard the emotional needs of others by needlessly exposing them to triggers, but rather that police and park authorities systematically insist on destroying the spatial conditions that make true, harmonious cohabitation possible (felling trees, cutting bushes, installing additional lighting, etc.).”

The queer people we described in our piece have no interest in involving those who do not want to cruise. The problem lies in the imposition of a de-sexualized vision of the use of all public spaces, in the refusal to acknowledge that people use public space in different ways, in the refusal to respect the autonomy, history, and existence of spaces that cruising queers have been able to eke out for themselves. Peaceful cohabitation cannot require, as a precondition, that men who have sex with men give up their sexualized uses of a few public spaces.

In their response, one of the authors facetiously suggested putting trigger warnings near the entrances of washrooms.  Making washroom users aware of the fact that the washroom or wooded area they are about to enter is also a cruising ground might actually represent an effective and simple way of protecting survivors against unnecessary triggers—one that also respects the sexual autonomy of cruising queers.

We now want to address consent. In response to our discussion of eye-contact consent codes within the context of gay cruising, the authors of the response wrote:

“Consent is more than merely using your eyes to determine interest. Consent is a continuous agreement, it is specific, it is verbal, it is informed. Consent is mutual. Consent is not assumed by gazes, or assumed automatically.”

To maintain that only verbal consent “counts” is to fail to recognize that people actually do express consent in a variety of ways, many of which are non-verbal. It is to disregard the existence of a visual cruising code which has long been the hallmark of queer men’s cruising culture. It misperceives the nature of these codes. Cruising does not mean roping in the unwilling or unwary; it means finding others to have sex with who are interested in the same. Despite the definition above, every day, cruising queers actually do mutually convey their real interest and consent through the cruising gaze. To assert otherwise is to infantilize them and assert that they are deluded about their own giving of consent. A blanket assertion that, because of how cruising works, all cruising queers must be uninterested in consent, is a long-standing homophobic trope and must be avoided.

The heavily restrictive definition of consent proposed in the response is precisely the definition of consent that undercover cops use in court in order to cast themselves as the naïve and unwilling victims of ‘perverse’ homosexual advances. In R c. Chamberland, a 2010 court case involving a cruiser and an undercover cop in Lafontaine Park, the judge used the fact that “no words were spoken” to argue that the undercover cop was not a consenting participant— despite the fact that he had a) deliberately sustained eye-contact with his victim for a period of 50 minutes and b) watched his victim masturbate while clothed the entire time. This was not a police officer unwillingly surprised by a perpetrator who imposed sexual acts on him without his consent. This was a police officer who was specifically aware of queer cruising consent codes, knew he was being invited to engage in consensual sex, and exploited that knowledge so that he could then turn around and entrap the cruiser. If anyone was assaulted in this interaction, it was the cruiser, who was psychologically manipulated by the cop for the hidden ulterior purpose of subjecting him to state violence. One cannot adhere to the proposed definition of consent without agreeing that the cop was somehow victimized here.

The closing section of the response, which rejects the place of cruising among queer cultural heritage, is misguided. Nobody said that queer cultural heritage is limited to cruising or that queer people must cruise in order to take part in it. We reject the moralistic and unfounded claim that men who cruise lead less fulfilling lives than those who do not. We reject the implication that, since cruising and anonymous sex began as ways to negotiate a homophobic society, nobody would or should want to cruise if society were free from homophobia. Anonymous queer sex can be fulfilling, sexy, healthy, and fun. It is wrong to suggest that its elimination would be a desirable byproduct, let alone a goal, of the struggle for queer liberation.