I recently went on a campout with about 100 people in the woods of Northern California. Our group has been going to this particular spot for about 12 years. My friends are extremely eccentric, and many of the folks do a lot of experimentation with sex and drugs. Things have calmed down quite a bit from where they were when we first started, but things often get crazy. We have spent a lot of time establishing rules around what is permissible and what is not. We like to keep things open, and there is a high degree of tolerance, but it is not an anything-goes environment (though it would certainly look like one from the outside).
A couple of years back, the campground changed its policy and made the venue 18 and up, but years ago we had campouts where kids were included. Because there were children present in a place with adult activities, we created spaces where said activities could occur but they would not in front of the children. This system has worked well. One of the hard and fast rules has been around the lawn (the central gathering spot). “See you on the lawn” is a standard sign-off in conversations prior to a campout. We do yoga, have classes and game shows, and read, talk, knit, nap and relax on the lawn. It is the equivalent of a family game room or living room.
Even though children no longer come camping with us, we have maintained that the lawn is a sex-free environment. I have described it thusly: it’s okay to have sex in your living room. It’s okay to have sex in your living room with other people, if everyone is having sex. It’s not okay to have sex in your living room if there are people sitting around reading books and having conversations.
This rule has been broken on multiple occasions, and this weekend was no exception. Saturday afternoon I was attending one of many workshops (ironically, a workshop about sex), and three people started fucking. I was sitting about 5′ away from this action, and considered telling them to stop, but ended up not doing so. Some folks were watching, others moved away. People were unsure what to do – was this acceptable behavior? There were many people there who had never been to one of our events and they genuinely didn’t know how to respond.
Sunday, the same individuals started having sex on the lawn again. This time, a few people were uncomfortable enough to approach one of the organizers, who told the fornicators that they needed to stop. They discontinued, and moved to a table next to the kitchen where dinner was being prepared (another very public area where, to my knowledge, no one had had sex before).
Discussions raged about this transgression for the rest of the campout. The gossip ranged from admiration to incredulity to slut-shaming to disgust to anger. One friend who had attended our event only once before had brought a couple of newbies along, and they wondered how this sort of thing was usually handled, and was it really okay? I told her that what usually happened was that people would sit around feeling uncomfortable about it, no one would say anything, and then when we got back to town people would start whining and complaining about it on email…which is exactly what has happened. I’m curious to see how/if this will be resolved, but I suspect that it will be happening again next year.
So, oh yeah, I was going to talk about boundaries. After watching this scenario go down a few times, I had several thoughts about ’em.
- We are socialized to have particular customs around boundaries, and when we are presented with a situation where the boundaries and rules change, we often don’t know how to respond.
- Boundaries tend to be very fluid. There are some things that may be acceptable with certain people in certain places and at certain times, but not at other times. And it’s hard to remember that each of us has a very individual set of boundaries that differ greatly from person to person. (To be honest, some people know that others have boundaries different from their own and just don’t give a fuck.)
- I have often observed that people who have more stringent, conservative boundaries internally shame themselves or wonder what is wrong with them because they don’t have much interest in participating in non-monogamous or kinky sex. There is absolutely nothing wrong with living and loving in a more traditional way, and in my perfect sex-positive universe, we each get to have our own, satisfying sex life regardless of where we fall on the vanilla/kinky spectrum or the non-/monogamous spectrum.
- Worse than feeling bad about having more conservative boundaries than others is that people don’t speak up when they are uncomfortable because they don’t want to appear as a spoilsport or buzzkill to others’ fun. This makes one person’s boundaries more acceptable than others, and it ain’t right.
- People feel that they can’t speak up because they are “not in charge.” This sort of parental approach to boundaries – that Mom or Dad needs to handle it – leaves people feeling disempowered and looking like victims. On the other end of that spectrum, it seems like sometimes people push/break boundaries just because they are told that a boundary is there. To me, this is letting the inner teenager take over and it’s extremely obnoxious.
- American culture is so steeped in individualism that oftentimes people think they have the right to do whatever they damn well please, even when it is at the expense of others. This is an attitude I find selfish, self-absorbed and self-centered, and it can and has harmed others. (Note: I don’t classify this particular situation as harmful, but this attitude espoused by others can be.)
- One of the people who was having sex on the lawn was a long-standing member of our group who has been warned in the past, and definitely knows the rules (I suspect the involvement of new participants to our event was deliberate). This particular person is a very beautiful, sexy woman; had she been a man, she would have been kicked out of our group years ago. There are definitely double standards for men and women when it comes to sex, and the ones that benefit women are just as bad.
- When you see people breaking boundaries, it gives others permission to do so. One woman told me that she and her girlfriends had a couple of different men put their hands on them without asking. The only way it’s possible to have an environment of experimentation and permissiveness is to have boundaries be respected. (Of course, not everyone knows what their boundaries are, or that they must assert them, but that’s a whole different story.)
I have no idea how this particular situation will turn out; personally, I think that it’s gone past the place where a slap on the wrist will suffice and someone needs to draw a firm line in the sand. Alas, it’s not my event and since I’m not an organizer, it’s not my call to make. My good friend Mrs. B has succinctly put words to a long-standing problem I’ve seen in my group and other alternative groups: what happens when you have a group of highly tolerant people, and there are those who repeatedly break the social contract and there are no consequences for such actions? I think this is another thing that harks back to our younger selves: so many of us were rejected by our peers in school that exclusion of anyone for anything reminds us of the pain we felt when we were rejected, and so we show no one the door. (This is from that most excellent of documents, Five Geek Social Fallacies. If you are part of an alternative community, you should print it out, read it, then chew it up and swallow it so it becomes part of the very fiber of your body.) In the end, it bites us in the ass because we allow people and practices to flourish for way too long in a disruptive fashion.