Creating a Consent Culture Means Holding Ourselves Accountable for Perpetuating Trauma

by Ashleigh Shackelford

Rape culture is a culture in which gender and sexual violence, white supremacist misogyny, and inaccessibility to absolute bodily autonomy are the norm. Rape culture is pervasive within our everyday lives. We often center rape culture dialogues on how to avoid being assaulted or raped rather than telling people to stop being violent.

Rape culture is deeply embedded within our behaviors, our thought processes, our politics, our relationships, and our desires. But we need to dig deeper as a society and within our communities to push the conversation further. In fully addressing rape culture and sexual violence, we need to address that everyone is capable of engaging in sexual violence and/or rape. As frightening, uncomfortable, and disgusting as this reality is, we must address that violence is embedded in the tools we are given to love, to provide intimacy, and to interact with each other. There is no blueprint in which we’ve figured out what true, inherent consent culture looks like.

In addressing this complicated understanding of how rape culture (rather than consent culture) works, this doesn't excuse that most rape and sexual violence is perpetuated and enacted by cisgender straight men. This doesn’t excuse that misogynistic violence stems heavily from patriarchy and toxic forms of masculinity. But how do we move the conversation to push us to critical self-examination and deeper analysis of how violence works within our marginalized communities? How can we start addressing our role and our failures in engaging consent so as to transform our communities away from internalized rape culture politics?

In my navigation of being a queer, agender Black fat femme, I'm still plagued by the reality of rape culture permeating my relationships, my ability to decipher between misogyny and truth, and my own personal politics surrounding my body and autonomy. As someone who's dated primarily masculine-of-center folks, dealing with rape culture politics and misogyny has normally stemmed from my partner.

At the beginning of our relationship, my ex-girlfriend pressured me into telling her how many people I had slept with. I have never in my entire life told anyone how many people I've slept with due to the advice and Black femme power my mom instilled in me. But eventually, I gave in because I loved her and I felt like I owed her my truth. When I finally revealed my past, she broke up with me. We got back together after she calmed down (or rather, temporarily pushed her misogyny aside), but she still held it over my head and her internalized misogyny manifested in multiple ways within our relationship during the time we were together.

Another situation in which a partner's misogyny and rape culture politics violated me was with my ex-boyfriend, who was also 15 years older than me. He not only exploited me and forced me into non-consensual sex work, but he raped me on multiple occasions when I explicitly said I didn’t want to have sex with him. At the time, I didn’t know it was rape. I thought this is what women/femmes were required to do when their partner wanted sex but they didn’t. It took me years to understand that our relationship wasn’t actually a relationship. I was a transaction to this man. He used me, he sold me, he raped me, he disposed of me. The levels of trauma I carry with me because of his violence and exploitation still haunts every relationship I engage in.

Although these examples of my lived violence speak to the reality that rape culture politics affect masculine-of-center folks regardless of gender, sexuality, or race—I want to also share how I've participated in rape culture politics and abuse. This is important if we are to deepen our expectations of consent culture, even for women and femmes who are disportionately affected by sexual violence.

In a more recent relationship, I violated my partner unknowingly. During the first time we engaged in physical intimacy, I assumed that they just wanted to have sex with me. My assumptions were based off my insecurities of being a Black fat femme who is often only seen through the gaze of fetishization or demeaned as someone you can only love in the dark. Of course these assumptions do not excuse my behavior, but they contextualize how limited my understanding of the situation and the consent for this other person was. I was so focused on my own trauma and experience that I never questioned what the situation felt like for my partner at the time.

We were hanging out watching The Adventures of Mary Kate & Ashley and began kissing. Things got heated and we began dry humping. After a while, I guided their hand on my body—on my chest and eventually in my underwear. We went to third base and when it was over, they seemed okay in terms of their demeanor with me. We cuddled and started watching another movie. Mid-movie they stopped everything and said, “I really didn’t want it to go that far tonight.”

My heart sank because I was so confused. I thought they enjoyed it as much as I did. I thought they wanted to be intimate the way I did. But as they continued to tell me how they felt about the situation, I realized I didn’t communicate at all during our hookup. I realized that I relied upon them, a masculine person, to always tell me when they feel uncomfortable because I assume they’re trained to be vocal with their feelings. But my skewed expectations and my trauma don’t excuse that I perpetuated abuse within this interaction with my partner. I didn’t take it well. I made excuses. I felt attacked because how could I be abusive when I’ve been abused, and in ways that seemed incomparable to this situation?

But after reflecting, I realized how fucked up I was in making my abusive behavior about myself instead of my partner. I listened, and then listened some more. I processed, held space, and centered my partner. I apologized. And I committed to changing my behavior around consent and intimacy. I committed to repenting through actively unlearning violence everyday. I committed to never hurting them like that again.

I proactively asked my partner if they wanted me to separate myself from them, and leave the spaces that we both frequent to give them a decision in how they heal and navigate the pain I caused them. My partner did not want to break up with me though. They wanted me to hold them through it. In addition to carrying their own trauma, my partner was committed to understanding my trauma navigation by offering me the space to be forgiven and to grow. They still wanted to love me while holding me accountable, no matter how uncomfortable it got.

I understand that this situation does not happen all the time. Sometimes our partners or folks we engage in physical intimacy with are abusive in ways that do not warrant us to give them space to grow, but instead traumatize us beyond repair. Sometimes we violate our partners and we are not forgiven or allowed back in their lives. Sometimes our partners become violent to the point that we can’t engage in a conversation with them about what makes us uncomfortable. Sometimes our relationships mirror dysfunction and trauma on new levels that we don’t have the language to unpack or decipher in order to address our feelings around it. But sometimes we can find transformative ways to address violence in our relationships that allow for us to move through trauma instead of circumventing or perpetuating it.
Recently an article written by Kai Cheng Thom, titled "9 Ways to Be Accountable When You’ve Been Abusive," was published on Everyday Feminism. It beautifully illustrated something that we rarely talk about: survivors can be abusers. Often we center our trauma, our survival stories, and our pain so much so that when we hurt other people because of our own trauma, we are almost permitted to justify it because the origin of our trauma was never our fault. But ultimately, that maintains a cycle of trauma in our communities. Lather, rinse, repeat.

If we continue to use our trauma to avoid accountability, none of us will ever be free to move through our trauma to heal. If we maintain this idea that our trauma limits the harm we can do to others, especially to our partners or loved ones, we will never be free to break the cycles of trauma that white supremacist violence has manifested within our minds, our politics, and our behaviors. We must acknowledge that we have the power to harm others regardless of our pain and experiences.

Envisioning the future of consent culture means we must acknowledge the fact that we can be knowingly and unknowingly violent, abusive, or non-communicative with the people we engage with. Consent culture also means unpacking the intersections of agency and body autonomy when it comes to race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and size. The culture we build around consent must go beyond the bedroom and private spaces. We need to politicize access to bodies through touching other people without asking them, touching someone’s hair, asking about someone’s sexuality or gender, interrogating bodies who we deem as “Other,” and so forth. Consent culture means we are inherently holding space and agency for all people to exist freely without persecution or infringement upon their autonomy. Consent culture means we are accountable to our communities and to ourselves in upholding inherent body autonomy for everyone.

Author’s Note: I was given permission by my partner to write about the experience I had in perpetuating abuse within my relationship prior to publishing this.

Photo: Shutterstock

Ashleigh Shackelford is a queer, agender Black fat femme writer, artist, and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at For Harriet, a community organizer at Black Future, and the creator of a body positivity organization Free Figure Revolution. She is a Ratchet Black Feminist dedicated to dismantling anti-Blackness. Read more at

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