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Consent and Systemic inequity

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

When I talk about systemic inequity as a factor in consent, it can be confusing to people. Am I saying that people who are marginalized are less likely to have consent in their interactions? Does this mean that some people are always victims?

How systemic inequity, growing up, and existing within inequitable societies affects consent is very complex. First of all, our proximity to power(or lack of it) is an intersectional experience that is a combination of all of our identities. (Shout out to Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw for creating the study of intersectionality!)

For a visual guide to reflect on your intersectional identities and how they either put you in closer proximity to power or further away from the privilege it affords, here is an example of a power/privilege wheel designed for people in Canada. There are many different examples of power/privilege wheels available online.

As you can see, we have many different identities(many more than are shown here!), and each identity can place us either in closer proximity to, or with less access to, power and privilege. We can experience more or less power in different spaces and within different interactions.

In our book, “Creating Consent Culture: A Handbook for Educators”, my co-author Marcia Baczynski and I talk about how many(if not most)people have a hard time with saying no confidently, and also with asking for what we want. Feeling able to say no when we want to, and able to ask for what we want from an interaction are both important aspects to consent.

When we grow up and are socialized with an identity, or multiple identities, that are marginalized, it can make it even harder to say no or ask for what we want. Not because we are lacking those skills, but because we are avoiding the negative reactions and retaliation that marginalized people often experience when we assert our boundaries, or behave as if we are entitled to equal treatment.

After many years of being socialized to accept and tolerate more things that we don’t want, and to expect less and ask for less of what we do want, these can become internalized coping strategies that become a factor in all interactions. Consent happens when we have an agreement to have the most mutually respectful and beneficial interaction possible, so if some people in the interaction feel more comfortable to ask for what they want, while others feel less comfortable saying no, this impacts the level of consent we can achieve.

The first step is awareness. Being aware of the spaces where we have more power and taking steps to bring equality to those spaces is an important second step. Being aware that many people have a hard time saying no means that we may be more cautious in how we ask. Being aware of this also encourages us to make others more comfortable saying no by thanking them when they do. We can appreciate that it may be especially hard for others to express their boundaries and that when they do that with us, it can be a huge act of trust on their part that we will not retaliate or react negatively to them.

Telling people, “I want to ask you something, but please feel free to say no.” and, “Thank you, I appreciate you letting me know what your boundaries are.”, can let others know that we care enough to want to know what they do and don’t want, and that we’re prepared to treat them with respect.

In our book Creating Consent Culture: A Handbook For Educators, my co-author Marcia Baczynski and I talk about five factors that make consent in interactions more complex. They are socialization, poor modeling, communication(or miscommunication), trauma, and systemic inequity.

To learn more about the workshops available and the book, visit

Order the book here!

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