It’s September and Commune Life is back in operation. It’s also Wednesday when we normally post videos–so here is Theresa pointing out the difference between Consensus and Consent.
I recently compared consent culture at Twin Oaks to my gluten-free diet. Let me explain…
So before I transitioned to a mostly paleo-ish diet, I was doing the general Standard American Diet (SAD) thing and didn’t really think that anything was super wrong because I was used to feeling a bit uncomfortable after eating. I thought that this discomfort was normal. Once I eliminated most processed foods, gluten, grains, beans, and dairy, I felt so much better and feel somewhat foolish that didn’t even realize that feeling better was a possibility until now. Avoiding these foods has also made me more sensitive over time to when I do consume them, either intentionally or accidentally.
This is similar to my experience with daily minor consent violations that are common in the mainstream and happen much less here at Twin Oaks. In the mainstream, the slight discomfort felt when someone pats you on the back without asking or touches your arm to get your attention when you’re not that emotionally close to them is normalized (and exacerbated by sexism). You don’t realize until it’s gone that you don’t have to feel that way because people aren’t supposed to do that. At Twin Oaks, I thought it was a little weird at first that folks would ask if they could hug me or give me a high five. But then, I began to appreciate that I didn’t have to have as many awkward interactions where folks (mainly cis men) randomly touch me unnecessarily while talking to me, expecting that I was “supposed” to be ok with it. I can breathe a lot easier knowing most people here will maintain good boundaries around casual touch most of the time. Knowing that this feeling of ease exists makes me more sensitive to the times when it does still happen. I get more upset now than I used to about people just going in for the hug or high five without asking me, will likely reject a visitor who casually touches folks without asking, and get more annoyed in the mainstream when I notice that this behavior continues everyday outside of our little bubble.
I’d like more people (especially women, trans folks, and non-binary people) to be able to move freely in the world without feeling mildly uncomfortable all the time (often due to the carelessness and/or entitlement of cis men). So let’s all try to be better at this since I think we can all benefit from transitioning away from the Standard American Diet of sexism and consent violations and into a world of trust and ease.
I found a book in the library called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. It was focused on business executive teams, but I found a lot of it applicable to communities. His five dysfunctions were Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Results. To put it in positive language, I would say that in creating a team or a community you need to build trust, be willing to disagree, be able to make commitments, and also be held accountable, before you can achieve results.
A friend of mine pointed out that every group, including communities, has to deal with power dynamics. It may be especially true in the commune world.
I have written about how a new community with an aggressive, dominant man at the core will often fail to grow. In December, with the MeToo movement in the news, we published a series of articles about how communes and communities need to deal with the problem of abusive men among us. While sexual abuse and harassment are the worst examples and have been what has been featured in the media, there is also a strong problem of men (generally white men) dominating discussions, and often ignoring or disregarding the contributions of women and people of color–or, worse yet, claiming those contributions and taking credit for them. (Full disclosure, I am a white man.)
If we want to build diverse, inclusive communities, we need to deal with these dynamics. We need to deal with anyone dominating conversations, and ignoring or disregarding the contributions of others. While white men are the prime offenders, we need to call out anyone with these behaviors. And it’s not just women and people of color who get trampled on, but queerfolk, people with disabilities, and working class and poor people. In fact, the whole community is often being trampled on.
To return to what I began with, when you have a person or a few people dominating in a community, it’s impossible to build real trust. People become afraid to disagree with these folks and have no desire to give real commitments to the community. Accountability is at least difficult, if not impossible, under these circumstances, and what results happen are usually not what the group wants.
Patrick Lencioni claims that what gets in the way of teams achieving results is a focus on people’s status and ego. Well functioning teams do not have stars; they have a group of people willing to listen to each other and work together. If that’s true in the business world, how much more so with communes. Having dominating people makes true community impossible.
Changing all this is not easy. If you are dealing with strong people, you will probably need a cohesive group to confront them. The more the group can be clear about what it wants and needs, the better the chances of getting it. And that goes back to the need to build trust among this group.
It’s difficult work, but if our communes are going to be truly egalitarian, it’s work that needs to be done.
Over the last month this country has been going through a spate of revelations about men in power (including elected officials, Hollywood celebrities, captains of industry, spiritual leaders, you name it) being accused of having abused their positions of influence to pressure women into sexual relations. It’s pretty disgusting.
As an older white guy, I have a number of thoughts about this.
I. Tip of the Iceberg
As bad as the revelations have been so far—which are terrible—you can be sure that the total scope of what’s happened is much worse than we know today. Most abuse never gets reported, or is hushed up when it does.
One of the more pathetic excuses being offered by Roy Moore and his apologists is that they do not find the allegations against him to be credible because the incidents happened almost four decades ago. Surely, they argue, occurrences that bad would have been reported right away. Huh? If they knew anything about the psychology of abuse, they’d appreciate how hard it is for the victim to come forward. There is no correlation between delay and authenticity.
On the positive side, each time a woman finds the courage to tell her horror story it gets a bit easier for other victims to speak up as well. Though I am not at all happy that abuse occurs, I think we need to shine a spotlight on it if we’re going to make any significant cultural change. In this current surge of revelations, a number of brave women have been doing the hard work of speaking up, and that should be celebrated and supported.
II. A Person’s Right to Their Sexuality
After more than 60 years on this planet I’ve come to understand that the breadth of human sexual orientation and turn-on is incredibly varied and complex. While I believe that, in the ideal, everyone should have the freedom to express sexual desire (to extend an invitation) whenever they want, I think that’s incredibly dangerous unless there is a concomitant commitment to responding respectfully when invitations are declined. If you can’t hear “no,” don’t ask the question.
While I’m generally fine with individuals exploring auto-eroticism to their heart’s content*, if you’re wanting to interact sexually with others then you need their willing participation (for more about coercion see Point III below). As easy as it is to write that, however, there are a number of complications that need to be recognized.
Sexual abuse is mainly the misuse of power to gain sexual favors. If the power imbalance among potential partners is too great, how can you be sure you have consent (as opposed to acquiesence)?
Let me lay out four versions of this:
• If the age differential is too great
I know an intentional community that developed a guideline for teenagers that they needed to be within two years of each other for sexual contact to be acceptable (above and beyond mutual consent). For adults I’ve heard it proposed that sexual contact be considered inappropriate unless the younger person is at least six years older than half the age of the older one.
Frankly, I don’t know where the line is with respect to age differential, but there is one, and it’s a dynamic to be reckoned with.
• If there is an implied threat to safety, or possible retribution (say loss of a job, or a withheld promotion)
Suppose the invitation comes from a bodybuilder who is known to be prone to anger. Or from your boss, and you need the job, or covet a special assignment. Even though you want to say “no,” you might hesitate.
And it can be even worse than that. If the person grew up in an abusive family (perhaps where the father beat his wife and kids), they may be sensitized to the danger of a male losing his temper, and may overreact to a raised voice because it triggers bad memories. I’m not saying it’s the man’s responsibility to know that ahead of time, but you can commit to paying attention to how your words and tone are landing, and making appropriate adjustments.
• If the invitation comes from a guardian or protector
If you receive a sexual invitation from your father, your minister, a police officer, or district attorney (shades of Roy Moore)—someone you’ve been taught to expect safety from, it can be very tricky ground to navigate.
• If the invitee does not have the capacity to give informed consent
It’s inappropriate to have sexual relations with partners who are not able to respond thoughtfully to a sexual invitation due to incapacitation (think of Bill Cosby), or who do not have the cognitive ability to understand what’s being asked.
For all of these reasons, it’s important to develop clear norms about what kinds of sexual invitation are appropriate to extend.
* Even with masturbation there should be limits. I believe it’s abusive, for instance, if you’re pressuring others to watch (a la Louis CK). Also, I’m aware of an instance where a man tried to heighten his pleasure through near-strangulation and failed to stop in time. His accidental death left an incredible mess for others to clean up. The standard, I believe, should be sensitivity to how your self-focused act may place others in an awkward or compromised situation.
III. A Person’s Right to Freedom from Coercion
If a sexual invitation places the recipient in a dilemma—where they don’t feel safe to decline, or they anticipate having to pay a price for “no”—that’s abuse. It is not enough that the powerful person did not mean to be coercive. It is incumbent on them to look ahead of the curve, at how their invitation may be hard for the recipient to handle.
In essence, the more power you have, the more circumspect you should be about extending sexual invitations, or even being available for sexual liaisons invited by the person with less power (because of the potential for the dynamic being misunderstood by observers if, say, the secretary seduces the boss, or the student their instructor).
IV. What’s a Reasonable Strategy to Get from Where We Are to Where We Want to Be?
If we envision a world in which men and women and are equally powerful, does it make sense to flip privilege—where we preferentially support women being more aggressive than men—in order to close the gap more quickly? And if so, for how long?
Sandra Day O’Connor had to wrestle with this question when, as a Supreme Court Justice, she had to lay out guidance in support of affirmative action as a legally defensible tactic in the battle to eradicate racial inequality. She chose 20 years.
While I have no idea how long it will take to dismantle male privilege (or even if it’s possible in this day of alt-right Neanderthal politics and throwback gender roles), I am sympathetic to the argument that women deserve to be treated better then men, at least for a while, in order to counterbalance the negative impact of a lifetime of disadvantage.
In the world of intentional communities, where I have spent most of my adult life, there is an important distinction between groups that have a spiritual focus, and ones that do not. Among secular groups there is a strong commitment to creating feminist culture (by which I mean gender blind, not pro-female). However, spiritual groups can be all over the map when it comes to gender: anything from Old Testament patriarchy to New Age there-is-the-divine-in-all-of-us.
As my experience is rooted in the secular side, my work is slanted toward creating feminist culture. As an older, college-educated, Protestant, heterosexual, able-bodied, articulate white man, I am oozing with privilege, which means I’m susceptible to misunderstanding (or being oblivious to) how the field is slanted in my direction. As someone who has been active in the Communities Movement I’ve always understood that my privilege was going to be scrutinized under a microscope.
I’m OK with that. I don’t want to be the recipient of unearned advantages, and I’d like to help develop models of appropriate male behavior—even though I’m still in the process of figuring out what those are.
The DC Chapter of Point A is moving rapidly towards the birth of the first commune. As we approach the moment of our launch we’re hammering out the foundational mechanics for our group. And arguably the most foundational, most essential policies are for membership and expulsion: how people are included and excluded. Thinking about expulsion is not a fun topic and many democratic and collective groups don’t really think about it. Some (like Kommune Niederkaufungen in Germany, apparently) seem to get on just fine for years. For other groups, not having thought much about expulsion eventually causes a conflict to blow up into an explosive crisis and, with an unfortunate frequency, destroy the group.
A community is a web of relationships, and a healthy community reinforces and weaves those relationships thicker and tighter. The complexity and strength of this web is the source of the value and power behind a vibrant community: it brings meaning to our lives, it enriches us socially, and it gives us access to support and assistance when we need it. It can include our closest allies, collaborators, audience, and friends. But it’s the very importance of our community that makes it that much more painful when an assault or serious breach of trust occurs within it. The bigger we are, as it were, the harder we fall.
When a member of our community hurts us or breaks our trust, it is common and reasonable to want them to leave and never come back. Maybe we fear that they’ll hurt us again, or maybe seeing them reminds us of the pain they’ve caused us, or maybe we feel like they’ve broken their side of the social compact and so don’t deserve membership any more. However, in a deep and vibrant community, and especially one with any history, ostracizing a member is messy because inevitably important relationships exist between other members and the perpetrator of the offense, relationships which are not destroyed by the offense. If the aftermath of a serious offense is not handled with sensitivity and care to all sides, it is all too easy for the community to divide into camps and begin to attack itself. If the perpetrator is ostracized and their remaining relationships are not honored, then damage can cascade through the web that is the community. That damage can cause other members to lose their faith in the community’s ability or desire to care for them and frequently results in an exodus of people from all sides of a conflict.
Additionally, although ostracism is sometimes appropriate, it often has the same problem as the throw away society that it resembles: it assumes that there’s an “away” where you can throw people where they won’t do harm (much like we assume there’s an “away” where we can throw trash where it won’t do harm). That’s not always true and if we don’t deal with the root cause of the offense and the perpetrator has not taken on the project of self-reflection and change we want them to then we might just be passing our problem on down the line to the next community they end up in. Similarly, this “throw away justice” assumes that the person who has committed the offense is no longer of value. They are trash and not worth saving.
In light of all this serious thought about the process of expulsion is of obvious value. Especially knowing that often when an offense occurs emotions run high, people are in pain, and quick and skillful action is necessary to prevent harm from spiraling out of control. It can be difficult or even impossible to conceive of, design, and execute such a response if it has not been discussed by the community in advance. When we design such a process, then, there are a few deep questions we need to consider. If we choose to not just get rid of people whenever they harm someone, how do we respond to offenses in a way that takes care of the whole community and leaves us stronger and better people on the other side? When and why is the work to do that beyond our ability and how can we tell? If it is beyond our ability… what do we do then?
By Aurora DeMarco
Sexual assault is a major component of patriarchy.
We are also learning that this problem is not limited to women, but too many men as well are victims of sexual assault. While consent culture is strongly promoted in FEC communities, within the communities movement the problem of power over sexual dynamics so ingrained in us by dominant culture sadly rears its ugly head.
What should communities do when someone abuses another? How can we live our values of restorative justice when we are faced with this issue? How do we make our communities safe? The Federation of Egalitarian Communities uses a method called Self-Examination RESponse (SERES). This process is aimed at helping the perpetrated feel heard and attempts to address their concerns, so that they can feel safe once again in their community.
Ideally it is also used to help the perpetrator understand and remedy their abusive behavior. Part of the problem is that dominant culture does not teach us to how apologize in a way that shows true understanding of the harm that is done. Too often an apology comes off as a deflection and can further make the perpetrated feel gaslighted. More work needs to be done to educate people on how to move beyond simply saying “I am sorry.” We must train ourselves to make apologies that heal the situation. Luckily there are resources available that can guide us. See this: How To Apologize For Sexual Harassment (Hint: It Takes More Than ‘Sorry’).
It is no wonder that communities have trouble navigating these waters when we rarely see good models of taking responsibility when our actions are abusive. Commune Life Blog will be exploring these issues more in depth to encourage a discussion that goes beyond blame and punishment but holds perpetrators accountable while simultaneously helping to get to a healing place for all parties involved.
by Paxus (also published on Your Passport to Complaining)
Spoiler: This post has no descriptions of graphic sex.
“Can I kiss you?” it seemed like a perfectly reasonable question. It was asked across a cuddle pile in the midst of a party up at the conference site where several people were making new romantic connections.
“I don’t really know you very well.” Was the reply I was slightly surprised to hear. But then something really powerful and slightly profound happened. Nothing.
The mood did not change. No one got embarrassed and felt like they needed to leave. No one laughed at the rejection or felt sorry for someone. The party just moved on.
We think and talk a lot about consent culture in the communes. We do orientations for visitors and guests so they don’t make cultural mistakes around initiating intimacy, which is easy to do if you are just mimicking what you see others doing. We explore new types of agreements around boundaries. And the reward for our efforts is we get to take some types of risks, like my friend who got rejected from the make out session.
What this does is create comfort and safety. It makes people feel like their boundaries are going to be respected. This in turn often helps them to push limits out. This reveals new possibilities and new connections.
And thus the party drifted right up to the edge of becoming an orgy. As a funologist, this is something I want to understand. For when you push aside all the sophomoric jokes and embarrassment about what orgies are, assuming they are done in a healthy consent environment, they are daring and liminal events. They change peoples lives.
And in this case, the “almost” does not really matter. Everyone could feel the possibility, we had created the space that was that safe and daring.