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….