The overarching goal of consent discussions in BDSM and kink play is not just to “get consent,” but to cultivate conditions where being honest is possible and safe.
To this end, you need to be able to identify factors that are impeding this safe and honesty-provoking environment. This module will cover the real-world power imbalances that impact informed, voluntary, and freely given consent.
The reason I say “real-world” is because some of the following relational power imbalances can be used in dom/sub role play if done consensually. (For example, boss/secretary or teacher/student play.)
In BDSM play, leave the “power imbalance” for role play, don't allow actual power imbalances between the participants that could lead to non-consensual behavior—whether intended or unintended.
This risk of non-consensual behaviour increases when the participants don't recognize how these power imbalances affect decision making. Even worse, if they don't recognize the power imbalance is there to begin with.
Consent is not limited to sex or the bedroom. It permeates our relationships and lives in ways you might not have considered. Our culture has taught us many non-consensual behaviors that can take years to unravel, both in our everyday lives and BDSM practice.
Where is consent being acquired?
If a scene is happening at one partner's house, that partner has the “home advantage” in terms of control of environment, comfort, etc.
Is there an age differential between the partners?
If so, does the younger partner defer too heavily to the elder?
Is one partner more experienced than the other?
A more experienced partner has a duty to ensure that the other is informed and understands everything that might happen.
The less experienced partner is at a disadvantage. They may consent to things they shouldn’t because they consider the other partner to be more of a mentor and thus assume whatever the mentor does is “right.”
If one partner is taller, larger, weighs more, is physically stronger and more able-bodied than the other, it creates an opportunity for non-consensual behaviour.
The smaller/less able-bodied partner is at a physical disadvantage to respond in some situations. The more physically abled partner needs to ensure the other can speak honestly without feeling physically threatened.
Partners should also discuss any and all health issues.
Does one partner feel at a disadvantage because of the other partner’s socio-economic status?
Does this change their view of the wealthier player in a way that places more trust than is warranted?
Because of societal norms, we may perceive male-identifying partners as having more power over female-identifying partners.
In addition, sexual orientation and variations on gender identity might cause a perceived societal power imbalance between the partners that wouldn't otherwise be there.
If the partners work together and one has a higher position at work, this could impact the consent of the partner with a lower position. The most stereotypical being boss/employee.
The employee might feel there are real consequences to their employment if they don't consent to the boss’ requests in their BDSM play.
This goes for any professional relationship. For example, one partner being a personal advisor/coach to the other. Does the client seek approval from the coach to an extent that the client would surrender 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.”
The student could have real-world consequences in the back of their mind, impacting their free consent.
(If you're unfamiliar with this concept, I highly suggest googling it for more information, or reading the book “Attached” by Amir Levine).
For example, an avoidant personality in a relationship with an anxious attachment personality.
The threat of abandonment by the avoidant could cause the anxious attached person to consent to things they otherwise wouldn't have just to keep their partner from “going away.”
If one partner has mental health issues, their partner can take advantage of them, 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 could use their intelligence to outsmart the other, manipulating consent.
This could even be as simple as one partner having more knowledge and the less knowledgeable partner deferring to them.
Does one partner’s religious values or cultural values create an environment where consent could be masked by duty?
Is there a risk they will submit too easily or ignore their own needs in favor of someone else’s?
Whether the relationship lasts a few hours, a weekend, or a lifetime, the surrounding circumstances of consent must be addressed in any negotiation or discussions about what is allowed to happen.
Each person’s needs, wants, limits, and boundaries must also be addressed in the context of relational power imbalances.
But don't let this overwhelm you, the goal is to try your best, and use the best practices you can.