Can a 22 year old have a consensual relationship with a powerful/famous man?
I’m very, very big on consent. Informed consent, conscious consent, nonverbal consent, implied consent. But where do I stand on power dynamics and consent? Gather around.
Consent is, in my mind, all about autonomy. That is, your ability to choose whether or not you want to have sexy time with another person in a relatively free environment. The ability to say no to your boss, the ability to say yes without the fear of humiliation, and the ability to understand what just happened in your bedroom.
Pretty standard. The potential rules of this ethical quandry are:
- Don’t have sex with someone who cannot fully understand or deal with sex or the consequences (child, legal minor, mentally impaired individual, very drunk person)
- Don’t have sex with someone who does not have a realistically free choice to say no (student, employee, prisoner, ward, you could harm them, cause them to lose a job/opportunity)
- Don’t have sex with someone in a situation where they are at risk of severe cultural/biological harm (bullying/femicide/severe risk of complications or STI infection).
Spot the grey area? Yeah, me too. Power relations: what are they and when is it a problem?
I mean, I’m an adult. I’m a sturdy little know it all in a society where, largely, I’m not going to get stoned for having a sexual relationship (in theory). As a legal adult, I have the autonomy to choose my sexual partners, who I engage in a relationship with and to what extent. The state cannot, in theory, interfere if I decide I want intercourse with a powerful/famous/important man.
And that’s a good thing. I am an adult, after all, not some eternal femme-child having to endlessly have my partners and prospective sex partners carefully chosen and sorted through by an ethics committee. I can, as an adult, decide when I want the D (or the V). To an extent, every person I interact with is involved in a power network with me. My boss, my best friend, my lecturer, my hairdresser: all of them can, to an extent, pressure me into a situation where there are repercussions.
So how much is too much? We don’t want to de-autonomise young women into children who can’t decide whether to be involved with a figure of authority. I’ve been involved with older men, including richer, more successful and well known ones, and I don’t believe for one second that I was unable to choose what I was doing. I was an adult, I was asked, and there were very clear opportunities for me to discuss it and work out the consequences. I wasn’t a kid. You aren’t a kid at 20. Immature, maybe, desperate, usually, but not unable to know what sex or sexual relations involves.
I’d say it becomes a problem when it involves an exchange of some kind. That’s when it gets abusive. Sex for an audition, kisses for a networking opportunity, a relationship for a job offer. Or money. Or grades. Or rent. That’s when a power dynamic becomes an opportunity to utilise young women’s (or men’s) desperation or dreams to achieve sexual satisfaction.
So I’m totally chill with footballers/musicians/fading movie stars/drug addled TV presenters having a quickie or even a wedding with a 22 year old. Hell, I know what those involve and I can pick whether I’m up for it.
But when it becomes a career/economic thing, the power dynamic gets toxic. Is it always abusive? Not always. But definitely grubby and potentially exploitative. So if you want sexy time with someone my age, make it very clear there will be no career or monetary gains from it.
Honesty is the best policy.