Thursday, April 17, 2014

Some Experiences with a Culture of Consent and Radical Inclusion

In the midst of the renewed coverage of sexual predators in religious and spiritual communities, I want to talk about what it's like to experience a culture of consent -- how a culture of consent can be about expansion rather than contraction, how it can embody radical love and radical inclusion.  

My starting point is a piece Christine Hoff Kraemer recently wrote at Patheos Pagan's Sermons from the Mound, "Erotic Ethics and Pagan Consent Culture."  I highly recommend it.  Go ahead and read it; I'll wait.

One of the things Christine talks about, among her many excellent points, is creating a culture of consent around non-sexual touch, and about how this can affirm the sacredness of touch between people:

Rather than focusing purely on sexual touch, let’s focus on touch in general. If we create a culture of consent around touch, and learn to treat touch as an opportunity for a sacramental moment between two people, we will have clear standards for what constitutes appropriate touch in all cases. Not only will it be easier to identify boundary-violating warning signs from potential predators, but well-meaning people will find it easier to offer and accept touch only when it’s wanted, not out of a sense of social obligation.

It was to this point in particular I responded in a conversation I was part of on social media, with Christine and some other friends of hers and mine.  I found myself sharing a little bit about my experience with consent culture in FLGBTQC (Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns).  Yvonne Aburrow, Christine's co-blogger and another friend and colleague of mine, asked me if I'd write a blog post about it.

I can share only about my own experience within FLGBTQC.  Other Friends' experience might be quite different, and the conclusions they draw from their experience might be different, as well.  

What is FLGBTQC?

Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns is a North American Quaker faith community that affirms that of God in all people. Gathering twice yearly for worship and play, we draw sustenance from each other and from the Spirit for our work and life in the world. We are learning that radical inclusion and radical love bring further light to Quaker testimony and life.  

Read more here:

I've been part of FLGBTQC since the early aughts.  It's in many ways a diverse community, in other ways a homogeneous one.  We're not perfect, but we do try to attend to each others' needs, particularly around safety.  So many of us come from, and spend time in, communities and places that aren't safe for us -- spiritually, yes, but also emotionally, psychologically, and even physically. 

For as long as I've participated in FLGBTQC, our Ministry and Counsel committee has given what we refer to as "The Boundaries Talk" at the start of each gathering, and repeated it at different times throughout.

The Boundaries Talk, is, among other things, a reminder to ask before touching people.  A reminder not to make assumptions about people's boundaries when it comes to physical touch, but to find out if something even as seemingly simple as a hug is okay.

It's a reminder that although we're joyful to be together and happy to see each other, different people have different boundaries around physical touch; that while many of us enjoy being touched or hugged (or kissed or cuddled or...), not everyone does, nor is it safe for all of us; that these things can change over time, even with the same people; and that we need to ask before touching other people, rather than assuming even an arm around their shoulders works for them.  That while it may have been wonderful for both of you that you  swept this person up in a bear hug the last time you saw them, it might not be okay this time.  That it's very easy, especially when some of us have known each other a long time, and especially in a community as exuberantly affectionate as ours, to forget that not everyone wants or can tolerate physical affection.  So, check first.

That's basically it: don't assume; check first, no matter how well you think you know it's all right; "No" is a perfectly acceptable answer.

By Lazy_Lightning ( [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Here are some cute cats cuddling after asking first. 
Photo By Lazy_Lightning ( [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I remember how for many years, The Boundaries Talk was this... icky necessity.  Many of us groaned.  Many times the member of M&C giving the talk groaned.  But it was helpful. 

But something started to shift over time.

At first I noticed how my perception of The Boundaries Talk and asking about touch changed.  Then I noticed that the feeling overall about The Boundaries Talk and asking about touch and consent seemed to be changing, too.

A number of things contributed to this shift.

One thing was in our conversations about gender-designated bathrooms and safety.  Transgender and genderqueer people spoke openly about what they need in order to have safe bathrooms.  Cisgender people who are members of other minorities spoke openly about what they need in order to have safe bathrooms.  Sexual assault survivors of different genders spoke openly about what they need in order to have safe bathrooms.  Many people in our community spoke about safety, boundaries, and their needs and experiences, not just with bathrooms, but in other circumstances, such as queer-focused Quaker space, and still more.

Because this larger conversation sprang from the initial question of gender-neutral and gender-designated bathrooms, this meant we really looked at some of our assumptions about what good boundaries and safety actually are.  This was a real gift.  I think we learned a lot as a community. 

I listened.  I learned.  I grew.  I changed. 

A second thing was a wider conversation, a wider opening, around accessibility overall: 

Bathrooms had become clear as an issue of the accessibility of our community for transgender and genderqueer people, something people within our community need in order to participate fully in our community.  Friends General Conference Gathering, which FLGBTQC participates in, became fragrance-free so as to be more accessible to people with fragrance and chemical sensitivities, and to a wider range of people with chronic illness.  FLGBTQC Mid-Winter Gathering also went fragrance-free.  We started to talk more about hidden disabilities, the kind you can't tell are there when you look at someone, about how those affect our ability to participate fully in our community and our events, about the things we as a community can do to increase accessibility.

People with chronic illness and chronic pain started speaking up more about how their ability to participate in and to tolerate different kinds of physical touch varies over time -- and how other people can't tell, so it's essential to ask.  Clasping someone's arms, or hugging them, or putting your arm around their shoulder, could cause them intense pain for the rest of the day, or prevent them from from carrying their own tray at dinner or from sleeping that night, or be a wonderful experience.  A kiss on the cheek might be lovely, or it might make someone really dizzy.

It became clear that asking about touch is an accessibility issue for many people with disabilities in our community.

Yet another thing was how people with different neurological issues started speaking up about touch and consent.  Some neuro-atypical people, including some people with autism, can't tolerate hugs; some just don't like them; some like them some of the time; some love them.  Some people with migraine love physical touch some of the time and can't tolerate it other times.  Someone's balance might be fine if you hug them one day, or one part of the day, but a hug might knock them over another time.

Again, it became clear that not automatically hugging or otherwise touching people makes the community more accessible for many of us, makes it more possible for more of us to participate fully in community.

To me, it seemed that consent was expanding our community life, not constricting it as so many of us had often assumed. 

People started living and modeling consent. 

The first time a dear F/friend with whom I've shared many hugs asked me, with an incredible grin, "I'd love to give you a hug; is that all right with you, or shall we do something else?," I was floored.  But it was actually super-helpful: my balance wasn't great that day, so I was able to tell her what I needed, and we were able to have a really lovely hug and I stayed upright on my feet.  It was awesome.  It was also a much better hug than it otherwise would have been. 

While our Gatherings might be fragrance-free, we often have to travel through fragranced spaces to get there.  "I'd love to hug you, but I had to use the fragranced soap at the rest stop, so I'm going to stand here and wave enthusiastically," another F/friend said to me once.  I waved and grinned and blew kisses back.  I felt loved.  They felt loved.  We were delighted to see each other.  I didn't get sick, and I didn't make anyone else sick later, either.  It was a wonderful, dear, tender experience. 

And yet another thing was how people who were simply not comfortable with obligatory social touch started saying things like, "No, thanks, I don't like hugs, but I'd love to blow you a kiss."  I can't tell you how much more warm and fuzzy I feel when someone and I can do this, instead of feeling all socially awkward and like I've just violated a boundary I didn't even know was there, or like I've made someone uncomfortable when all I wanted to do was tell them how glad I am to see them.  It's also been really nice for me not to have to hug someone I'm not comfortable hugging, and clasp their hand warmly and with affection, instead. 

There's been less Obligatory Social Touch, and more room for genuine warmth. 

Through this process, the possibilities for our exuberant affection within our community have expanded

It has become clearer and clearer that things like consent for non-sexual touch, and The Boundaries Talk, are things that help our community be more accessible for all of us, that help more of us participate fully in our community.  That checking in is an accessibility tool.

Somewhere in there, things like The Boundaries Talk and asking before touching -- consent -- stopped being about constriction, and instead became about expansion.

Expansion of accessibility.  

Expansion of our radical inclusion.

An expression of our radical inclusion.

It's a joyful way to be in community with each other.  I highly recommend it to others.


Some further reading:

Protecting Our Children, Protecting Ourselves

Respecting Others' Boundaries

Erotic Ethics and Pagan Consent Culture

Silence equals complicity: making Pagan groups safe for everyone

Community Statement on Religious Sexual Abuse

Whatever happened to the pagan community statement on religious sexual abuse?

Growing Faith in Blessed Community