Culture of Consensuality

(I wrote this several years back. With all the conversation about rape culture, it’s more relevant than ever.)

On Memorial Day weekend in 2007, I had the pleasure of attending a campout in Mendocino with some friends. The space is beautiful: lush gardens, wood-fired hot tubs, a freshwater swimming pool and big trees. My friends have been working and playing together for over 10 years, and know each other well. The flavor of the group has changed in recent years as more people have had children and grown up themselves. They are maturing and changing in a beautiful way. The campout was limited to 150 people, and newbies were limited to only 25% of the population. In addition, the newbies needed to have a sponsor to vouch for them. Social contracts were explicitly spelled out, and it seemed like a very safe space for people to relax and enjoy themselves.

Despite all of these precautions, a woman had her sexual boundaries crossed. It wasn’t a full-out assault, but it was unwelcome and uninvited, and she was shaken by her experience. It definitely skewed her emotions to the negative for the remainder of the weekend.

If this sort of stuff still happens in groups of people who have well-established relationships with each other, what is happening at larger gatherings?  I read that there were 12 reported rapes at Burning Man in 2007. Who knows how many lesser forms of sexual boundary-crossing went unreported?

A Burn event is fertile ground for sexual predators. They are lured by the promise of young, hot, half-naked chicks imbibing numerous substances in an environment that is often described as safe, friendly and open. People respond to this sense of relative freedom by letting down their guards. The environment is sexually charged, to say the least. When the predators venture out at night, they often stumble onto groups of E-tards groping each other in cuddle puddles. And while the majority of Burners I’ve met are monogamous, the polyamorous, swingers and mongamish people are well-represented and feel very comfortable flaunting their sexual predilections.

A predator might assume that Burning Man is nothing but wall-to-wall hot women, as far as the eye can see….

A predator might assume that Burning Man is nothing but wall-to-wall hot women, as far as the eye can see….

Every piece of literature I’ve seen for a Burn event has some sort of guidelines of sexual boundaries. Many people have written many excellent things, but it boils down to one very simple guideline: ASK before you touch. Despite everything we read, though, shit keeps happening. Perhaps actions speak louder than words.

And herein lies the problem. While we are telling people that they need to ask before they touch, we are not doing it ourselves. We are not modeling proper behavior, and then we wonder why people get assaulted. These folks are merely following our lead. We have not created a Culture of Consensuality.

Confused? Of course you are! YOU don’t touch people without first asking! But here’s the deal: you have not asked for consent in the present moment, and in the present moment, the predator is seeing you touch another without asking. Instead of creating a culture of “Ask Before You Touch,” what we have created is a culture of “Do as I Say, Not as I Do.”

In any given situation, there are two perspectives: perception and reality. The perception is how outsiders view the situation; the reality is what exists inside the situation when you dig a bit deeper. Sometimes the two line up, but oftentimes they don’t.

Hypothetical example: my husband and I are out for the evening and want to stop and have a break. We are with a new playmate we met earlier in the day. We have found a comfy spot to make out, and many people have the same idea we do. There is also a guy hanging around looking like a starving homeless man watching people eat in a restaurant.

Now, the reality of it is that my husband has permission to touch me, and has had that permission for years. The playmate gave consent earlier. But the predator knows nothing of our relationship, nor does he particularly care. Do we have a well-established bond? Or were we merely on the same chemical wavelength and enjoying some spontaneous intimacy?

So what does he see? He sees three people touching each other without asking. Actually, he probably sees several people touching without asking. And so, he gets the idea that HE doesn’t have to ask before he touches.

But what if we decided to put the Culture of Consensuality into action? What if we had walked in, sat down and started asking questions like, “Can I kiss you?” “Can I put my hand on your breast?” “Will you play with my nipples?” Perhaps a big light bulb would go on over the predator’s head. “I see! These people ask before they touch each other!” And maybe, just maybe, he will do the same, because when in Rome….

Apparently this dude doesn't understand the concept of "ask before you touch."

Apparently this dude doesn’t understand the concept of “ask before you touch.”

Of course if somebody is sociopathic and is bound and determined to cross boundaries, he probably will. But I believe this could go a long way toward reducing less egregious violations, and lending a lot of clarity to ambiguous situations. (And wouldn’t you rather be canoodling with someone who actually is into it?)

This may seem overly dramatic, stiffly formal, or less than spontaneous, but it can be fun, and it might save you or someone you love from having an unpleasant experience. (It can also be sexy as hell to have someone vocalize her or his every move.) It is also very simple to do, and can be done by the one person you can actually influence: you. (Besides, I know there are more than a few folks in the Burn community who are prone to exaggerating their characters and assuming different personas. Let your inner drama queen out in a healthy way!)

The Culture of Consensuality does not have to be used only in explicitly sexual situations. It can and should be used as a powerful tool from the moment somebody arrives at an event.

I have seen or heard about greeters ordering all sorts of things from those arriving, from demanding alcohol to arrest-style frisking to a few smacks from a riding crop. Some folks might say no, but most people will go along with this treatment because they are not given the chance, and they think that they have to do as they are told. (Most people, especially women, have little experience with setting their own boundaries. It’s just not something we are taught.)

Remember: if this is a first event for them, they are in an unfamiliar situation and do not know what to expect. For all they know, this is how things operate, and they have arrived at an event where people can and will do all sorts of nasty shit whether you want it or not.

The last Burn event I attended, I was greeted by an inebriated dude who slurred “Welcome home!” while reaching out to give me a sloppy hug. I didn’t have much interest in getting a hug from him, as I abhor sloppy drunks, but it was too late (the ability to read body language is one of the first skills to go whilst imbibing). What if, instead, he had asked me if I wanted a hug? This would have shown me two things: (1) that people ask before they touch, and (2) that each of us is empowered to set our own boundaries, and say yes or no in any given situation.

The Culture of Consensuality can be used each time you meet a new person, even if that person is with a friend of yours. You first ask your friend if you can give them a hug, and then ask the other person. You are modeling the proper behavior for them, and perhaps they will imitate your lead.

I have been frequently asking people if they would like a hug when they meet them, and it tends to make people feel more relaxed and empowered. It is an interesting social experiment, to say the least. And wouldn’t it be fabulous if it actually worked? There’s only one way to find out….

Get off my lawn!

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.

You kids get off my lawn!

You kids get off my lawn!

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.