How Playing With Sloths Taught Me About Sexual Consent

Lessons in how small gestures can create a safe space for a yes—and for a no.
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A sloth at the Sloth Center in Rainier, Oregon.

A sloth at the Sloth Center in Rainier, Oregon.

When I arranged my Pacific Northwest book tour to promote my anthology Ask: Building Consent Culture, I figured I would visit some bookstores, chat with locals about what consent culture could mean, and maybe make a new friend or two. I planned to sample some fancy food and visit some local dive bars. I expected to have thought-provoking conversations about the limitations of the term "consent" under a white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, as well as how vital a concept it remains, despite the forces that complicate it.

I did not expect, however, to deepen my understanding of consent culture through petting a sloth.

My partner, fellow writer Cinnamon Maxxine, had agreed to travel up from the Bay Area through Oregon, to Olympia, Washington, and back in a week's time for these book signings. After long days of rainy driving, I searched online for something to brighten up our trip and came across the Zoological Wildlife Conservation Center and Sloth Center, a small wildlife conservation enterprise in Rainier, Oregon, that holds occasional educational tours and sloth sleepover parties.

The Sloth Center is a tiny, private facility that allows guests on the grounds only after they sign a long and detailed waiver. The center's website is simple, but its language is firm, reminding visitors that this is not an entertainment facility, there is no gift shop, and no, you can't come early for your appointment to see the sloths, monkeys, lemurs, toucans, flamingos, giant anteaters, and other animals they care for. What makes the space special is the focus on education and conservation. Trained zookeepers and intern docents care for the exotic animals, but they also do the same for more recognizable local species, like the much-maligned opossum. Every creature is treated as special, unlike in many zoos, where there are "stars" like big cats or elephants, while less flashy animals get left in some isolated area to be ignored. Amid the placid atmosphere, the founder and the lead zookeeper introduced us to various animals, including a baby giant anteater and a Palawan porcupine who licked mashed banana from my palms as I tried to contain my excitement.

When I scheduled the visit, I hadn't known what to expect but tried to prepare carefully. Wild animals, especially sloths, are sensitive to cigarette smoke and perfumes, so I made sure my clothes were free of anything that might trigger a chemical sensitivity. As I sniffed my sweatshirt to ensure that it was sloth-friendly, I realized that this was more than being merely mindful. This was what building a consent culture was about: not demanding attention or consent from others, but doing minor things to create a safe space for a yes while also accepting a no.

A black-and-white colobus monkey.

A black-and-white colobus monkey.

My realizations about how interacting with wild animals can teach us a lot about consent continued as we entered the sloth room with our guides. Cinnamon acted as a photographer and was asked to stay a bit away from where the animals and I would be meeting. We also made sure there was a clear path from the chair I would be sitting in and the door, something in my consent workshops I've encouraged people to do when they're in a crowded space. Leaving an accessible exit route ensures that the person or animal you're interacting with knows they can enter or leave the space if they want without your blocking their path—a minor, unspoken way of arranging oneself that can have a huge influence on consent and feelings of safety.

My sitting in a chair and talking quietly also helped me be smaller and less threatening, an interesting exercise in considering how much space I take up on a daily basis. Being seen as dominant and assertive is often touted as a way to get ahead in the workplace, or as a viable, successful dating strategy—at least if you listen to pick-up artists. But when greeting a pair of red-ruffed lemurs, my being close to the ground and quiet encouraged them to reach out to me once they felt safe. It wasn't long before I had them crawling up on my shoulder and snatching Froot Loops out of my hands. Letting them approach me meant that they could offer and withdraw their consent to our interaction at will, which was much more fun for both of us.

Cinnamon was a little nervous around the animals, particularly the sloths, who would suddenly appear hanging next to you if you weren't paying attention. But the sloths also seemed to notice when a human they approached felt uncomfortable. "I was incredibly impressed that the animals could understand and read human body language and non-verbal cues," Cinnamon said on the drive home. "They were able to pick up on the fact that humans need space, or that they should stop what they were doing." As it happens, a study published last month in Animal Cognition suggests that horses are similarly attuned to human body language.

In the consent workshops I’ve attended, body language has been sadly under-discussed, though magazines like Teen Vogue seem to be changing that. Learning your partner's non-verbal cues can be as important as listening to verbal ones. At the center, when I was introduced to a black-and-white colobus monkey—a dashing fellow with a white hair cape and a floofy, elegant tail—I noticed that he was hesitant to approach me. I held out a handful of treats for him to open and made sure not to stare when he began to grab them out of my palm. Eye contact can be very intense and stressful, for people and animals alike, and the lead trainer encouraged me to glance away sometimes, which seemed to help the monkey realize I wasn't trying to challenge him.

Interestingly, different animals perceive eye contact in different ways, much as people do. In humans, eye contact meanings and preferences can vary depending on neurodiversity, cultural norms, or gender expectations. Some animals see eye contact as a threat, and others see it as a form of connection. Remembering this point further emphasizes that, with animals—human and non-human—it's vital to find out what feels comfortable and safe for that situation, rather than having a blanket approach.

The big moment, of course, was meeting the sloths. While the center has many kinds of sloths, the ones I met were of the three-toed variety. One of the things I appreciated most about my experience feeding the sloths was the reminder that no one owes you attention. The sloths were only interested in interacting with me if they were getting a bit of cucumber. One sloth who seemed interested ended up hanging out in a hammock nearby instead. Letting the sloths come to me if they wanted a snack, or just observe if they didn't, gave them space for agency, and a clear understanding of what was on the table in terms of boundaries. If only humans were so direct.

As we left the wildlife reserve, I was struck by how intimate my experience with the animals had been—especially with the creatures most often seen only in a zoo or a documentary. It reminded me that if an interaction is consensual and mutually desirable, and if you leave yourself open to appreciating an experience for what it is—not for what you wish it was—you can have an incredible time. All it took was a day with some sloths to remind me how beautiful it is to make consent, and not entitlement, the center of my life. 

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