Katya’s stand up set from the sharing stage at the 2018 Women’s Gathering:
Katya’s stand up set from the sharing stage at the 2018 Women’s Gathering:
By Julia Onedia
“Ask me again in September.” This phrase is my shield against requests of all kinds—everything from friendly hangouts to an offer to join the tofu management team. I say it so often now that I’m just waiting for the moment when someone asks me “what’s your name?” and all that I can say is a dreamy “September…”.
I was the Twin Oaks Women’s Gathering intern in 2016, which is why I decided to join Twin Oaks [you can read more about my protracted membership process in a future post]. Therefore, it was only logical that I would become a Women’s Gathering organizer this year. I’ve been attending the planning meetings since I was a visitor in January; I traveled to the farm from Baltimore for every meeting but one between then and when I became a member on May 26th.
At some point this spring, I joined the Queer Gathering team thanks to some friendly pestering from the original organizers. From there it became a slippery slope: I was just dipping my toes into Communities Conference work when someone who had agreed to bottom-line the whole conference suddenly left the community to take care of a family member. At that point, I decided to stop fighting it, and I allowed the conference beast to consume my being in its entirety.
As July inches in, everything is eerily calm. The conference site is slowly becoming habitable after its long winter hiatus. I usually have no more than twenty unread emails in my inbox at any given time. I still have time for tofu shifts, cooking, and childcare. But I know that’s all about to change.
Come find me at the Queer Gathering on August 3rd—only slightly deranged—as I lead a workshop on using glitter to battle gender dysphoria and body hate. Then, join me again at the Women’s Gathering on August 17th, slipping into full lunacy as I fittingly lead a group of women to howl and scream at the moon and the sky (it’s healing, I swear). Finally, you might recognize me as hot pink hair on a human-potato hybrid at the Communities Conference from August 31st to September 2nd as I coordinate childcare and put out (hopefully metaphorical) fires all over the conference site.
On September 3rd, I sleep. Then you can ask me your questions.
If you want to follow developments of the events on Facebook, here are the pages for these events:
“Work is love made visible”
The Prophet, Khalil Gibran
This Spring a team of colorful communard builders convened for a secular barn raising. Even though everyone came for different personal reasons, the shared goal was clear, make an old sheep barn more hospitable for commune members. One would assume that a simple, tangible goal would lead to a predictable week, but jumping to that conclusion would skip all the flying fish and cornucopia of magic that happened in-between.
Within the Federation for Egalitarian Communities (F.E.C.) this type of trip is called a LEX, and it’ as culturally far from the norm as East Brook is from any major city. With each turn down another unmarked country road, you are taking another deviation from the cultural norms around work, leadership, and purpose. Officially a LEX, short for Labor Exchange, is a time based currency used between participating members of the F.E.C. through which community members can help their fellow communities, and expect equitable hourly return of help at their own community Yet, the culture of LEX goes far beyond any quantifiable market exchange, and unlocks a culture of radical generosity that questions cultural norms most people take for granted.
While driving down Country Highway 22, the first intersection I had to make a turn at was “Construction projects need clear blueprints in order to be productive.” It seemed obvious that would be a right turn, but I was wrong. On the first day of the build, the travel weary crew was introduced to a small warehouse of materials and an even smaller dilapidated barn, with the general guiding principle being, “The more of these new building materials that we can refurbish the old dilapidated barn with, the closer we will be housing more communards.” One week later 1,000 square feet of insulated flooring was installed, two new walls were built, two doors were installed, and the ceiling was made watertight with a glistening new roof, and yet I didn’t see a single blueprint drawn. Not even a back of the envelope sketch was made. This whole project was a streaming interplay of experimentation, action, teaching and rethinking.
The next crossing on the road was across the train of thinking that says “successful projects need leaders”, which I expected to be a mandatory stopping point, but instead we rolled right passed it. While gaining labor credits through LEX was a periphery benefit to some of the builders, the majority of us came with the intention to gain more confidence in our building skills. Keenan and Nina have decades more building experience than the rest of us, but I’d be surprise if an observer would have been able to discern this. Both of them held space for learning in the egoless way a graceful mentor let’s you flourish in the skills you already have while opening the door for you to lean into your learning edge. It wasn’t that we were leaderless, but more accurately it was that each of us lead ourselves to show up the responsibilities we could fearlessly accomplish.
Now that the previous turns had lead me to unfamiliar territory I knew to turn the other direction when I arrived at the assumption that “efficient productivity needs schedules”. One of the experiences of commune culture that has profoundly changed my life is the experience of abundant food, beauty and friendship without the sweaty palm anxiety of fiscal scarcity putting you a couple paychecks away from being homeless. This separation of work from pure fiscal survival, to making work a voluntary choice to celebrate ones gifts within their chosen commune family, is rarely more alive than at a LEX build. From 6 a.m. till 7:30 p.m. there was a steady stream of workers gracefully picking up the hammer where the last person left off. Slipping away for a nap or meandering down to the stream to get lost in the glistening water where so common that announcing you were taking a break felt unnecessarily formal. We all trusted that everyone was giving as much as they felt called to, and our love for each other dwarfed the importance of renovating a barn, so we skipped planning our day in the morning, and instead celebrated our accomplishments in the evening.
I knew I was close to my destination when I was faced with the assumption that “hot tubs are expensive indulgences for wealthy people” and I turned the other direction to arrive at East Brook. Communes tend to be wealthy in “resource yards”, sometimes called junk piles by other Americans, which are often stocked with a variety of metal tubs. These bulky containers are as hard to find a use for as they are to get rid of, so they tend to become vernal pools for mosquitoes. However a few of us had experience turning these treasures into fire heated hot tubs, lovingly referred to as Hippy Stew pots. With juvenile enthusiasm we tinkered and toiled until the old barn was outfitted with the makings of a hot tub. Granted it took a few kettles of water boiled in the kitchen to nudge the temperature up to the point of indulgence, but the sensation of winning at life was authentic.
Now that all my assumptions on people’s relationship with work had been inverted, I was hardly surprised when fish began raining from the sky. We were cautiously enjoying a hot afternoon, after a couple days of snow in late April left us suspicious of the order of the seasons, when an epic toil of prehistoric ferocity began in the sky above us. An osprey resolutely clutching a fresh fish catch from the adjacent brook was blindsided by an eagle that mistook the osprey for a food delivery service. The two toiled hundreds of feet above the ground, claws and feathers rolling through the sky in defiance of gravity, until the still squirming fish slid out from the talons and came plummeting towards us. With a crash it landed gasping for water on the metal roof. Maximus and Rachael swiftly collected, gutted and fried it. That night I ate flying fish, and when I tasted it, I realized that to be abundantly wealthy is to be grateful for all that I have already been given.
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.
By Caroline Midden
Greetings, Communards! It’s Caroline from The Midden in Columbus, OH, on a visitor period to Compersia in DC. I’ve been here 11 days, and have been participating in the labor system, exploring the city on foot and by car, wrangling children, and connecting with various other visitors– Sitali, Telos, Mary, and Beaux. Telos arrived a couple days ago, and he and I have been job searching, updating resumes, cooking, and just connecting in general. Yay!
When I first arrived, the house was nearly empty. Peaches, Courtney (and Telos) all went up to the HONK! Festival in Boston along with some other communards, Maximus Cambia and Paxus Twin Oaks. The children were staying elsewhere. Kathryn and her visiting mother Mary took a trip to Dolly Sods for a weekend adventure. GPaul was on a month-long trip to the west coast. I found myself nearly alone after having survived a particularly challenging yoga class, when Jenny emerged in the backyard in a snazzy dress and makeup. She had a date later in the evening, and so we decided to go out to dinner beforehand to talk about membership. I donned a dress and some glitter and we walked to Thip Khao, a Laotian restaurant. The verdict: DELICIOUS. En route we encountered these fantastical huge mushrooms.
While it was just me and Jenny in the house we got to have a couple really good conversations about patriarchy, alpha men and white male privilege in the communities movement, and the damaging and lasting effects that this stuff can have on women. Even when we try to dismantle these systems in an intentional way, we’re so indoctrinated by society that it’s easy to reproduce this shit in our communities without even realizing. Patriarchy isn’t a just a women’s problem, or just a men’s problem. It’s a multilayered system full of subtleties.
Top takeaways: as a woman you’ll often find yourself on the losing end of any proposition. You may not even realize there was a power dynamic until it’s too late. You may end up with more work to do, or you have have surrendered your self-determination into the hands of a man (who may or may not even want to be The Decider!) Don’t beat yourself up about it when you do finally realize. Take notice of how it went down, and look for early warning signs next time. Because there will always be a next time. Refine your ability to notice the nuance, inquire within about your own internalized patriarchy, and choose your actions carefully. There’s no one right way to subvert the patriarchy. Outright refusal to be complicit, gentle on-on-one conversations, banding together to build power together, dancing about it, smashing about it… Creativity counts.
But enough about patriarchy. How about cats?! There are 3 hammocks hanging in the back yard. (Twin Oaks hammocks, obviously.) One night I went out to hang and this lil fluffer joined me for some cuddles. I’m allergic, but really couldn’t resist. A nice moment of decompression after some deep emotional work.
Compersians often appear to be in to costumes from my perspective from under a cape, but I’m told that in fact, there’s a desire to increase costume time. Courtney has been rocking the Wookie costume for a couple days now. I’ve suggested they start an adult costume closet, so they can combine forces and always have ridiculous things to wear. Like Commie Clothes, but Commie Costumes.
Courtney and I had a couple substantial conversations during my time here, one in particular stood out, and included Telos and Kathryn. The conversation was about a phrase we have all heard said by a number of community members, “We want to be an ambitious commune.” At first blush, this struck a number of us oddly. Like, is this Ableism in action? Or is it some domineering work ethic, similar to the one white people imposed on black people in this country for centuries? Why would it be a good thing to be ambitious? Wasn’t Hitler ambitious? So we dug in a little more and expanded and modified the idea. What if it’s not the communards being individually ambitious, but the COMMUNE itself? If the community hones in on it’s ideals and dreams and pursues them relentlessly, can’t that be a good way to be ambitious? For the good of the whole, and not as a competitive individualistic pursuit? More people living communally is a good thing. Let’s pursue that together, with gusto. This is obviously a conversation that has a lot more room to evolve, but this conversation appeared to be a second draft of what it means to “be an ambitious commune.”
On Thursday night, Peaches came home from visiting family in Maine with new ideas for building a swinging bed from the rafters in the living room. (Not gonna happen.) On Friday, GPaul came home from a grand train adventure across the country. The children were clearly happy to have their jungle gym back. (Not pictured: Solomon and his awesome new mohawk.) There’s a new 20-foot shipping container for bike storage, and it’s full of bikes. Which is great! Except we lost the key. So that’s a thing… Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of antics and mayhem from this thriving young urban commune we call Compersia.
The Feminist Think Tank (FTT) group at Twin Oaks began in fall of 2015 in response to concerns about inter-community boundary-crossing issues. It’s gone through some changes since then and has recently re-formed. Originally, our process team was tasked with looking at the sexual assault and harassment response policy and organized a focus group meeting of women to help guide the process. This group continued to meet and ended up discussing all sorts of feminist issues at twin oaks, gradually inviting some gender-non-conforming folks and men to attend every other meeting. Over time, the group became more focused on events and activism in the community.
In our first year, we accomplished many things:
As with many regular meetings at Twin Oaks, the original group dwindled in attendance over time due to a variety of reasons (people leaving the community, scheduling conflicts, general attrition, interpersonal conflicts, political differences, etc) and so we decided to revamp the group this past fall 2016. The new incarnation of FTT now meets every two weeks and is open to anyone of any gender who:
Since re-forming the group, we’ve organized another two consent workshops prior to the 2017 New Year’s Eve party, designed and distributed fingerbooks about consent expectations for the New Year’s Eve party, had several folks participate in the Women’s March on Washington, and have continued to discuss our sexual assault and harassment response policy.
Ideas we have for the future include a consent tea party, consent fingerbook for Validation Day, increasing men’s support around the Women’s Gathering, more feminism 101 programming and educational opportunities, better bridging of issues between Twin Oaks and the outside world, doing more outside activism in order to gain connections and resources, re-inserting Twin Oaks into radical circles, dealing with the perception gap between how men and women see feminism at twin oaks, a feminist discussion group, and more. While Twin Oaks is certainly less sexist than mainstream society, we’re definitely “not utopia yet” and need to continuously strive to improve our culture at twin oaks and the world at large.
For interested women, it will happen again next year. Check out their website.