Why Understanding Privilege is Essential to True Consent

February 8, 2017

The more I learn about true consent, the more I understand the essential role that privilege plays in getting it right.

First it’s worth defining what I mean when I say privilege, because it’s a word that gets used a lot. Privilege is an advantage granted to or had by a particular person or group of people. It often conceals itself from the people who possess it because it provides a power differential, and gives us the upper hand, which we may not want to give up.

The reason privilege plays such an important role in consent as it relates to sex is when we are unaware of our privilege, it’s harder to reach a place where both parties can be a true, enthusiastic “yes”.

Let’s use an example.

A man and a woman are flirting at a bar and they step outside for some fresh air. They find themselves alone on an empty street. The man turns to the woman, stares deeply into her eyes and proposes they make out. He is a 200-pound ex-wrestler and she is 105 pounds soaking wet.

From his perspective, there’s nothing unsafe about this situation, but from her perspective, she may be concerned about what might happen if she said “no”. He has the advantage of physical strength and she knows that.

If the man understands his privilege in that situation, he could take that into account when she responds to his request. Maybe her “yes” is only that because she’s afraid of saying no.

Sometimes we’re aware of these privileges, sometimes we aren’t. While it’s understandable that the man in this example may be completely unaware of what’s going on for the woman, he can greatly benefit by understanding her world.

Here’s another example.

Shannon has the hots for Bob. On a night out, Shannon bumps into Bob at a local restaurant and buys Bob a drink at the bar. They talk, and Shannon decides to make a move on Bob. She confesses she has a crush on him, gently touches his arm and asks Bob if he’d like to go back to her place for the sex.

Bob hesitates, partly because Shannon’s sister is Bob’s best client at work. He imagines that if he rejects Shannon, it may negatively affect his work.

In this case, Shannon is in a privileged position because of her relationship with Bob’s best client but she may not be aware of that. For Bob to be a true “yes”, he would have to feel totally safe to say “no” without fear of losing business.

Often times (through no fault of our own) we’re not aware when people are hung up on something and aren’t giving us a true “yes” or “no”. That’s where good communication comes in. If we sense anything less than an enthusiastic, 100% “yes”, we can pause and address any concerns that may be coming up.

That of course, assumes there is even time to have these conversations.

Fight, Flight or Freeze

The sad reality is that for most men and women who aren’t an enthusiastic “yes”, consent was never explicitly asked for, as it was in these two examples. Most people don’t even get time to think, or consider what they want. Someone moves in on them, and they have the choice to either push them away or let it happen.

For the straight gentlemen reading this who don’t cringe at the thought of how shitty that can be, imagine you’re in a gay bar and a 250-pound burly man (who has been eying you the whole night) pins you against the wall and begins to kiss you and reach down your pants.

How would you feel? What would you do?

Would you push back? Would you run away? Or would you freeze? Most straight men would probably push back, but now consider it’s a little less severe. Maybe that man just wants a long, uncomfortable hug, and he also happens to be a leader in your industry.

Now what do you do?
Do you push back or do you tense your body and wait it out?

I believe a lot of us would wait it out, afraid to say anything that would upset this man who has something we want. But what if he does this every day? And what if every time he gets a little more touchy-feely?

This is just a taste of the world that women (and some men) live in.

It’s an important thought experiment, because it helps us begin to get another person’s world, which is the way we calibrate for privilege.

Calibrating for Privilege

One of the things I learned from talking to women about this is that on some level, in almost every circumstance, women have a fear of saying “no” to a man who is making a move on them.

Maybe they are afraid of violence, maybe they are afraid of making him feel bad, or maybe they are just conditioned to feel that way after thousands of years of oppression. After understanding this, I realized that simply because I’m a man, I’m carrying with me a privilege, or an advantage that if I’m not aware of, will have me end up in situations where both parties aren’t a true “hell yes” to what’s going on sexually.

I’ve been there before, and it’s not fun.

We have to understand that consent is more nuanced than simply asking for and receiving a “yes” or a “no”. We can’t excuse ourselves from responsibility because someone said “yes”, because that person may not feel free to say no.

To have true consent, we have to first ensure that the person we are asking feels totally free to say “no”. If they don’t, their “yes” doesn’t mean yes.

The person who will be most successful in relationships is the one who can put themselves in the shoes of another to realize what their world is like, and this can be done by considering any negative consequences for this person if they say “no”, either socially, economically or psychologically.

We can also incorporate this understanding in our communication with them. Maybe we ask them if they have any reservations or if they feel comfortable saying “no” if that were true for them. Often a quick reassurance that you totally welcome a “no” can mean a lot.

The simple pleasure that can happen between two people who are being completely honest with each other is actually incredibly intimate, and it’s something that I cherish, whether or not anything happens sexually.

Consent Isn’t a Barrier, It’s the Goal

For most of my life, I saw the need for consent (implied or explicit) as a barrier to get the things I wanted from women. Thankfully, that has shifted for me, and today I don’t see true consent as a roadblock, rather it’s the goal.

I would much rather have an enthusiastic make out with someone than awkward sex that we’re both not a full yes to.

We’ve all been in situations with people who aren’t a true “yes”, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that at the end of the day when the pleasure fades away and the testosterone levels die down, we are far more fulfilled by knowing that we stayed true to our values and supported other people in staying true to theirs.

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