The overarching goal of consent discussions in the context of BDSM and kink play is not just to “acquire consent,” but to cultivate the conditions under which honesty is possible and safe.
To that end, we must be able to readily identify factors that can alter or impede this safe and honesty-prevoking environment. This module will cover the types of real-world power imbalances that impact informed, voluntary, and freely-given consent.
The reason why I say “real-word” is because some of the following relational power imbalances can be used in terms of effective dom/sub role play if done consensually. (For example, boss/secretary or teacher/student play.)
The circumstances surrounding consent play a huge part in whether consent was freely given. Historically, our culture has taught us many non-consensual behaviors that can take years to unravel in our heads and in our BDSM practice. Consent is not limited to sex or the bedroom. It permeates our relationships and our lives in many ways we might not have considered.
When it comes to BDSM play, we want to leave the “power imbalance” for role play and not allow actual power imbalances between the players themselves to cause non-consensual behavior – whether intended or unintended.
The risk of BDSM is increased when the players do not recognize these power imbalances and how they affect decision making. Thus, our goal for this module is to reduce the risk involved in BDSM play by identifying and communicating around some power factors that may impact free consent.
Here are some categories of power imbalances to watch out for:
Whose territory is consent being acquired in? For example, is play happening at one party’s house? In that case, that party has the “home advantage” in terms of control of environment as well as comfort, etc.
Is there an age differential between the parties? If so, does the younger player defer too heavily to the elder?
Is one partner more experienced than the other? Then that partner has a duty to ensure that the other is informed and not assume that they understand everything that might happen.
The less experienced player is at a disadvantage and also may consent to things they shouldn’t because they might consider the other partner more of a mentor and thus assume what the mentor is asking or doing is “right.”
If one person is taller, larger, weighs more, is physically stronger and more able-bodied than the other, it creates an opportunity for non-consensual conduct.
The smaller/less able-bodied partner is at a disadvantage to physically respond in some situations. Thus, you should ensure that they are able to speak honestly without feeling physically threatened. You should also discuss any and all health issues.
Does one player feel somehow at a disadvantage to the other due to the other partner’s socio-economic status? Does this alter the less-advantaged partner’s view of the wealthier player in a way that places more trust than is warranted?
For example, due to societal norms, male identifying partners may be perceived as having more power over female identifying partners. In addition, orientation and variations on gender identity might cause a perceived societal power imbalance between the partners that must be recognized.
If one person in the relationship has a superior power position at work, then this could impact the consent of the employee. The employee might feel that there are real consequences to their employment if they do not consent to the boss’ requests.
If one person is a personal advisor to the other, does the client seek approval from the coach such that the client could capitulate to the coach’s requests?
Similar to coach/client, a teacher wields a tremendous amount of power over a student. If a student and teacher are playing or in a relationship, the student might consent to things they do not want to do in order to “please teacher.” There are real world consequences that could be in the back of the student’s mind that could impact free consent.
(Highly suggest googling this concept for more information or reading the book “Attached”). If an avoidant personality is playing with an anxious attachment personality, the threat of abandonment by the avoidant could alter the anxious attached person’s behavior, causing them to consent to things just to avoid their partner “going away.”
If one partner has mental health issues, they can be taken advantage of by the other partner, especially if they are easily influenced.
If one partner is more cognitively impaired than the other, it can create an imbalance in the “informed” aspect of consent. In addition, one partner may use their intelligence to outsmart the other to manipulate consent.
Does one partner’s religious values or cultural values create an environment where consent could be masked by duty? For example, is there a risk that they will submit too easily or ignore their own needs in favor of someone else’s? If so, this is a recipe for non-consensual conduct, whether intended or not.
Whether the relationship lasts a few hours, a weekend or a lifetime, the circumstances surrounding consent in both play and the dynamic of the relationship must be addressed in any negotiation or discussions around what is allowed to occur.
Each person’s needs, wants, limits and boundaries must be addressed in the context of the relational power imbalances. The goal is to try your best and employ best practices!