Thursday, September 14, 2017

The New Age of Consent

Written by  Rodney Burger

I admit that I’m now part of the older generation. You know that you have arrived there the first time you catch yourself uttering the phrase: “When I was your age….” I get it. Time brings change. Each generation puts their own stamp on the world and the leather community is no exception. One can embrace change or become that grumpy old man who still lives in the past. The last issue of Baltimore OUTloud carried an article from entitled “Verbal Consent Needed at Sex Positive Spaces?” It spoke about a person being touched without consent and went on to state that young people are very conscious about consent and may interpret non-verbal actions as harassing behavior. Oddly enough I’d just been to a leather contest, and while waiting to go up onstage for the parade of club colors, a friend who I’ve known for years playfully groped me right before I was stepping on stage. When I got home that evening I got a text from him. It said, “Sorry if I crossed a line with touching your cock.” I jokingly replied, “You only crossed the line when you stopped!” It really made me think about how times have changed and how cruising may now be a lost art.

When I was your age we didn’t have social apps. We didn’t communicate via text, tweet, or Facebook. We did a lot of nonverbal communication, but we made our point loud and clear. We had to meet people in person and the seduction always began with eye contact. After all the eyes are the window to the soul and sometimes the door to the bedroom. The leather community was all about nonverbal communication starting with keys worn on the left for top or on the right for bottom. Next came hankies of various colors to communicate sexual fetishes: grey for bondage, yellow for watersports, etc. A gray hankie would be placed in the left rear pocket or right rear pocket to indicate bondage top or bondage bottom. Many leather bars had a backroom. If a hot man made eye contact with you and headed towards the backroom, you would follow him back there. Once there you did not begin with some small talk: Are you from here? Where did you go to school? Did you see that show on TV last night? The backroom was not a place for conversation. You were not looking for someone who shared your political views. You were only looking for one thing. If you got groped you were not offended nor were you harassed. Your consent was nonverbal when you walked into the backroom. You could also walk away when you lost interest. It was all part of the game.

I remember that when I would first walk into a bar, I’d look around first. That is why places like Leon’s work so well as a place to cruise. You have a large round bar with many mirrors on the walls. Even when it was crowded, one could check out everyone in the room from one location. I’d carefully select the spot where I would step up to the bar to order a drink. You would squeeze in next to the guy who was cute. The same rule applied when selecting from an available bar stool. If I discovered that I was not interested in the person sitting at the bar next to me – he could be a dreadful bore or creepy – I’d pick up my drink and take it with me when it was time to head to the bathroom. This was a good plan for two reasons. I was not leaving my drink unattended so someone could possibly slip something in it and I had no intention of returning to that spot. I would say, “Excuse me. I’m going to the men’s room.” When I picked up my drink the guy may comment, “I’ll watch your drink for you.” My favorite reply always was, “I may get thirsty on the way.”

I’ve often said that one of the many things that I like about the leather community is that many leather folks tend to be touchy-feely. I love it when a handsome leather titleholder greets me with a hug, kiss, or an arm around the shoulder. I’ve never thought to ask, “May I give you a hug?” It just seems to be part of the brotherhood. It’s like greeting a dear family member. I’ve had International Mr. Leather kiss me in the middle of Chicago’s State Street. He didn’t get any complaints out of me!

Don’t get me wrong. I clearly understand that no means no. However if you’re in a dungeon play space, wearing nothing but a jock, and someone touches your thigh have you been sexually assaulted? I guess that in 2017 that is a gray area. No means no, but first someone has to say “No!”

When I worked as the human resources director for a large state agency, one of my employees who worked on the night shift would sometimes stop in the personnel department in the morning. He was a burly Greek guy with a big bushy mustache. He would sometimes give me a shoulder massage. He wasn’t coming on to me. He was just friendly and touchy-feely. (And believe me I wasn’t offended!) He ended up getting fired one year short of retirement for sexual harassment. Not everyone feels the same about touching.

The leather community has a credo: Safe, sane, and consensual. That is why when getting into BDSM there should always be a discussion first about limits as well as acts that are off limits. When there is a long-term relationship one might even want to think about putting things in writing in some sort of Master/slave contract.

There’s a story that I didn’t tell for many years because I was asked not to. Years ago the GLCCB had two big fundraisers a year. One in the spring and one in the fall. They were the social events of the season and LGBT folks would come out of the woodwork to attend. One Saturday afternoon I received a telephone call from one of my friends in the leather community. He asked, “Rodney, you have a tuxedo don’t you?” When I replied that I did, he asked me to go with him to the GLCCB fundraiser that evening at the Hyatt Regency. He had just had a fight with his long-term boyfriend and didn’t want to go by himself. (He and his boyfriend were into heavy S&M and had been together for a few years.) When I arrived at his house he was almost ready. He fixed me a drink while he went looking for his cufflinks. Suddenly there was a loud knock at the front door. He answered it to find two Baltimore policemen who had a warrant for his arrest. It seems that in anger his boyfriend had gone to the police and informed them that he had been assaulted – and he had the bruises to prove it. My friend gave me my ticket and told me to go on to the Hyatt and he would join me as soon as he could. The fundraiser was fabulous, but I kept looking around for my friend. He never made it. I went home feeling guilty that I had such a great time. The next morning my phone rang very early. I wondered who would be ringing my phone on a Sunday morning. It was my friend calling to say that he had just gotten home from Central Booking. I’m not sure how his case turned out. We never spoke of it again and unfortunately he passed many years ago. There are always two sides to every story. Consent can be a touchy subject.

Times have changed. How we cruise for dates has change. It is a new age. There is a new generation in the leather community now. I think it’s great, but we have to keep in mind that young people may have a different idea regarding uninvited touching. There is a new age of consent.


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