Sex at the intersection of “fail fast” and #metoo: Consent culture in Silicon Valley

I was invited to present a keynote about the future of human sexuality at this year’s Digital Freedom Festival in Riga, Latvia. Thank you *so* much to the wonderful Kristine Vilnite and to powerhouse Dagnija Lejiņa for helping create such a wonderful space for cultural exploration. Video and text below:


Hi everyone, my name is Kate. I run a grassroots community organization called Organ House. Our mission is to normalize non-monogamy and sexual exploration. I think you’re all old enough to know what I mean by sexual exploration, but I’ll briefly talk about what the term non-monogamy means to us.

What is non monogamy:

The idea behind non-monogamy is that you and your partners are consenting adults and you can design whatever kind of relationship works for you.

Non-monogamy is an umbrella term for any relationship structure that is not limited to two concurrent partners. Some wonderful person on the internet has made this chart, so you can see exactly how many variations of non-monogamous relationship structures there are. And of course, these are just the most common ones — really, the idea behind non-monogamy is that you and your partners are consenting adults and you can design whatever kind of relationship works for you. You can reject the template handed to you, and make your own.

A chaotic map of overlapping definitions of non-monogamy
Map of Non-Monogamy by Franklin Veaux

If you look closely, you’ll see “cheating” on this chart. It’s true that this is a form of non-monogamy, but this is not what our organization is about. We advocate for ethical non-monogamy. Honesty and communication are the heart of ethical non-monogamy.

There are many different subcultures within non-monogamy.  Some people, like myself, identify as polyamorous, or “open,” or “monogamish.” Single people who have sex or emotional relationships with multiple partners are also non-monogamous, so we’re probably all been a little non-monogamous in our younger years. Organ House exists to provide support and resources for this community. And it’s a big community with 1,400 members in the San Francisco Bay area.

How?

So how do we actually do this? Well, we host a few dozen events a year for our members. We have mixers and meetups, but we also throw large private events once a month and these private events are giant sex parties — about 200 people per event show up and spend all night partying, having sex openly, and mingling around a top notch cheese platter.

It is exactly as awesome and cool as it sounds.

The most beautiful cheese platter ever, in our humble opinion.
Actually a cheese platter from an Organ House event!

These events are important for people. For some folks, a few hours a month is the only time they have to truly be themselves. We teach people about consent and safe sex, and we provide supplies to make sure that you’re experimenting safely and responsibly. So these events are a about a lot more than sex. They are really about self-discovery, community, and education.

Silicon Valley & “fail fast”

There are a few reasons that an organization like ours started in San Francisco: The bay has a rich history of acceptance of non-traditional gender and kink identities and relationship structures. Many people move here specifically because they also want to be accepted for their own orientation. This environment was the perfect incubator for non-monogamy to become more socially accepted and public.

We got to Silicon Valley and saw an environment where businesses could try crazy things, questions norms, and fail fast. We’re creating this environment for relationships and sex.

But something else is going on, too. The same culture of experimentation and “failing fast” that is driving tech success is driving social evolution, too. You’ve heard of agile and sprints and you’ve probably heard of design thinking and maybe human -centered design — these are all different flavors of feedback loops.

People in silicon valley are fanatically devoted to one or another of these rituals  — “Test, Learn, Experiment” or “Sprint, Review, Plan…” but it doesn’t really matter so much which steps you go to, what matters is that you are reducing the time from hypothesis to information and gaining incremental real knowledge. That way if your hypothesis turns out to be false, you know that sooner rather than later and don’t invest too many resources on incorrect assumptions.

Failing fast requires a bias to action, a healthy disrespect for authority, and a curiosity to question everything you think you know. When people are incentivized — monetarily and socially — to question the norm, they question everything. They question things that the rest of us may not think about very much, like the gender binary, and traditional marriage.

We got to Silicon Valley and saw an environment where businesses could try crazy things, questions norms, and fail fast. We’re creating this environment for relationships and sex. And we foster community to support each other so that we don’t all have to do this on our own. We can learn from each other’s mistakes, we can provide advice that you can’t get anywhere else, and we can enrich those feedback loops to make designing your relationships easier. Our members often describe each other as their “chosen family” to emphasize how much that community support means to them.

#MeToo

At the same time that the SF tech scene is fostering a safe environment for this exploration of non-monogamy, something else was going on. The topic of sexual assault reached a tipping point in American culture with the #metoo movement.

What was so important about #metoo is that it identified sexual assault — not just what we think of as “rape” — as a problem, and in fact as an epidemic in America.

This issue was particularly top-of-mind IN silicon valley. You may have heard of the Brock Turner trial. Turner was a Stanford University student who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. This hit the bay particularly hard because Stanford is the pride of Silicon Valley’s — that’s where our most brilliant researchers and engineers are trained. It’s a feeder school for nearly every large tech company in the bay. Turner was convicted but only served 3 months in jail, which led to public outcry from both survivors of sexual assault as well as activists who pointed out that had Turner not been white, he would be statistically far more likely to have served the full sentence of 14 years behind bars.

There were also accusations made against 500 startups founder Dave McClure, who confirmed the allegations of harassment and resigned. Seeing an accusation actually result in consequences for the first time, many women started coming forward with their own stories that they had previously kept hidden. A few months later in October of 2017, the New York Times published a story about famed American filmmaker Harvey Weinstein sexually harassing women for decades. The explosive exposé about Weinstein catalyzed women in the entertainment industry to share their own stories publicly. Actress Alyssa Milano called on women who had experienced sexually harassed or assaulted to publicly post “me too,” which became the tipping point for the movement.

What was so important about #metoo is that it identified sexual assault — not just what we think of as “rape” — as a problem, and in fact as an epidemic in America.

Meanwhile, back at the sex party…

While this is going on around us, we’re hosting monthly sex parties where everyone agrees on the rules of engagement, and people are enthusiastically asking each other “can I have a hug?” before even giving their friends a hug. We were navigating sex and consent better than the rest of the silicon valley culture, and the american culture, around us.

How is this possible?

Consent culture, or lack thereof

This is a room full of very smart, well-educated, good people. And we don’t agree on what consent is. This is a problem.

When I was in my early twenties and seeking out safe spaces to explore non-monogamy, I didn’t always actually feel safe in those spaces. The policy for consent at these kinds of events used to be “the golden rule,” or “do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.” That is really terrible advice when there is an expectation of sex. Let’s say that there is something you are very excited about others “doing unto you” — if you do that to someone else, and that was not their expectation, or was not welcome, that is a big problem.

Without a formal consent policy, people are left to interpret what “consent” means. So we’re all smart people, I’m sure we all completely understand consent. So I’m going to ask you guys some questions, and I want you to raise your hand if you believe the answer to these questions is “yes.”

  • Is consent a verbal “yes” before sex?
  • Is one “yes” enough?
  • Does consent happen before sex?
  • Does consent happen before kissing?
  • Can consent be nonverbal?
  • Can someone revoke their consent if they change their mind?
  • Can someone consent if they are drunk?
  • But can someone consent if they’ve only had a little alcohol?
  • Does consent require a written agreement?
  • But should you sign a form before you have surgery at a hospital to show you have given informed consent for the surgery?
  • Is it possible for someone under the age of 18 to consent at all?
  • Can consent be assigned to another person — like, can say that you consent to something?
  • But can a parent consent to medical decisions for their child?

This is a room full of very smart, well-educated, good people. And we don’t agree on what consent is. This is a problem.

3 years ago, we set out to solve that unmet need. In order to fix this we needed to identify what consent is to keep our sex-positive space safe. And we needed to get it right. We needed everyone in the room to agree, in all scenarios, on what consent actually is. What are the elemental truths of consent that ring true in every situation?

Here’s what we came up with.

Consent is binary. You have enthusiastic consent or you do not have consent.

Those are your only two options.

Enthusiastic consent looks like a “yes!” with an exclamation mark at the end. And you don’t have to say it like, “yes!” Enthusiastic consent just means that you’re saying, affirmatively, yes, I do want to have this experience with you; yes, I am willing to take this step with you.

If any response is not a very clear and very enthusiastic “yes!” you have to interpret that response as a no, because that’s the only other option.

Don’t be afraid to say “no, thank you.”

It’s not rude; in fact, I actually think it’s respectful to just be really clear and honest about what you’re looking for, and what you’re not.

I tell people if they have never been to an event like ours before to actually practice saying the words “no, thank you” out loud ahead of time. I know that sounds a little silly, but that’s been helpful for a lot of people because it builds up muscle memory for that response. So that, when someone walks up to you and says “hey do you want to do this kinky thing with me?” You don’t freeze, because you’ve armed yourself with that response.

Because in that moment, 50 thousand neurons might fire in your brain — you might be thinking, “Oh! I do want to try that! That sounds really exciting… but I haven’t had that conversation with my partner yet.” Or maybe you’re thinking, “I… I think so… that’s really intriguing and I’d like to give that a try, but I told myself I wasn’t going to do that tonight. I told myself I was going to take is easy tonight.”

You don’t have to verbalize all of the thoughts flying through your head in that moment. All you have to do is say, “no.”

Try to be polite when saying no; be polite when hearing no. Don’t ask somebody multiple times. They’ve said no. They only have to say it once. And don’t ask someone for an explanation. Nobody owes an explanation for why they said “no.”

You may revoke consent at any time if you change your mind.

All you have to do is say “Hey, let’s stop. I don’t want to do this anymore.” That’s fine.

Please don’t be offended if someone revokes their consent from you. This actually happens quite a lot at our parties, because we are purposefully cultivating a safe environment where people can come and test their boundaries. And it turns out when you test your boundaries, sometimes you find them, and you have to take a step back.

Always ask before touching anybody, anywhere.

Even if you’re just touching them on the shoulder to get their attention, try to get their attention verbally first.

I know that this sounds pedantic, but for some of us, being naked in a room full of strangers at a sex party is, like, a normal Tuesday. And for others of us, this is a very heightened sensory experience, where even a touch on the shoulder can feel more forward than it was intended.

Everyone should feel in complete control of when, where, and if they are touched at all times.

And to make sure that everyone at my events feels that safe, I’ve just trained people. Always ask people before touching them anywhere.

What this changed

That’s it. That’s our consent culture. We think it’s pretty simple. So what was so different about this?

For one, these policies are appropriate for all ages. Previously, a common mantra for consent in the bay was “nothing less than a fuck yes.” You can’t teach that to a child. So when does the message about consent change? When they are 18? When they are 17? We needed a consistent message of consent that could be taught to people at any age and remain true.

This is also a higher standard of consent than “yes means yes.” Because it’s not just enough to have someone say the word yes. You need to believe in good faith that they meant yes, too.

It’s a message of autonomy and empowerment that Americans, especially women, don’t have any other cultural archetype to understand. And this message of consent and autonomy is as applicable to a doctor’s office or a yoga studio it is to sex.

So now that we had this all figured out, how did we socialize it?

How did we get an entire community onboard with this idea?

A few years ago I read a fascinating essay from a former police officer. He proposes that “On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.” I don’t know that there’s necessarily a scientific basis for this but this theory originated with a seasoned chief of police so I’m going to trust his experience.

The essay is about police interactions with black men in the united states, but I immediately wondered how this impacted events and spaces like ours. If this was true in our community, would it be possible for us to simply remove the 15% of people who will always bend the rules, and make sure that the neutral 70% are always swayed toward doing the right thing — in this case, interacting with others in a consensual and respectful way?

Could we sway that remaining 70% by simply priming people about how  we expected them to behave? And I believe the answer is yes.

Our consent culture is the first thing my members will tell you about our organization. It is part of the shared belief system that ties our members together and makes us better than the sum of our parts.

We wrote these down, we codified them, and we started making every new member join on orientation where we told them that these are our policies. We primed people for how they were expected to behave. And it worked.

Our consent culture is the first thing my members will tell you about our organization. It is part of the shared belief system that ties our members together and makes us better than the sum of our parts. I would go so far as to call this our faith. And our members have brought these beliefs to places far beyond the San Francisco bay area — we have members creating their own community all over California and all the way in Melbourne, Australia.

When I first started doing these calls, people had lots of questions. The call might take up to 45 minutes and I’d answer about 10 questions each time. But as we continued, people were coming into the call more familiar with these concepts. And other organizers were asking us to share our document, which we share freely — it’s on our website if anyone here needs it — so that this message was reaching even more people in our community.

One day early this year, I was on one of these calls. I got ot the end of our policies and I asked if anyone had any questions. A young woman said, “no, that all sounds prettymuch standard.” And that’s when I felt that we had also passed the tipping point, that policies we’d written only a few years before had become standard in our bay area community.

At the intersection of fail fast and #me too, we pioneered a consent culture that our members celebrate and advocate.

We did this by codifying a consent policy that held up to scrutiny in many different scenarios. We repeat this policy over and over at each of our events, and train our people on how to behave and interact with each other respectfully and responsibly.

Now, we’re working on replicating and scaling this to help other communities,  institutions, and cities solve this problem. Please reach out if this is something your organization or community needs.

Thank you!