Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) once said: ‘Everything in the world revolves around sex. Except sex itself. Sex is about power’. Wilde hit the proverbial nail on the head with that. Sex – and therefore consent – is all about power and power imbalance.
Top & bottom
Especially when it comes to sexually transgressive behavior, sexual assault or rape, inequality of power is an important factor. One person is richer, older, more extroverted, more articulate, higher in rank, stronger, heavier, or in some other way more dominant. I call this person ‘the top’ for the purposes of this story.
The other might be more dependent, more insecure, introverted, from a lower social class, impressed by the other, or otherwise less powerful. I call that person ‘the bottom’ for now.
Examples of classic top – bottom relationships are the doctor and the nurse, the professor and the student, the director and the secretary, the psychologist and the patient, the coach and the talent, but also the uncle/neighbor and the young girl. Power relationships that are skewed can lead to misunderstandings and, unfortunately, also to transgressive behavior if that power relationship is abused.
No = No
In the old days, boys were told that if a girl said ‘no’, she actually meant ‘maybe’. Now we tell boys that ‘no’ is really ‘no’. So, if a girl says explicitly that she doesn’t want something – in whatever wording – then it’s not OK to continue.
This rule seems clear, but there is a problem. And that is that the responsibility is placed on the person with the least power. Someone who has less power is not always able to say ‘no’. For example, out of fear of reprisals, or out of sheer intimidation.
This means that if someone says that she (or he) does not want something, the other person should respect that. No is no, but there is more.
If ‘No’ is a ‘Yes’
In a very few specific cases, the rule ‘no = no’ does not apply. This is the case when two people agree to play a (role-playing) game, in which one of the parties agrees to play as if she (or he) were opposed. The bottom agrees in advance to certain actions or situations.
Often in the BDSM scene a safeword is agreed upon. This is a word that replaces ‘no’ or ‘stop’. Often a traffic light-like system is used, whereby ‘red’ means that the top has to stop all activities immediately.
The problem is that a safeword is not always the solution. If the bottom is insecure, or freezes, then a safeword will not work either. Again, this is mainly because it puts the responsibility on the bottom, while for all sorts of reasons the bottom may not be able, or have the presence of mind, to take that responsibility.
‘Not no’ is not ‘yes’
Both examples above assume an implicit ‘yes’. After all, if you do not say ‘no’ (or ‘red’, ‘stop’, or any other expression of unwillingness), then you are actually saying ‘yes’. You often hear perpetrators of transgressive behavior say that – as far as they are concerned – the sex was consensual and they are often surprised when they are accused of sexual assault or rape. After all, the alleged victim – so they reason – did not say ‘no’.
This misunderstanding also stems from a deep-rooted assumption that responsibility (also) lies at the bottom and completely ignores the influence of power inequality on the actions of the bottom.
Everything in the world revolves around sex. Except sex itself. Sex is about power
But even ‘yes’ is not always ‘yes
But it is even more complex. Especially when there is an imbalance of power, an explicit ‘yes’ does not always mean that the bottom agrees. There may be various reasons for this.
Transgressive behavior is not the scary man in the bushes pulling you off your bike. It is the boss who builds up a relationship for weeks, sometimes months. Who makes promises like ‘I can make sure you get a promotion’. Or who gives you expensive presents and thus builds up a kind of debt with the other person. A ‘yes’ is then obtained under pressure. It is like the innocent suspect of a murder who, after days of interrogation, confesses because he collapses. Not because he did it.
Sometimes, too, the bottom says ‘yes’, just to get it over with. Because ‘at least then it will stop’. That is not the same as intrinsic consent.
But also in the case of drink or drugs, given consent can lead to regret afterwards. The inequality of power is then caused by the fact that the victim was intoxicated and would not have made the same choices if this had not been the case.
So, how should it be done then?
The bottom may feel that she (or he) has certain obligations. That it is part of the job. That sex is simply necessary to keep the relationship going. And once you’ve had that kind of sex, you may even feel obliged to do it again. You feel ashamed to say something (yet).
It does not help then if you, as a bottom, have to take responsibility. The responsibility to say ‘no’, or to go to a ‘counter’ to report the behavior of the top.
The only way to prevent someone from doing things against their will is for the top to take responsibility and to take that extremely seriously. This also requires the top to be aware of his (or her) power over the bottom. It also requires the emphatic ability to see how the other person may perceive you. And that requires that as a top you do not abuse the power you have over another.
And that is difficult for a top who wants to score. It is easier to push your way through and to keep on pushing until the other person says ‘yes’, than to keep calm and remain empathetic.
Yet it can be done. Consent is not about getting the word ‘yes’, but about minimizing power imbalance and pressure. By providing a safe environment in which the bottom can stop at any time. It is also about releasing that you really don’t want the other person to do something against their will, or that she (or he) will later regret.
Consent is not about getting the word ‘yes’.
This requires that the person with more power is fully aware of how the other person feels and explicitly asks about that. What are her (or his) limits? How does that person feel? Where are their needs? Constantly give the feeling that it is OK not to want something and that the feelings and needs will be respected.
And that is more difficult than it seems. Because a top can still feign behavior that looks like obtaining consent, while the bottom experiences it (afterwards) as pressure. And that is why it is important to take the responsibility for consent away from the person with the least power and put it fully in the hands of the person with the most power.