Navigating Power Dynamics (WLC Toolbox)
Last Updated: February 3, 2023
By: Sloane Ferenchak, #WeLoveConsent Intern, DanceSafe
Fox Monstera, #WeLoveConsent Communications & Social Media Intern, DanceSafe
#WeLoveConsent seeks to help dismantle rape culture and build a consent culture within the electronic music and nightlife communities. #WeLoveConsent initiatives and services focus on building a consent culture and reducing the incidence of sexual violence in nightlife settings through consent education and bystander intervention. As part of these initiatives, we are publishing a #WeLoveConsent Toolbox Blog Series which focuses on providing the fundamental knowledge our community needs to practice affirmative consent and to help us build a consent culture in the electronic music and nightlife communities.
In our first #WeLoveConsent Toolbox article, we began talking about consent and affirmative, empowering ways to establish consent with your partner(s). An important aspect of establishing consensual sexual interactions is learning how to navigate imbalanced power dynamics. Most people desire sex and want to have fun, mutually pleasurable, consensual sexy time. Uneven power dynamics can alter the dynamics of sexual relationships and experiences, giving some people more power and influence than others in sexual encounters. When there is a power imbalance in a sexual relationship, people can feel anxious and/or pressure to do things they might not be comfortable with in the moment. Let’s explore this a bit more to help clarify what some power dynamics look like and how you can work towards evening the power differential through two steps: (1) recognizing and identifying potential differences in power, and (2) communication.
Key Concepts to Know about Power, Privilege, and Consent
Power dynamics are differences in access to power, authority, and influence over others. They exist as a result of hierarchical systems of power that privilege certain individuals and marginalize others. These systems can be social, cultural, or economic, and include systems such as patriarchy, white supremacy, and cisheteronormativity. People’s power and influence are based on their socioeconomic position, job, race, gender, sexuality and so on. Those at the top of the system hold more power and influence as a result of their privilege, and those at the bottom have fewer resources, less power, and are often taken advantage of by those in power. Having intersecting identities can also influence where someone stands in the “social hierarchy:” a person may be at the top of the “hierarchy” as a white cisgender straight man, but they will be much lower on the hierarchy if they are a transgender queer black woman.
Occupying different social positions gives people different lived experiences and different access to power to shape the world around them. Because no two people have the same exact lived experience, any relationship has the potential to have a power imbalance. Power is not inherently good or bad, but with a privileged social position a person has more social credibility and influence that can be misused to take advantage of others or pressure them into doing things they don’t want to do. People with power may also not be aware of how their actions negatively impact or influence the decision making of less powerful people. Power imbalances can make it difficult to recognize if consent is freely given, and can even make consent impossible. This is why when we talk about consent, we also need to discuss the impact of power on a person’s ability to consent in sexual interactions and how power can be abused in and out of the bedroom.
How Power can be Flexed: Social Pressure, Sexual Coercion, and Sexual Violence
Having power gives a person the ability to impact the lives of those who they have power over, which can be used to manipulate people into doing what they want. Sexual coercion can occur in sexual encounters with power imbalances. Sexual coercion is any unwanted sexual activity that happens when a person is pressured, threatened, or forced in a non-physical way by someone who holds power or authority over them. Sexual coercion makes a person feel like they owe sex to someone or that they don’t have the choice to say “no.” People can be coerced by those who hold power over them for fear of losing their livelihood, reputation, or safety. People can also be coerced by people they are in relationships with, such as when a partner threatens a break up if the person won’t have sex with them, or makes them believe that it is too late to say “no.”
Power differentials can also play out in less obvious ways. People can exert their power without coercing them directly. People know when others hold power over them regardless of whether the person in power threatens to use it. For example, a person knows they could be kicked out of a venue by the owner if they do not give in to them, and a fan could feel the social pressure to hook up with their favorite DJ and may not think that they can back out of it if they want to. It may be hard to tell when someone is being coerced in these situations. A person may also feel pressured by people they know, or their romantic partner(s), such as when a person feels like they owe sex to their partner(s) to keep them happy.
The power imbalance in relationships can also contribute to sexual violence. We can see the frequency of the abuse of power in sexual relationships when we look at the high rates of sexual assault in the US. Sexual assault is possible due to power, and occurs as a result of power. Sexual predators use power differentials to manipulate their targets, whether it is to coerce them into sex, use their physical power to overcome them, or prevent their victims from reporting by using social or economic force against them. In fact, most sexual assault is not due to sexual desire but due to a desire to overpower someone and assert control.
Navigating Power Dynamics in Consent
Although there is always a power differential in sexual encounters, there are steps we can take to try to balance power in the encounter to ensure consent is possible.
Step 1: Recognize and Identify Potential Differences in Power
When there is a power imbalance, a less powerful person may feel pressured to do something that they don’t want to do, or worse. People may fear social rejection, losing their economic or social position, or experiencing violence if they do not do what the person with power or authority tells them to do. They may feel like they have no control or no power to retaliate. When someone feels like they can’t say “no,” their consent is not freely given. When they are manipulated, their consent is not informed. And when they feel pressured to do something they don’t want to do, their consent is not enthusiastic. To make sure consent is possible in sexual play, we need to work to even the power imbalance as much as possible. The first step to do this is becoming aware of the power differentials that may be at play between you and your partner(s) and how the experiences of those in marginalized positions may impact their sense of safety and comfort in sexual encounters.
Self-Reflection – How is Power Influencing My Decision Making?
One of the most important steps to even the power differential is examining what power you have in relation to your partner(s) and how this may impact sexual play. This can be achieved by examining what you know about your identity and the identity of your partner(s), and how these identities may interact in the social world. For example, if you are a white cisgender man, and want to hook up with an Asian-American bisexual woman, you should consider how your race and gender may put you in a position of privilege in the encounter. If you are in a position of power, you should examine the ways in which your partner may feel pressured to engage with you sexually, and look for ways to eliminate this pressure. If you know you are in marginalized position, you should look for ways that your power in the situation could be enhanced so that you feel safe and comfortable.
It is also very important for all parties involved in a sexual encounter to examine their intentions and desired outcomes. Even if the sexual act is mutually desired by both parties, when there is a power differential, the decisions made by both parties can be impacted by social influence or power. You should ask yourself: “Why do I want this? Why might they want this? Will anyone regret this later? What are the potential outcomes of this situation? What outcomes am I okay with, and what outcomes aren’t worth it? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Do they only want me for my power/lack thereof? Are we genuinely interested in one another? If the person desires me for my power or lack thereof, am I okay with this and/or turned on by this?” These questions are important to ask in order to examine how to move forward with the interaction: if you’re acting out of a desire for power or sense discomfort in any way, hit the breaks!
Recognize How Experiences of Marginalized Populations Impact Sense of Safety and Comfort
It is important to be aware of what groups are socially marginalized and how their experiences may impact their safety and comfort in sexual situations. Marginalized groups are at higher risk of experiencing violence than those of the majority. Fears about being harmed for their identity and experiences of discrimination and violence can lead to concerns or worries about their safety when being intimate with others. These worries may intensify when a person has experienced sexual violence as a result of their identity. Being a part of groups at risk for trauma can impact a person’s level of comfort, anxiety, and feelings of safety in vulnerable situations.
While anyone of any background, race, gender, sexuality, economic status, and ability status can be sexually assaulted, sexual assaults tend to affect women, people of color and queer people at higher rates as a result of an unbalanced dynamic of sexual power and control. For example, the high rates of assault and rape of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other sexual minorities results in a lot of sexual trauma within queer communities. Transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people also experience disproportionately high rates of sexual violence, especially when their queer identity is coupled with a non-white identity. The disparity between social groups is even larger when looking at the intersections of gender, race and sexuality. For example, queer women of color face some of the highest risks of sexual violence, especially queer trans women of color.
As a result of trauma, whether sexual, social, physical, emotional etc., people may feel more vulnerable in sexual situations, especially with people who are more privileged. It is important to recognize someone’s experience, validate it, and work with them to find ways to enhance their sense of safety and security with you. When a partner discloses that they are a survivor of sexual violence, it is important to show them compassion and kindness and to abide by any boundaries that they need to feel safe. It will be important to validate and explore their feelings of anxiety around sex, and be prepared to go slow. It should be up to the individual who is feeling unsafe to decide what they will do and when, and they should be made aware that they can say “no” at any time.
Another important factor related to sexual trauma, consent, and power is that people who have experienced trauma may struggle with touch. For example, for those who have experienced emotional or physical trauma as a result of a transgender identity, and/or those who experience gender dysphoria, physical contact that others may deem normal may feel extremely intrusive, especially touch that is sexual in nature. This is another reason why continuous consent is so important- if you check in at every step of the encounter, you are much less likely to touch someone in a way that is triggering to them.
Step 2: Communication
Discuss Your Feelings, Motivations, Intentions, and Boundaries
As discussed in our first #WLC Toolbox Article, one of the most important aspects of evening the power differential in sexual encounters is making sure consent is maintained throughout the encounter through open and continuous communication. One conversation that should be had between all parties is how power may play a role in this encounter and establish that all parties are willing, informed, and enthusiastically consenting. You should openly share your intentions and desires, and carefully check in with your partner(s) about their feelings, boundaries, and intentions. Open and honest communication must be stressed, and it should be made very clear that everyone will be heard and that the person(s) could say “no” now or at any point of the encounter and you would immediately stop. If you are in a marginalized position, you should make sure your wants and needs have been heard before getting involved with someone sexually. Before engaging in any sexual behavior, all parties should establish it is mutually desired and check in throughout the encounter to make sure consent is maintained.
Another important area for exploration is how your power might impact how someone communicates their consent. When we are intimidated or scared, we may feel like speaking up and saying “no” puts us in more danger, or we may be too scared to speak. A lack of a “no” does not mean “yes,” and it is necessary to get affirmative consent from your partner(s) for each stage of the encounter. A partner may say “yes” out of pressure, so you should also pay attention to your partner’s tone and body language for cues that what they are feeling matches what they are saying before proceeding. It also helps to negotiate what you both are open to, interested in, and what your hard limits are before getting frisky. Questions to ask yourself include: Could my power be influencing their ability to verbalize consent? What are their body AND voice telling me? If your partner seems uncomfortable, make sure to stop whatever you are doing to discuss what is going on. Explore possible solutions and be open to end the session for the night.
Use Affirmative, Intentional Language!
One of the ways people exert power over others is by erasing their identities and defining who the less powerful are able to be. Respecting a person’s identity, especially someone in a marginalized position, is necessary in order to even the power imbalance. To do this, it is necessary for us to use affirmative language and be intentional with what we say.
Part of respecting the identity of others includes respecting the pronouns, sexual orientation, and body-oriented language of others. This is especially important for cisgender people to level the power imbalance with transgender and nonbinary people and for straight people to level the power imbalance with queer people. Respecting identity can do a lot to help queer people feel comfortable in vulnerable situations. Additionally, some trans and nonbinary people refer to their bodies and genitals in different ways than cisgender people might. Asking them how they talk about their body gives you the knowledge so that you can respect their identity and autonomy and not misgender them during an intimate moment. “How do you refer to your genitalia? I really want to talk dirty to you and want to get you hot and bothered, but want to make sure I’m being respectful and affirming.”
People also have preferences for how you refer to their bodies and to them in general, and may find some terms offensive. For example, one person may love the term “pussy” but hate the term “c*nt.” It’s always a good idea to check in with ANYONE you want to dirty talk with to see what they like and dislike before you begin. You should also discuss what you can refer to them as in bed as well. For example, some people are turned on by being called a “slut,” or “z/daddy,” while others don’t want to be called anything at all. It’s super important to respect people’s boundaries for dirty talk and only call them things you have discussed and have gotten the green light for. The conversation could go like this: “What do you like to be called, and what do you feel comfortable calling someone? “I love being called a ___ but I hate being called a ___” “Okay, I completely respect that. I’m a little uncomfortable calling you a ____ so maybe we skip this for now until we find something we both feel comfortable with and are turned on by.”
Another way to help even the power imbalance in sexual situations is to be aware of the language you are using. While it may seem small at first, there is a big difference between “Can I take your clothes off?” and “Would you like me to take your clothes off?” From a linguistic perspective, “Can I do this to you?” renders the other person(s) more as objects without as much or any autonomy and it positions the asker with more power. When you ask, “Do you want…?” it gives the person(s) being asked all the power to decide how they feel and gives them more room to advocate for their needs and desires.
ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS ask first! Even if you don’t know what language to use, always ask. With practice, you can become better at asking about your desires while simultaneously empowering your partner(s) to feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings.
When it comes down to it, navigating power dynamics can be successful with awareness, openness, and communication. Balancing some of the power differential that comes with sexual encounters requires you to (1) recognize how power differentials may be playing out in your sexual encounters and how you can correct some of this, and (2) openly, honestly, and continually discuss consent, boundaries, desires, preferred language, and motivations with your sexual partner(s). These steps will never be perfect or complete, but once you start practicing balancing the power differential, they will become easier and more natural. If you are interested in learning more about how to navigate the power differential in sexual encounters, stay tuned for a #WeLoveConsent blog series in the future where we explore power dynamics more in-depth.