Beyond Babylon: Communal Culture

by Raven Glomus

Someone joining a commune for the first time will quickly notice that income sharing communities have a somewhat different culture than mainstream society (which some people in the communes refer to as “Babylon”).  The differences are both more obvious and more subtle than you might expect.

One way that the differences are more subtle is that almost everything that we will explore and that stands out from mainstream society are beliefs and behavior that are only held by a minority of folks (although often a significant minority) in the communes and almost all of it can be found in mainstream society if you look hard enough.  

There is a lot of variety in the beliefs and behavior of the people living in the communes.  About the only thing that most folks have in common is a strong belief in sharing stuff.  (After all, that’s what income sharing communities are all about.)  However, there is also a very strong cultural norm of tolerance and even acceptance of these unusual beliefs and behaviors.  What makes it communal culture is not that the majority of folks in the communes believe or practice any of the following and, as I said, it’s not that you can’t find these things out in the mainstream, it’s that you won’t find the tolerance and acceptance of this stuff out in “Babylon” (this term is controversial in the communities) that you will in the communes.

 Let me start with sexuality and gender.  

I think that the majority of folks, in at least the bigger communes, are often heterosexual, cisgendered, and monogamous, as they are in the mainstream world.  And every variation that you can find in the communes, I’m sure that you can find in the mainstream.  But queer folks (gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, just plain queer, etc) and gender variant folks (trans men and women, nonbinary folks, genderfluid, etc) as well as polyamorous people are much more visible and accepted in the communes.  You will learn quickly at the communes to pay attention to people’s pronouns and you will see a variety of relationships if you pay any attention at all.  Differences are celebrated in community rather than put up with or sometimes actively disparaged as they often are outside the communes.  What is discouraged in the communes is any sort of slighting or elevation of one type over another.

Spirituality is in some ways very similar.  Probably the majority of folks in the communes identify as Christian, Jewish, or atheist/agnostic/skeptic/humanist as do most folks in the mainstream, although I suspect that there are less Christians and more atheist (etc) folks in the communes, and most of the Christians are probably from more tolerant denominations, like Quakers, Unitarians, UCC folks, and nondenominational, than the mainstream.  You will find very few fundamentalist folks in the communes–mostly because they are less accepting of differences.  Likewise, the Jews in the communes are often from what I call the three Rs (Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal) or secular Jews. It would probably be difficult to maintain an Orthodox Jewish identity in the communes. 

But beyond this there is a great variety of other beliefs including Pagan/Witch (popular in some of the communes), Buddhist, Taoist, Animist, Sufi, some types of Hinduism/Yogic practice, and general New Age.  Again, this isn’t the majority of folks in the larger communes, but it is generally accepted.  For example, Pagan rituals are often held on seasonal occasions and anyone who wants to can attend.  The community doesn’t sponsor these rituals (the communes are very clear that they don’t take any stand of individuals beliefs, except to support the tolerance and diversity of them) but they are open to them happening.

One thing that will become obvious to anyone who spends a good deal of time at any of the communes is that nudity is more acceptable at the communes than in mainstream society.  Not that any of the communes are anything like a nudist colony.  Most of the time folks are clothed in at least the amount that mainstream culture approves of (although some of the outfits are more unusual than you would normally see outside of the communes) but there are also occasions when folks are naked and this is generally accepted–for example, hot tubs and saunas.  Swimming in private places in the communes is almost always clothing optional.  (I heard someone talking about people using the term ‘skinny dipping’ and said, “At the commune, we just call it swimming.”)  At East Wind they have a recently built group shower that is used by various groupings and Twin Oaks has a ‘nudity policy’ that is four pages, single spaced, outlining where you can be naked (and when) and where you must be clothed, as well as where you can be topless–and any place that a man can walk around shirtless, a woman can walk around shirtless, and anywhere a woman is required to wear a shirt, men should also wear shirts.  (This is part of being an egalitarian community.)  And, again, there are many people in the communes that you will never see naked and that may even avoid areas where they know that nudity may occur.

And finally, there is a great variety of political views at the communes.  I would say that here the communes are in fact, a bit different overall than in “Babylon”, in that the communes definitely shade to the left.  That isn’t to say that there aren’t any centrists or even the occasional libertarian, but there are lots of liberals and progressives, as well as socialists, anarchists, communists, ecofeminists, and a large number of apolitical people.  What you won’t find in the communes are almost any right wing folks and few conservatives.  What the communes are intolerant of is intolerance.  Bigots are not welcome in the communes.

And that is the single biggest thing that creates communal culture.  We like our diversity of expression and even the most mainstream looking folks in the communes will defend it.

Beyond Babylon: Communal Culture

Polyamory and communal living

This is a detailed post that I wrote about the commonalities between being poly and living in a commune. It got a lot of responses.

Twenty-one comments and I found all of them interesting. Here they are, with some annotations from me thrown in. It starts with a back and forth between Zamin K Danty and Cara Ziegel, with Theresa and Rejoice jumping in:

Then, a bunch of comments from various folks about various aspects and connections between communes and poly (including Gil from Cambia):

Then Christina Anderson wrote a comment that I felt compelled to respond to:

Finally, a couple more comments, including a lengthy one from Rejoice:

Polyamory and communal living

“So you are a polyamorous community…”

by Paxus Calta-Star

In the late 1970’s the utility which would become Dominion Resources proposed to build four nuclear reactors less than 15 miles from Twin Oaks community.  The members of the community were upset with this decision and decided to host activists who were opposing the project.  An action camp was set up and protesters flooded in.


The tactics and positions of the protesters did not quite match that of the community and, long after the protesters left, locals, who viewed these protesters as representative of the community, were still upset with Twin Oaks.  The community, which values local relationships highly, decided that it would not do this again. We  officially adopted a position of neutrality on political issues in the future.  Twin Oaks as an entity does not take political stands.


The community also decided that we were an “embrace diversity” community.  As much as possible we do not tell members what to do (as long as it doesn’t impact other members).  For example, we do not tell members that they need to be vegetarian or that they have to home school their kids or that they have to stop smoking cigarettes or follow a particular spiritual path or avoid all spiritual paths, etc.

One of the places we are most clear is that we don’t tell people what to do with their love lives.  Which means we attract all manner of exotic romantic relationship models, including a number which obviously won’t fly.  And this falling in love business is dangerous on the best days.


One of my personal favorite types of relationships is open polyamory.  This is a form of open relationship that is the poly subset of relationship anarchy.  Relationship anarchy is the practice of forming relationships that are not bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree on.  This type of arrangement plays to the strengths of community.  It requires you to think about what you are doing and be intentional about the agreements you make with your partners.

And while this philosophy has been extremely important in my life, it is certainly not what all of my diverse community is doing.  The 90 plus adult members cover the spectrum of relationships models from quirky alone to poly to monogamous and back around towards celibacy.    Add to this that the community after many years of not being able to hold onto trans members actually has an important trans subculture now.

i have lots of trouble with this specifics of this graphic – but it is still useful.

Twin Oaks will turn 50 in five months.  We have not been the same way the whole time.  In the very early days we were coming off of the free love revolution, which swept the nation in the late 60s and 70s, and open relationships were common in the community.  When Hawina and i arrived almost 20 years ago now, there was a very small minority of poly people living here and the poly dinners often had more outsiders than members.  Currently my personal estimate is the majority of the community is involved in some form of open relationship, especially if we include things like party agreements.

Many Dances

So we are not a polyamorous community and that question is increasingly making less sense to ask.  Relationship models inside of highly intentional communities are often becoming more dynamic and less willing to be tacked down with labels.  And as with many things what is popular within the community changes with time.

Instead of asking the general question about what type of relationship model dominates the community, the perhaps more appropriate question is “Will I find love in Community?” And the answer to this is “definitely , maybe”.


“So you are a polyamorous community…”

Trust Fall

by Gil Cambia  (published simultaneously with Your Passport to Complaining)

Ask anyone what is the first association they have with the term “hippie commune” and you’ll get “free love.”  This term technically makes no sense, unless you assume that all love in Babylon is expensive and that Milton Friedman, bless his heart (or lack thereof), didn’t mean to say “no free lunch” but “no free love”. Either way, it begs the question of what is meant by that term and whether there is any truth in it. This article is somewhat of a personal account through the thorny rose garden of compersion[Compersion is the feeling of joy associated with seeing a loved one love another; contrasted with jealousy.]


Ever done a trust fall? You know–when you step up on a platform and fall back, against every bit of intuition which yells at you “We’re gonna die!” and “Don’t do it,” only to be caught by all of your friends. I’ve done it many times and guided many people through the process, as I’ve worked in the ropes course industry for many years. I still remember the look on this 11-year-old boy’s face after getting caught. His eyes sparkled with a combination of elation, disbelief, sheer love, and a little bit of residual tears of fear from the 5 minutes it took him to finally drop. What I saw in him was actually a new emotion, one that he didn’t expect to experience. It was more powerful than he had words for.

This is all nice and good, but there is something different that happens to parents when they watch their children try the trust fall. They don’t get to have the endorphins, adrenaline, and peer pressure. It just feels so scary to watch a loved one go through it, especially if you don’t get to be a catcher. I’ve had some parents tell me that they went through a more challenging ropes-course experience in watching their children participate than in participating themselves. Nonetheless, it can be a powerful growing experience even when it isn’t very enjoyable.

So my little family and I moved here to the Louisa communes and started a new one called Cambia, and we’re doing quite well, all things considered. Something you need to know about the Louisa communes, however, is that people are very polite. They don’t just assume that because you are a family you must be monogamous. In fact it might be rude to utter such Babylonian terms, so they ask you right away if you are polyamorous. And asking one spouse is also too presumptive, and one should really ask both in case one of them is poly and the other is still stuck in their ways.

This is all well and good. We, of course, do not believe in sexual possessiveness and felt mildly appreciated for that. So no, we didn’t get subsumed into orgies right away. People just wanted to know in the same way that they want to know one’s preferred pronoun. But the compersious challenge came right away when my son said he didn’t want me to be his primary and that other people are more fun to play with.  

Hmm… he’s right. I’m often preoccupied and am trying to do multiple things while watching him. What do I do? I try to be better and more fun but a part of me wants to tell other people in my community to not be so much fun. I don’t want him to start crying every time I tell him it’s my turn to watch him. It is so insulting. Does he not remember all of the reusable diapers I washed by hand with hand-pumped ice cold water in the rain? The answer is no, he doesn’t and he doesn’t need to remember. I wouldn’t want him to be polite and suffer through his time with me, pretending it’s the best thing since homemade flatbread. And just to add insult to injury, he sometimes calls other people “Daddy” and seems to not bother changing that mistake. Sometimes calls me by other people’s names too, but he never confuses me with the really fun people in his life.  

Good Gaia, he’s only 4, not 14. I’m not ready to be snubbed. Why is this happening??? I know why, and I know that it’s good. He is growing up with endless adult attention, people to play with and teach him things. On my end, however, not only do I feel inadequate as a parent, but I also feel like I must not want what’s best for my child but what’s best for my ego.


So guess what, I realize that there is no way to win his heart without offering mine completely. I try my best to play with him with full attention, with creativity, but without being contrived or fake. I just started taking more interest in him and in wanting him to enjoy the game I create for him. This effort turned out better for everyone involved. And if Milton Friedman was reading this paper he would attribute it to the breaking of monopoly that I had over him, and that the competition sparked improvement in quality. Ugh, maybe you’re right just this one time. In the big picture, though, Milton, you’re wrong. Competition also leads to reduction in quality and increase in the Kitsch factor. The pressure on me was to be a better dad and not a more attractive dad, because my motivation was not sales but connection.

Sorry about this economic digression. Let’s digress into anthropology instead:

It takes a village, right? There is one culture remaining that does not have a word for “father” and does not have a word to distinguish “mother” from “aunt”. This is one of the last matriarchal societies on this planet.


The Mosuo people of the southern Yunan province of China have been living in a matriarchal and matrilineal way for longer than recorded history (not fair; they had no written language so most of their existence is before recorded history). Every household has a matriarch whose mother, sisters, and brothers help with raising all of their children regardless of who birthed whom.

The Mosuo traditionally have no marriage. They practice something they call “walking marriage,” which is a secret connection between a man and a woman as the man is invited by the woman to her private room, which she gets when she turns 13 after her “flower ceremony,” where she has the liberty of inviting whomever she wishes to her space and they must leave by dawn.


This ritual functions to create a complete uncertainty of paternity. Every man knows who his nieces and nephews are, but not his children. This is far from perfect now. There are many Han (dominant culture) influences and their traditional ways of life are disappearing.

The important thing to realize about the Mosuo is that they have very low rates of violence, rape, murder, warfare, child abuse or abandonment in comparison to patriarchal tribal societies. Though difficult to document or verify, it appears that more sex and more sexual diversity is experienced by both genders. This last point should surprise us, shouldn’t it? When women are in charge, there is more sex and more diversity than when men are in charge?


As one anthropologist describes it: “In matriarchies, mothers are at the center of culture without ruling over other members of society,”  “The aim is not to have power over others and over nature, but to follow maternal values, ie. to nurture the natural, social and cultural life based on mutual respect.” From a reproductive perspective, it makes perfect sense. For the reproductive fitness of the female, it makes sense to have support in raising children. Unlike men, she cannot have hundreds of children through raping and pillaging, and restricting the reproduction of other men will not help her children in any way.

This is the reality of the bonobo and the naked mole-rat. They also have structurally determined paternity diffusion, and what’s the result?


Cuddle puddles! Unlike gorillas and chimps, bonobos do not fight invaders, steal their females, kill their young, play political games, or abandon their orphans. And yes, they have more sex than any other primate, and they are pretty undiscriminating about their sexual partners.

When a male does not know who is his child, and he figures that at least a few in the group are, he has an evolutionary pressure to care about the entire group, not just his own. Also, if he can’t stop a female from mating with others multiple times a day, it’s better for him just to join the fun than to try to control it.

So how did it go for me? How am I handling being in an open relationship? It wouldn’t be very interesting if I said that it was great, would it? It really wasn’t easy, though. Of course I love those who love my spouse, but it’s hard not to feel insecure. I’ll spare you the details that you may have read this far just to get to some juicy stuff.

Let me just say the following: it’s the greatest trust fall of all. Just when you think you are falling to your death, when it’s someone else’s time to spend the night with your partner, you get caught by both your partner, their new partner, and the entire support network of poly love warriors.  It’s an incredible feeling. Your intuition yells to you, “She doesn’t want you anymore!” and your partner smiles and reaffirms that she will always love you. You lay there in the hands of those who caught you and you think you must have fallen to your death and woken up in heaven, and the truth is you did.

When love loses restrictions, suddenly the love with a partner becomes a true rather than an obligatory expression. Suddenly your partner not only feels owned by you but actually appreciative for the effort and struggles you are willing to go through for his or her well being. What better way is there to show love?

To be honest, it isn’t instant nirvana. It takes a long time to overcome the internalized patriarchy completely. But luckily, the path is not pure suffering. There is a distinct experience of greater love and greater security.

The cultivation of compersion is that of true love. It’s about vulnerability, it’s about trust without control, it’s both letting yourself fall and getting caught by the soft loving hands of your friends, and about watching those you love get caught by others and not by you. Through this process you get nudged to become a better, more loving, and more lovable person (or so I hope.)

In a broader perspective of communal living, our movement is focused on creating wealth out of sharing, not out of possessing or overproducing. We have mastered it in shared land, housing, work, risk, costs, childcare, and many resources, but the most important aspect, the one that is also the least depleted by sharing with others, is love.  


Trust Fall