Consent, Power Exchange, and the Myth of “Just Say No”

A lot of folx in the kink scene enjoy playing with Power Exchange in their scenes. These can be an empowering and positive vehicle for exploring vulnerability and trust within mutually consenting partnerships. 

But are you fetishising implicit power imbalances? Or are you attracted to freely given and explicitly negotiated exchanges of power? 

The internet is rife with stories of consent violations, one common pattern is the following: experienced folx who are well integrated in the community in positions of power playing often and fast with newer, younger, more vulnerable, less experienced and less integrated members of the community. While play is often negotiated, the wider power imbalance is less often acknowledged or addressed. Without this, the power is not exchanged, it is taken. And for this reason “saying no”, safe-wording, establishing limits and boundaries all become difficult to freely express.

Status, location, degree of experience, age, ethnicity, gender and body size are all sources of power imbalances. In order for power to be a mutually agreed upon *exchange* between consenting partners, there needs to be a conscientious effort at power redistribution before play.

For most folx, consent can be boiled down to: “just say no” and “use your safeword”.

The reality is that there are many folx who experience consent violations who are experts at establishing boundaries and negotiating scenes, they know how and when to say “no”, they know how to advocate for themselves, and have an excellent track record of using safewords.

There are many circumstances when “speaking up” and “just saying no” are very difficult or impossible: If you are playing in public and people are watching, you may feel pressure to not speak up, if you are playing in private with someone who can or has overpowered you physically you may fear for your safety and not speak up, if you are playing with someone who has more status (even if perceived) than you you may feel pressure to comply and stay quiet, if something very unexpected happens in the middle of a scene the shock may make you freeze and not speak up. Etc.

There are automated responses that we have no control over (Fight, Flight, Freeze, Flop, Friend). Different situations might trigger them, and we don’t know until we experience them. Nobody will say “no” in a freeze/flop/friend scenario!

While empowering folx to “say no”, to “use their safeword” and “negotiate your limits” are all very important and very central to consent education in the kink scene, this also needs to be paired with notions of “responsibility to inform” and “duty of care” on the part of the giver in a scene. 

Otherwise we are placing all or most of the burden on the part of the receiver, who is many times restrained and in an altered psychological state (aka “spaced out”).

As the person with the most power (i.e., access to resources) in a scene you can: slow down play, play well below the person’s limits or their safeword, say no to play if the person is too new and not integrated enough in the community, play in a safe place (a relaxed community event rather than in private), check-in during play and get explicit verbal consent for activities, inform them of risks and potential consequences, direct them towards resources, and generally create an environment where people feel empowered to express desires, dislikes, “no’s” and safewords.

While learning to advocate for oneself is very important, consent is a lot more complex than “just say no” and “use your safeword”.

Inspired by @kinkyblackeducator “The Facets of Consent” and “The Responsibility of Dominance” talks.

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