There have been numerous posts about the issue of consent on DDP. This is not surprising given how horrifyingly common sexual assault is and how pervasive rape culture can be. Hopefully by now many people have been exposed to the idea of positive consent: it’s not enough to just stop if you hear a “no,” it’s also necessary to check in and receive a clear, preferably verbal “yes.” However, being committed to a culture of consent requires another responsibility: recognizing the implicit power dynamics that are present in all relationships.
I come to this point because of a number of experiences I had when I was younger, when I explicitly consented to actions that I was not actually ok with. In many of these cases I was able to consent by all the traditional metrics – over 18, sober, etc – but inequalities inherent in the relationship made me unable to express my needs. I very much doubt that I am the only one with these kinds of stories.
I have one example of this with a relatively positive outcome. I met a boy (let’s call him Jeff) when I was a prospective student visiting the college I currently attend. He started making moves on me, but made sure to ask if things were ok at several points along the way, making it easy for me to stop the situation when I was uncomfortable. I left the encounter surprised and pleased: I had never experienced the practice of continuous verbal consent before and I was relieved at how easy it had been to assert my boundaries when I was given space to do so. The next year, I attended that college and ended up in the same dorm as Jeff. At that point he was a senior and fairly experienced with relationships, while I was barely out of high school and fairly inexperienced. We started a relationship, partially because I felt like that was what was “supposed” to happen since we’d had a mildly romantic scene a few months before. Although he was careful about consent, I started to feel less comfortable with how sexual the relationship was. I didn’t think I had any right to say something because I assumed this was what relationships entailed. I went along with a lot of what happened simply because I had barely experienced relationships, let alone ones outside of a fairly conservative upbringing. Added to this, I, like many other people raised as girls, had been trained towards passivity and putting the desires of other people above my own preferences.
After a while, Jeff told me that he wanted to end the relationship because he was uncomfortable with the power differences present in it. Despite my relief at this outcome, I was confused about what he meant. It wasn’t until later that I realized the vastly unequal playing fields we were occupying. I had consented in all technical meanings of the term. Still, I was in situations that I fundamentally did not want without really being able to verbalize that. Luckily, he had recognized this and taken responsibility for the situation.
Unfortunately, I’ve been in far more situations where the individuals involved were not so careful. I don’t blame them, since they had the best of intentions and followed the “rules” of consent, although I recognize the right of other people who have dealt with grey spaces of consent to fully blame the perpetrators. I know that I have also been guilty of not thinking past the idea that yes = good to go, and that the ability to consent depended mainly on how sober the other person was.
We all need to recognize that one of the effects of rape culture is that many, many people, especially young women, are not taught how to determine and express their own desires and may, in fact, be encouraged not to do so. Women especially are given the message that pleasing others is more important than their comfort.
Beyond just gender, we need to be aware of differences in privilege that might make it hard for a partner to express what they want, differences like age, race, dis/ability, monetary dependence, and experience level, among others. I challenge you to take a closer look at your relationships and your communities. What’s not being said? Who has power and how does that affect people’s ability to communicate? If you see things that trouble or surprise you, try to address them directly. Let the person who has less power set the pace and tone of how you interact. Be willing to slow things down and open up wider spaces for communication. At very least, bring your concerns to them and talk about the implicit power dynamics at work in the situation. As long as rape culture and an unjust society still teach some people that they deserve more agency than others, it is up to us to be conscious of not only what our partner is saying, but the larger circumstances in which they’re saying it.