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Twin Oaks has several systems that I think are worth looking at by communes in general and which use what I am going to call public/private options, that is, giving folks the choice of sharing or not.
An example of this is the communal clothes area at Twin Oaks, called by most folks “Commie Clothes”. Many of the communes seem to have a Commie Clothes spot (I know that both Acorn and East Wind used to and even small Glomus Commune has a place we call Commie Clothes), but I want to focus on the one at Twin Oaks. Commie Clothes is an example of what I call radical sharing, trying to figure out how to share as much as possible.
The way it works (at Twin Oaks, at least) is that communards go to thrift shops and yard sales and buy up lots of cheap clothes. It’s all organized in Commie Clothes, which takes up most of a floor in a building at Twin Oaks. Any member can go in and take whatever clothes they want and wear them and keep them as long as they want.
Here’s where what I call public and private options come in. If someone wants to, they can just wear something and toss it in the communal laundry and it gets washed by someone who gets labor credits for doing the work and gets put back in Commie Clothes. On the other hand, if you really like it, you can keep the piece of clothing–but you have to wash it and take care of it. You can privatize anything in Commie Clothes, but the cost is that you need to do the laundry.
A similar situation exists with bicycles. There are lots of bikes around Twin Oaks. They are a major means of transportation around the community (which is large and spread out) and occasionally between communities. At Twin Oaks, any member can pick up any public bike that has been left around and ride it to wherever they need and leave it somewhere where they or some other member can pick it up and take it to their next destination. The bicycles are all taken care of (organized and repaired) by the bike managers. You can also take one of the bikes and make it your own, but if you do, you need to take care of it–either repairing it yourself or using your labor credits to have the bike manager fix it.
What I like about these systems is that they give you a choice: do you want to keep the thing communal and share it with everyone, or do you want to make it your own? If you decide to privatize it, the cost is that you need to take care of it yourself. I love that Twin Oaks has come up with systems with options and that the private option comes with a price.
I think that other communes could learn from these systems and they could easily be set up in other places. I wonder what other systems could be set up in similar ways so that folks can share but also have options. Any suggestions?
This is the second and final part of a deep look at communal “dirty laundry”. The first part focused on oppressions or what some folks call “isms”. In this installment, I want to look at instances of addiction and abuse.
Don’t get me wrong. I love community, especially the income sharing type. That’s why I manage this blog and our Facebook feed. I truly believe, warts and all, that communes are a significant improvement on mainstream living. However, I also don’t want anyone to think that I believe that communities are anywhere near perfect or even close to achieving utopia. I am always advocating for communes and communities, but I want folks to decide to join or start community with their eyes open, not expecting that all the problems in society will disappear once you enter community.
I will start by looking at addictions, which are a common, if somewhat invisible, phenomena in mainstream society. According to the US National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (yes, apparently there’s an agency to keep statistics on these things) over 60% of Americans over the age of twelve have abused drugs (if alcohol and tobacco are included) within the past thirty days.
One recovery center lists their “Top 10 Addictions in Modern Society”: coffee, tobacco and nicotine, alcohol, sex addiction, illegal and prescription drugs, gambling, internet and modern technology, video games, food, and work. All of these addictions are found in the communes, some more than others. Most communities want to respect the individual liberties of their members so many addictions are tolerated unless or until they interfere with the workings of the community or the liberties of the other members.
Let’s start with coffee. American society runs on coffee and that’s also true for many folks in the communes. Camino Recovery (the folks that published this top ten list) claims that the “safe zone” is five cups of coffee or less. I suspect that there are folks in the communes that drink more, but I don’t think this is a major problem in the communes. At Twin Oaks, coffee is (or was the last time I checked) a “luxury item”, something that the community didn’t provide (except at the hammock shop, where it was an incentive for folks to weave hammocks). What I do know is that herbal teas and coffee alternatives are very prevalent in the communes, perhaps more than in society at large, as an alternative to so much caffeine. I suspect that coffee addiction isn’t a large problem in the communes.
Tobacco, however, is certainly prevalent in many of the communes. I’m not sure if the percentage of folks using it is higher than in society at large, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Many of the communes have a small but visible smoker subculture. To protect folks who don’t smoke, several communities have created special places for smoking and, weirdly enough to me, these places have become the cool spots to hang out. I know of several farming communities that are actually growing tobacco, reasoning that this is a cheaper way for smokers to get their nicotine fix and they know that they will be getting an unadulterated product (as opposed to whatever commercial brands add to their tobacco).
Alcoholism is a serious problem in the communes, as it is in society at large, and it tends to be more prevalent in some communities than others. This is one place in particular where the question is the degree and the effect it has on the community. Alcohol use, even excessive alcohol use, is tolerated as long as it doesn’t affect work and productivity and the person doesn’t behave in abusive ways to others when they are drunk. Members have been asked to leave or outright expelled for drunken misbehavior or inability to work. I would like to say that communities have encouraged or even assisted members and ex-members in getting treatment, and I’m sure that has been true in some cases, but I think the communes could do better with this.
Sexual addictions are harder to see in the communes. Certainly there is a lot of sexual behavior and much of it more visible than in the mainstream, but I am not sure whether any of it translates to addictive behavior. I’m sure some does, but because sex is more available and acceptable, I suspect that there is less addictive behavior, since it’s not such a forbidden activity. For similar reasons, I suspect there is less porn addiction. Why peruse pictures of naked people, when there are regularly folks walking around (or swimming or hot tubbing, etc) nude not far from you? Again, this doesn’t mean these things are absent on the communes and because they are less visible it’s pretty hard to tell.
The next category that the Camino Recovery folks list is “Illegal and prescription drugs”. This is quite a spectrum, particularly in the communities where I would say there is less prescription drug abuse and less use of narcotic drugs such as heroin than in the larger society, and more use of “illegal drugs” in the psychedelic, euphoric, and empathic categories–including acid, mushrooms, ecstasy, etc.–plus marijuana, etc, which are no longer illegal in many places. The criteria here is the same. Does it interfere with the person’s work or make them difficult to live with?
Gambling might be a problem for some folks in the communes, but I haven’t seen it. For one thing, commune members generally don’t have enough money to gamble with–and if you are interested in getting more money, I doubt you would move into an income sharing community to begin with.
Internet and technology addictions I’m sure affect some folks in the communes, but I believe it’s much less than average. In fact, there are definitely folks who join the rural communes to get away from technology. Twin Oaks actually bans cell phone use in public areas except in certain designated places. (Much like they deal with tobacco use–which gives you some idea how they view it.) Also, it turns out that in many of the communes the internet service isn’t actually good enough to allow anyone to get addicted. This may be a case where the communes are doing better than the mainstream for reasons some communards wish were different.
I suspect that the same is true of video games–or at least online video games. While there may be some folks in the communes addicted to these games, it’s probably a lot less than average.
I think food addiction may be more of a problem than internet, technology, or video game addictions but I haven’t seen a lot of it. Communards often work hard and, from what I’ve seen, often look thinner than many in the mainstream. Of course, there are eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia that result in very thin folks and while I suspect there are some folks also dealing with these, I would guess it’s either about the same or less than the larger society. It’s not something I’ve seen or heard much about.
Finally, workaholism. I think this could be a serious problem for some of the more motivated folks in the communes. I’ve written about this as a problem with our inner bosses.
Beyond addiction, the other area I want to look at is what I will lump under the title of abuse. This includes partner abuse, bullying, child abuse, sexual harassment and misconduct, and sexual assault. Unfortunately, I think that you could find all of these in the communes, although most communities will take a stance against them.
Partner abuse is often not obvious, but it definitely happens. Moreover, it happens as often in same sex couples as heterosexual couples and even happens in polyamorous relationships. When it does become obvious the abusive partner can be expelled, or sometimes both parties if they antagonize the community enough.
We try to raise our children well, but bullying does occur. When there are lots of children raised together there is sometimes more oversight and domineering behavior is often picked up and dealt with. Children are encouraged and guided in dealing with one another in these settings in ways that I think are better than in school systems and other places on the outside.
Child abuse, including child sexual abuse, unfortunately sometimes does happen in the communities. Occasionally, there are abusive parents but more often, especially with sexual abuse, it could be a caretaker that seemed okay. There was a time when this seemed more prevalent because folks trusted other members but here is an area I think that many of the communities have learned from some horribly unfortunate instances. There is very little tolerance for anything like this when it is discovered and usually the perpetrator is quickly expelled.
Unfortunately, also sexual misconduct and sexual harassment occurs in the communities as well. This is an area where the communities, especially with their relatively free sexuality, try hard to make sure that it doesn’t happen. Unfortunately it still does, and trying to achieve accountability for this is something the communities are still struggling with.
Worse is when sexual assault occurs. Many of the communes are offering or even mandating training in consent. Consent culture is more and more a part of communal living and this is much more prevalent and accepted than in the mainstream. However, assaults still occur and it’s often difficult to be sure who to believe and, again, accountability often doesn’t occur or is ineffective when it does. I doubt that things are much better in the mainstream–however, what makes things more difficult in the communes is the reluctance on most occasions to pursue legal actions. We know that there must be better ways to deal with injustices, including sexual assault, without involving the court and prison systems. We still haven’t figured out what they are, although some communities are exploring restorative justice.
I’m sure that there are a few more nasty things that happen in the communes that I haven’t thought of (and yes, there have been a few cases of arson and dramatic violence, but they have been very rare). I will close by saying, again, I am not listing all these things to make a case against the communes but, first, to make sure people enter them without utopian preconceptions, and second, to make it clear how far we need to go. It’s important that the communes are beginning to directly address some of these problems. I hope some more of them will be addressed as people try to design better working communities and as some of the older communes look at themselves.
The 2021 Assembly of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities was held at the Twin Oaks conference site November 10th and 11th. Due to the pandemic, there was no Assembly last year and the pandemic dominated some of the agenda this year. The Assembly was held outdoors so vaccinated and unvaccinated delegates could meet together.
One of the most difficult items on the agenda was working out a way to resume Labor Exchange trips between the communities that would satisfy COVID wary Twin Oakers and restriction wary East Winders–and we think we succeeded. Also, Glomus became a full member of the FEC, Cambia began discussing becomind a full member, and Serenity began discussing becoming a Community-in-Dialogue. (Here’s what each status means.)
Jules from Twin Oaks was also there and I was there representing the Glomus Commune but, unfortunately, I didn’t get pictures of either of us there.
This post and the next will be difficult to write (and probably read) because I intend to air as much of the dirty laundry of community living as I can think of. This can be seen as a follow up to my post called Lower Your Expectations. While I am all about communal living, I want to be honest here. I don’t want folks getting into communal living with illusions of how wonderful it’s going to be. Communes and communities are far from perfect—and sometimes very far from perfect.
In these two posts, I intend to point out all the nasty things that I know about communal living, all the things I (and many other folks) wish were different, where communities fall down and where they are making some headway on all this. I have to say that with everything that’s bad about communities, I still think that they are an improvement on mainstream life—and many of these problems are things that some communities are really trying to work on. So I will also report on improvement attempts and where I see successes.
In this first part I am going to focus on what we used to call, oppression issues or “isms”.
Let’s start with the most commonly commented on problem in communal life: racism. Yes, there is a lot of racism in the communities and it’s something that is being talked about and worked on. While there is definitely some overt racism in some of the communities, the more common problems have to do with what I would refer to as structural (or institutional) racism: things like microaggressions, cultural blindnesses, and, above all, communities that are structured to accommodate middle class white folks. This is racism that well meaning white folks practice, usually unintentionally. The result is that most communities are uncomfortable for many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and the communities are left wondering why they are so white.
Similar to racism, but much less currently addressed, is classism. Most of the communes and communities are filled with middle class and upper middle class folks and this often makes it uncomfortable for people who grew up working class or poor. I think that an exception to this is the East Wind Community which has a lot of working class folks and more of a working class flavor to it. Unfortunately, instead of this being celebrated, East Wind often gets a bad reputation. This has been particularly true around racism—and there have been more incidents of overt racism there but, as several people I know have pointed out, most of the problems at East Wind are the same problems that have been found at all the communities and folks of color have had the same difficulties at Twin Oaks and Acorn, but because they aren’t as articulate, East Wind has often been singled out. Something that really bothered me at the 2018 FEC Assembly was watching upper middle class white folks lecturing East Winders on racism using jargon and academic terms. It felt quite condescending. Of course, the difficult intersections of race and class are rampant in the society at large and are not being dealt with well at all (look at Trump’s appeal to white working class folks), but I would need a whole piece to talk about this and it would take us far from communal living.
Going down the oppressions, I want to look at sexism and misogyny next. Here’s a place that I think the communes are doing quite a bit better. It’s not as if sexism has been banished or there’s no misogyny in the communities, but there seems to be a lot more freedom for women, a lot more respect for women, and a lot more female leadership in the communes than in mainstream society. In fact I know of several communities that are practically matriarchies—and Twin Oaks views itself as having a “feminist culture”. Again, there’s still quite a few pockets of sexism in the communes but I think that it’s being dealt with a lot better than in society at large. (Note: I am not talking about the awful problems of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault here. I will deal with these things later, in Part Two.)
On sexual orientation issues and homophobia, I also think that the communes are doing better than the mainstream world. Again, it’s not that you can’t run into homophobia in the communes; it’s just a lot less prevalent. I know at least one small commune that’s probably two thirds queer folks—and that’s not to mention the Tennessee queer communities. Twin Oaks also sponsors a Queer Gathering that is a lovely place for GLBTQ(etc) folks in community or wanting to be in community to gather.
Unfortunately, on trans and nonbinary issues, the communities don’t do quite as well. I think overall they are a lot safer and welcoming place than the mainstream, but there is still a lot more transphobia than I wish there was. Some of this is generational, with older lesbians and feminists being uncomfortable with transwomen declaring themselves women. Again, this is a difficulty being played out in the society at large and it seems somewhat less prevalent in the communes, but it’s far from being fully dealt with.
Finally, looking at the “isms”, comes ableism. This, too, is a place where the communes don’t do nearly enough. Most of the rural communes have few accessibility accommodations and are not particularly welcoming to the disabled. The one place that communes do provide accommodations is when someone who is already a member becomes disabled.
This brings me to something that is true of many situations within the communes and many other communities. Once you are there and have become an important part of the place, they will do whatever they can to help it work better for you, but they are not as willing to accommodate someone that they don’t already know. This applies to handicap accessibility, but also explains many racial issues and the problems the communes have with families (more on this in Part Two). It also explains why the communes do better on some gender and sexuality issues.
There have been women as part of most of the communes since the beginning. To the degree they were able to advocate for themselves (and, since a lot of the men were heterosexual, they didn’t want communities that would be all or mostly men), they got the changes that they wanted and needed. In fact, Twin Oaks made it policy to that they needed to have at least a 60:40 ratio between the genders (this was a time when folks only thought of two genders), so they actively recruited women and those women pushed for the leadership of women. Likewise, once there were a number of queer folks in a community, they worked to create an environment which would be welcoming to LGBTQ folks. I am convinced that the only way racial issues can really be dealt with in the communities is when there is a significant BIPOC presence. Twin Oaks did talk about trying to become as much as 40% folks of color, but that hasn’t gone anywhere. As I said, I think that the Serenity Community, as BIPOC led and majority BIPOC, has a better chance of making a difference.
In the next part (next week) I will look at a bunch of other problems in the communes. Again, with all their problems, I think that they’re better than mainstream living. But they’re sure not perfect.