Saturday night, midnight: Theater doors open and a scantily clad crowed funnels one-by-one through the threshold.
Friends and lovers greet each other with varying degrees of affection, and Virgins, or first timers, are marked with a large ‘V’ on their cheek or forehead to distinguish them from the rest. (It is expectation as well as tradition that Virgins will be sacrificed during a public initiation ritual).
Shrieks, squeals and boisterous laughter accompany the emcee’s announcement: “Welcome to the Rocky Horror Picture Show!”
This was my regular routine every Saturday night for a year when I lived in Los Angeles.
I loved it because everyone belonged; there was no judgement and everyone was safe to let their freak flag fly! Hedonism at its finest, Rocky encourages self-expression and self-exploration through acting on stage (this particular Rocky community hosts a ‘shadow cast’ that acts out the scenes while the movie is playing above) and audience participation.
One of the pervasive mentalities of the theater troop and its followers was, “you will be offended and we won’t give a damn!” Some seemed to take this on as a personal challenge to see just how offensive they could be. But this was ok. It was an environment where everything, save violence, seemed to fly.
I was hooked. At that point in my life, I was exploring my own sexuality and desires, and this felt like the supportive and ideal environment I needed.
Then one evening, after regularly attending Rocky for months, the shadow cast asked me if I would fill in for a lesser role at the beginning of the movie. I felt special being asked to participate on stage and so I agreed. I was friends with the man I was acting with, so I had nothing to worry about.
Until, that is, he began groping and fondling me on stage. I was shocked; I had not given my express permission for him to touch my body, especially in the manner he was doing so.
Once the scene ended, I left the theater, went home and showered I was so disgusted.
I later returned to the theater to confront the emcee about what happened on stage. Outraged, I blurted out, “what the hell just happened?” The emcee looked at me—calm, cool and collected—and responded, “well, you agreed to get on stage.” I was flabbergasted, but maintained that going onstage didn’t give the other actor permission to touch me. But I was told, “when you get up on Rocky’s stage, that is you giving permission.”
I felt physically violated and betrayed by the community I had come to love and had embraced.
Over the past couple of years, the push for consent has shifted from ‘no means no’ to ‘yes means yes’ — and rightfully so. Radical, affirmative consent redefines consent as a lack of protest to proactive, enthusiastic permission. Yes, it may be a tricky concept in practice, but as it is adopted on scales both small and wide (shout out to California!), a new standard of addressing so-called gray areas of assaults (like mine) will hopefully come into sharper focus. Because no matter the environment — how free, kinky, prude or what-have-you — there always needs to be a clear, definitive yes. And unless there is a yes, the answer is a no.
Bottom line: the only true yes is a stated yes.