Power differentials can make consent difficult to obtain

Content Note:
Discussion of sexual assault, sexual harassment



One thing I’ve seen in discussions about rape and sexual assault over the years is that many men have a poor or nonexistent understanding of power differentials (though men aren’t the only ones who have this problem, I’m speaking here to guys bc we are the people responsible for the majority of sexual assaults). To be sure, there are men who feign a lack of understanding, but actually

Image on white background. Lists essential elements necessary consent, stating: Consent is: 1-active. 2- based on equal power. 3- a choice. 4- a process.
A quick guide to understanding consent.

know damn well what power differentials are. I’m not speaking to that group in this post (other than to say that you’re predatory assholes).

For those trying to wrap their mind around the concept of a power differential for the first time, I invite you to think of your current occupation and/or any classes you may be taking. Think about who your boss (manager or owner). Think about your instructors.  If you *are* the boss or instructor, think about the employees you have or the students in your care.

Now ask yourself this:  Does my boss or instructor have the ability to impact the lives of his employees or students? In other words, consider the relative differences in social power between instructors/bosses and students/employees. Think of your boss (bosses, think of your employees)–how can their choices impact your job? Can they fire you? Demote you? Suspend you? Give you a raise? Transfer you? Write you up?

If you’re in school, do the same (teachers too). To what extent can an instructor impact the lives of their students? Can they suspend? Expel? Are they in control of their academic performance?

Consider the following teacher/student scenarios:
University professor sets his predatory eyes on a student. He compliments her appearance regularly. He makes lewd comments about her to other students. He sends her inappropriate text messages that escalate to pics of his genitals. He says he wants to take her out to dinner. Knowing full well that her instructor could fail her, manipulate her attendance record, or harass her by constantly calling upon her to answer questions in front of the class, she opts to go out with him.

(That’s coerced consent, by the way)

Now consider what happens if a manager (boss) of a retail outlet begins sexually harassing a new female employee. He makes wildly inappropriate comments about her body, her diet, the food she eats, and more. He discusses sexual acts he has performed with female partners in the past. In short time, he crosses another line, from talking to touching. She wants to tell him to fuck off, but she cannot, due to fear of reprisal. She needs the job bc despite having a degree, this retail job was the only job available that paid anything in the neighborhood of what she desired. She has bills to pay and cannot afford  to lose any shifts, or worse, her job.

In both situations the instructor and boss hold significant power over the student/employee. That power can be used to manipulate their targets to do what they want. It is because of that potential to impact the lives of the people they instruct and  employ…bc of that *power*…that makes it very difficult for those lacking power to enter into consensual sexual relationships with those of a higher social standing. While it is not impossible for such a relationship to occur, sexual predators take advantage of power differentials to manipulate their targets with horrifying regularity.

Some might argue that some bosses or instructors genuinely want to pursue a romantic or sexual relationship with their employee or student.  “Both parties are adults, why shouldn’t a male teacher pursue a relationship with a female student?” It is true that there are scenarios one can envision in which no abuse of power is apparent and the individuals involved are above the age of consent. However, if they agree to the date, the sex, or the relationship, what happens if things go south? What happens if they break up or the date sucks or the dude is the most boring lay ever? How much confidence can the woman in this situation possibly have that the guy won’t retaliate?  And what about outsiders? If I saw my boss going on dates with employees, how am I to know that it’s completely consensual? We can’t have those assurances. Not in the world we currently live in, bc this world is one in which consent is routinely misunderstood and, all too often, ignored completely. Scenarios like the above serve to push the boundaries of consensual behavior,  which is the opposite of what we need. Rather than chipping away at consent, we need to be shoring up its foundations.

Another thing to consider regarding power differentials–powerful people don’t have to engage in overtly coercive behavior to achieve their goals. Students, for instance, are pretty much always going to know that their teacher has the ability to affect their grades or attendance, regardless of the instructor making comments to that effect. Likewise, employees always know their boss has the ability to suspend or terminate their employment or even to make undesirable schedule changes. So even if your professor never says “go out with me or I’ll fail you this semester” or your boss says “If you don’t come back to my place after work, you’ll only get three shifts next week”, that threat…that possibility, is always present.

I am of the opinion that men in positions of power should avoid any and all attempts to pursue romantic or sexual relationships with those whom they hold power over. I want a world in which all parties in sexual or romantic relationships have granted their [Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, Specific] consent to such activities. Rather than supporting any grey areas around consent (which don’t make you a rapist, but do make you someone who might be willing to rape), the path to reaching that world is best paved by supporting and advocating for Crystal Clear Consent.




Power differentials can make consent difficult to obtain
OrbitCon: The Orbit's online conference. April 13-15. Attend from anywhere. Submit your panel proposals now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *