Who am I to explain consent to you? I'm very square, married, living in the suburbs with my hardworking husband and an irritating cat. But about once a month, roughly 60 people show up to our house for an all-night orgy.
We have established a strong consent culture for these parties, to keep our guests safe and happy. Not surprisingly, (to us) our clear consent rules have resulted in lots of happy sex that nobody feels bad about.
In light of the recent conversations I've seen about the Brock Turner trial, I now realize that most people do not fully understand consent. Almost every comment I have seen, whether in support or in anger towards Brock Turner, shows an alarming amount of ignorance about how consent works. I believe our community's values may be helpful to others who are struggling to understand the consent violation that is core to this trial:
"Consent is always conditional on participants' ability to revoke their consent."
You might be familiar with safe words, thanks to the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey and the nascent acceptance of BDSM it inspired. (Or because you're OG kinky.) If you're not familiar, a safe word is just a word that all participants know ahead of time, and it means "stop immediately."
The most common is the traffic light system, where saying the word "green" means go, "yellow" means yield (this is good, but no more) and "red" means stop immediately. People use all three because it is common to check in with your partner and ask them for a quick update, like "How are you? Are these ropes too tight?"
There is a reason BDSM uses safe words instead of just "stop." The word "stop" can get confusing. Maybe you're roleplaying and your character says "stop" a lot, but you are actually having a great time and want your partner to continue. In consensual BDSM, your partner knows that it's okay to keep going because A.) you discussed your wishes and limits ahead of time together, and B.) if one person really wanted the other to stop, they would use the safe word.
That might sound really weird to you, but it probably makes sense. So it should follow that it would be very, very bad if suddenly, you could no longer use your safe word. If you were gagged without your permission and unable to say your safe word aloud, or if you used your safe word and your partner(s) did not stop, that would be rape.
Even if you previously granted consent, if you lose the ability to revoke that consent, from that moment on, there is no consent. And if someone takes that control over your consent from you, or ignores that you have lost your control over your consent, that is rape. You must be in control of, and able to revoke, your consent at all times for that consent to remain valid.
Q: So how can being gagged be consensual?
A: Great question. There are plenty of non-verbal alternatives to safe words that can be agreed upon in advance. Read this.
Q: What happens if someone passes out or has a silent seizure and their partner didn't immediately realize?
A: Another great question. Stop immediately once you realize, and seek immediate help for your partner.
You must be in control of, and able to revoke, your consent at all times for that consent to remain valid. Everyone is asking the wrong question: "If the woman doesn't remember that evening, how do we know whether or not she consented to sex?" We'll never know the answer to that question, but the answer to that question doesn't actually matter. What matters is that she lost the ability to revoke consent. Even if she'd previously granted consent, if she lost the ability to revoke that consent, from that moment on, there was no consent.
Consent is not something you give and lose. Consent is something that you remain in control of, with the ability to revoke, otherwise you cannot continue to give it.
Turner's defense is that he didn't realize she had lost this control of her consent. This is where the rest of our consent rules come into play, to prevent exactly that scenario. Everyone attending our parties must arrive in time to hear the following "consent speech." I'm taking some risk to say any of this publicly, but I wanted to empower anyone reading this with answers to some of the complex questions that have come up around the Brock Turner trial, because this conversation is probably the longest our culture has ever discussed consent at all.
Only act on enthusiastic consent: "Yes!" not "Maybe..."
Consent is binary. You have enthusiastic consent or you do not have consent.
Enthusiastic consent is the most important concept in our community. Sometimes people say "sure" and they don't really mean it. (Which is why we use this instead of "yes means yes.") Unless you are certain that someone truly wants you to do that kinky thing to them, don't do that kinky thing to them.
Pro tip: If you want to be really, really sure someone is enthusiastically consenting, ask them to say yes a few times before you do that kinky thing to them. Make them beg for you to do that kinky thing to them. Consent for the win!
You can revoke consent at any time if you change your mind.
Consent is always conditional on participant's ability to revoke their consent.
We always remind people that they have the power and the right to revoke consent if they change their mind. I've had people spend 20 minutes tying me up only for me to get nervous up at the last minute and say, "Actually I changed my mind, I don't really want to do this." Of course that's mildly irritating for the person who was really excited about tying me up. But consent takes precedence over all other aspects, including their mild irritation.
Don't be afraid to say "no" if that's what you want to say.
Practice saying "no, thank you." Say it out loud right now. If you find yourself caught off-guard by a request and are not sure what to say, arm yourself with that response.
If you hear "no," don't ask multiple times, and don't ask for an explanation.
Be respectful when saying "no;" be respectful when hearing "no."
Sometimes, we have people at our party who have never been to a sex party before. In my experience, these people are least likely to feel comfortable saying "no." There is a natural impulse to not be rude, to stay friendly, to be cool, and very few people are innately comfortable saying "no." That's why I encourage people to actually practice saying it out loud before they attend their first party.
Without the confidence to say no, many people giggle nervously or wiggle away, hoping that the person pressuring them will get the hint. They may not understand the hint. But they will absolutely understand a polite but firm "no."
Consent Before Anything
Consent is required before touching.
i.e: "Is it okay if I put my hand on your shoulder?"
Obviously, asking permission to touch a shoulder is a little pedantic. But most people are not usually fully nude in a room full of strangers at a sex party. That is a heightened sensory experience, so we foster a more strict etiquette than, say, a bar.
Consent for One Activity Is Not Consent for Another
Even if someone said "yes!" last time, you must explicitly ask for their consent again before touching this time.
You must always ask before touching someone, and continue to ask if you are touching new parts of them. i.e. "Is it okay if I move my hand down here?"
This is what I have found to be the most misunderstood element of consent. Even the exceptionally spot-on Tea and Consent video does not include the second bullet. Consent for one activity (i.e. drinking earl grey tea) does not mean you also have consented to another activity (i.e. drinking english breakfast tea with milk and honey.) "Consenting to sex" is not some catchall for having suddenly consented to every imaginable type of sexual activity, and losing control over your limits.
You should always ask your partner for explicit consent before beginning a new activity ("May i touch you here?" or "want to try something new tonight? I'd like to try this") The idea that once you say "yes" to "the sex," you are deprived of any further control over your body and limits is deeply wrong.
An Exercise in Consent
Turn to the person next to you.
Ask them if you can touch their shoulder, and wait for their response.
It feels weird the first few times to ask this question, but becomes comfortable very quickly.
Now ask if you can do something else, and wait for their response.
It already feels more natural, doesn't it?
This exercise ensures that everyone actually has some experience, however limited, requesting consent. Because unfortunately, this 20 second exercise is more than we teach most of our children about consent. This also usually gets people to start giggling and talking to each other, and is a nice segue from the seriousness of our consent conversation into the party that's about to begin.
Drinking & Substances
Too much to drink or too out of sorts? If you cannot give or perceive consent, it's too much.
If the hosts think you've reached this point, we will pull you aside quietly and ask you to head home (in a cab, not driving.) You're not in trouble; we're keeping you safe.
Everyone can have a little too much on accident. However, if this becomes a regular problem, you might not be invited back.
Like frat parties, sex parties are often a place where people are anxious to fit in, and feel pressured to get laid. As hosts, we do everything we can to alleviate that pressure. We constantly reiterate that these are regular events, and you will not "miss your chance" if your dreams don't come true that night. We describe our parties as a high possibility, low expectation place.
Our parties are BYOB and we encourage people stick to wine and beer rather than hard alcohol. We lead by example and do not get drunk at our parties. And we do not make empty threats. We have had to politely ask people to leave parties when they were too drunk. In case it ever becomes not polite, we hire security to ensure that people who have had too much are removed. (To date, no one has had to be asked more than once politely, and this has only happened twice.)
STDs / STIs
If you have an STI, disclose this to your play partners before having sex.
No one will judge you here. You are among people who understand. But please keep us safe.
This is to ensure that people fully understand the level of risk they are consenting to. I would love to test drive a Tesla. I would not want to test drive a Tesla with bedbugs. If I test drove the Tesla and found out a few weeks later that it had bedbugs and that's why I now also have bedbugs, I would be upset. Without that information, I would not have been fully in control of the amount of risk to which I had consented. If the Tesla knew about her bedbugs and purposefully did not tell me, my consent would have been violated, and I would be livid.
"Consenting to sex" is not some catchall for having suddenly consented to every imaginable type of sexual activity and losing control over your limits. Obviously, the ability to disclose that information hinges on knowledge that you have an STI, which is why we also encourage our community to get tested very frequently. If you do have an STI, make sure that you have practiced what to tell potential partners ahead of time, and you know exactly when to say it, which is before your potential partner has taken risk they were not aware of.
If you have read all of this, thank you for your time and I would like to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to use what I have posted here for your own party, for a conversation with your son or daughter, or for your Facebook wall.
Need help? In the U.S., call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.
About Kate H.
Kate is the founder and CEO of Organ House, which is a Bay Area community devoted to normalizing non-monogamy and sexual exploration. Organ House organizes public & private events, creating safe spaces for the growing non-monogamous community to engage, party & meet. They pride themselves on a strong culture of consent that is making headlines.