Boundaries and Consent
My apologies, friends, for not getting back to this much sooner. “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” of course. (wry smile) But it has recently been impressed upon me again that I need to finish this discussion. Given that we just had our last Poly Pool Party of the season, this may feel a little like closing the barn door after the horse is out. Nevertheless, I’m going to proceed under the sincere intention that this just-past party was NOT the last such party ever, and to address these issues for any future events at my home – or any similar events elsewhere.
So… the last time I wrote about this topic, I talked about the aspects of physical safety, around pools in general, and at the San Leandro Poly Pool Party in particular. (It would be great if you could go read that.) This time, I’d like to talk about boundaries and consent.
As you know if you’ve ever signed up to attend one of our Poly Pool Parties, we have a FAQ, and we ask you to read it before attending. Mostly, this has worked, and people who’ve attended our parties have felt welcome, comfortable, and have chosen to return. Occasionally, however, there have been issues. It appears to me that many of these issues stem from either not reading or not understanding the FAQ and the guidelines set out therein. I’d like to invite you to read the FAQ again, and I’ll explain a few things in greater detail, and then to cover some other information not directly covered in our FAQ.
First, I’d like to clarify the intent of this particular party. The Poly Pool Party is a SOCIAL EVENT which happens to be clothing optional. It is NOT a “sexy party.” Sex doesn’t happen at this party. It is not the expectation that people will “hook up” at the party, or after it (though what you do on your own time is your own business.)
Trust me when I say that this is not because we are anti-sex in any way. 🙂 We love sex. We even love sex at parties. We just don’t allow sex at THIS party. Historically, this was because we had minors — our own children at first, and then those of others — present at the event. Eventually, after some unpleasantness with the State, we changed those rules and stopped allowing minors after sundown/clothing optional. However, we retained the event as a whole as a non-sexual space, largely as a matter of comfort for the many new folks who have attended over the years. As a new person to the community, or to the concept of polyamory/open relationships, it can often be challenging enough to deal with the “clothing optional” atmosphere, without having to wonder if that couple in the corner is actually having sex (not to mention the hygiene and safer-sex implications!). There are other parties that allow sex and sexual activity at them. If that’s what you’re seeking, please go there instead (or maybe afterwards!). We want everyone to feel comfortable and happy, even if that means going to a different event. We promise we won’t love you any less for it. J
Consent and Consequences
One of the most important “rules” at this party is that of consent. This is set forth in a couple of different places, including the link to “Only Yes Means Yes,” and also in the section on Appropriate Behavior at the Poly Pool Party, in which we write that “not taking no for an answer” is a “hanging offense” aka forbidden. I’d like to clarify the intent of these statements here.
1) Consent is required. Always.
This goes for any kind of touching especially. The social nudity at this event tends to increase feelings of vulnerability, and to increase the perception of or intensity around interactions that might be considered sexually charged, or potentially so. Therefore it is even more important to obtain consent, even for touches that — were they in a dry and clothed environment — would not seem by our usual cultural standards to require consent (e.g, on the forearm or shoulder.) Consent also goes for suggestive or sexual conversation, not just touching.
2) If someone says no, then you are to stop that behavior at once, and not to resume it.
That said, it would probably be ok to clarify, if you’re not sure what they asked you to stop, or why. For instance, you might say “I just heard you ask me to remove my hand from your arm. Is that correct? Is there anything I need to know?” That would give them the opportunity to tell you, for example, that they’d injured that arm recently, and that it would be ok to touch the other hand. You might also add something like “Is that a temporary request, and if so, for how long?” In general, however, the safest thing to assume is that the request stands until the other person makes an explicit change, e.g., they reach out to take your hand, or they say something like “it’s ok for you to steady yourself on my arm, now.” Until and unless they do, don’t ask again, or you risk being — or at least being perceived as being — pushy, overly aggressive, and/or possibly a predator.
3) If you violate these rules, you may be asked to leave the party and/or to never attend again.
This is at my discretion and the discretion of other event hosts. It will be based, in part, on how quickly someone reports the incident (more about this below), the seriousness of the incident, and your response in the moment. Genuine empathy, apology, and contrition go a long way toward making things better. Stonewalling and justifications will likely make things worse and might lead to a permanent ban.
Consent in the Water
One of the things that’s tricky about our parties is the combination of the water and the social nudity. It makes it easy for people to accidentally bump into one another. A certain amount of this is understandable, and expected. The correct response if this happens is to apologize, and move a bit farther apart in the water. You won’t be asked to leave the party for the occasional accidental brush!
However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to seek consent, especially for longer touches. Reaching out to steady someone in the deep end can be helpful. We all know the noodles can be tippy! That said, leaving your hands on their arm or shoulder afterwards could be considered problematic if you didn’t already have consent to put them there. The appropriate response would be to withdraw your hand, and then ask for consent to touch them, e.g., “is it ok if I put my hand on your arm/shoulder/back?” That gives them the opportunity to actively consent to your touch. And don’t you want to know that they’re happy to have your touch, and not feeling uncomfortable?
Consent Includes Observers
Consent interacts with the first section in this post, in that if you are at the Poly Pool Party and are engaging in sexual activity with someone in the pool (which is explicitly against the party rules), then you are violating the boundaries of all the other people in the pool. This is because you effectively make them non-consensual voyeurs to your sexual activity. And by violating their boundaries, even passively, you may contribute to their discomfort, make them feel unwelcome, or otherwise drive them away. Please don’t do that! If you find your friendly smooches and backrubs turning into something more obviously sexual, we ask you to please find another location for your amorous activities, or step it back to the point that you wouldn’t be uncomfortable with a child, or your parents, observing your activities.
(By the way, this also includes the massage room/s. Massages at these events are intended to be therapeutic, not sexual. Please honor the intent of the party by holding to these boundaries, even in the massage room.)
One of the things I was particularly disturbed by was a recent report that not only was a particular man uncomfortably sexual with a woman he’d just met at one of the parties this summer, but he then went on to harass her via phone calls, often multiple times in a night, between the hours of 11pm and 2am. (She eventually blocked his numbers.) It should go without saying that this is completely inappropriate behavior. It should, but apparently doesn’t. So let me make this perfectly clear:
“Not taking no for an answer” is a “hanging offense,” and you may be asked to leave the party and/or to never return should you do so.
In the example above, the behavior at the party was questionable, but the behavior after the party was clearly in violation of the rules. Since it stems directly from the party itself — he met her at the PPP — I consider this to be a clear violation of the standards of conduct at the party. I’m not interested in having such a person at the event in the future.
Please note that I’m not inviting people to try to get others banned based on reports of things that happen/ed only outside of this event. I’m not interested in making pronouncements based only on hearsay, for instance, and we as hosts are ultimately only responsible for things that happen here, during the party. However, I do want to encourage a certain standard of positive and ethical behavior, not only at my events, but also in the community as a whole. Therefore, I will most certainly consider information like this example above, in making any determinations about the future welcome of anyone who violates our party rules.
Communication of Boundary Violations
This also brings up the fact that it is extremely difficult to do anything about boundary violations if we don’t know about them in the moment. It’s a tough dance, because in many cases, it’s hard to realize what’s happening right in the moment. Sometimes you know you feel uncomfortable, but not exactly why, till some time afterward. (It can take hours, days, or longer, sometimes. I know this from personal experience, as well as observation.)
Also, sometimes it’s hard to speak about it, even if you know what’s gone wrong. It can feel dangerous in a number of ways — e.g., what if the hosts decide you were the one at fault? Or what if the person who violated the boundaries might then carry out retribution, if they know you reported them? There are other reasons — many — why it might be difficult to speak up in the moment. I don’t wish to minimize that it might be difficult to do. That said, we do try to make it as easy as possible from our end. That’s why we’ve got the glowing headbands on, after all: so you can find us easily in the dark!
It just makes our job as hosts a lot harder if the situation isn’t reported during the party. Therefore I want to thank those who have actually spoken up before party’s end a couple of times this year; it made it much easier to have conversations and begin the process of clarifying what happened, and to create greater emotional safety for all, through swift and clear action.
To summarize: 1) When possible, please do talk to us in the moment; and 2) Yes, please do talk to us, even if it’s after the fact. If it’s at all possible to do, talking to us in the moment is much preferable, in part because it may help prevent others from experiencing the same issues in the future. But we still want to know if there’s something that happened in the past. There just may be less that we can realistically do about it. That doesn’t mean we won’t listen, or won’t try to assist you, though.
Again, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of a very complex issue in this post. There’s a whole section I would still like to write about some differing cultural expectations, and how perceptual and communication differences can fuel disconnects around safety and consent. I’ll hold the intent to get to that sooner than a couple of months from now! In the meantime, you might find this tangentially related conversation about Consent Culture (Original post also here) — and this awesome cartoon — to be interesting and informative.
Thanks to anyone who has managed to get to the end of this post. And thank you to everyone who has attended our Poly Pool Parties at any time in the 17 years (so far!) that we’ve been hosting them. I’m glad to have been able to contribute to the fun and connection between so many people over the years, and I hope to continue to be able to do so into the future.
May you always love boldly, safely, and well. J
PS: Are you interested in writing your own boundaries, or talking about agreements with other partners? If so check out my KISSable Agreements Workbook, or contact me to set up an introductory session (30 minutes for free, or 60 minutes for half price.) I’d be happy to help you make all YOUR agreements “KISSable”! 🙂
©2014, Dawn M. Davidson