When I was invited to participate in a private online conversation about integrity in an open-sexuality community, I was a bit dubious. It’s a charged topic, and I strongly believe healing, connection and insight require a more direct, in-person approach. Online interactions often create more misunderstanding, not less. After mulling it over, though, I decided that it might serve to clarify what issues exist, and to explore some framework for working with them. Perhaps it will start a conversation that leads to more trust. However, I’m convinced that the best recipe for resolution is face to face interactions, not online discussion.
As I consider the several allegations of sexual integrity “issues” I’m aware of in this community, it strikes me that there are three aspects: the personal, the interpersonal, and the communal. I’ll avoid digressing into how I think those aspects are related and interact with each other, and just jump ahead to where I think we’re kind of stuck. Sometimes people engage in behavior that causes antagonisms they are unable or unwilling to resolve, which then start affecting the community at large. Those unwelcome behaviors fall in a gap where there is no agreed upon way of dealing with them. They aren’t literally criminal, which would provide a well-defined (and public) legal framework in which to pursue justice. But they are serious enough to create intense personal trauma and damaged relationships.
In a way, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that sexuality is a predominant theme. Not to belabor the obvious, sexuality is deeply connected to many other aspects of our selves, and this community is largely defined by its non-mainstream approach to sexuality. People are experimenting with and practicing various forms of open relationship, and kink, or are involved in sex work, and so on. On the positive side, that creates an opportunity for acceptance and growth; on the negative side, a haven for unhealthy behaviors – exploitation, narcissism and addiction. But let’s not go down the rabbit hole of trying to label behaviors! People have very different interpretations of what is acceptable and what is not; different definitions of “sexual integrity.” It’s enough to note that there is a good deal of ambiguity.
The combination of ambiguity around sexual mores and the lack of structure for dealing with intense interpersonal conflict results in the problematic situations which occur. There is the strong likelihood of both misunderstandings and outright abuse. Without resolution, that can have an ongoing, profoundly negative impact on the individuals involved, as well as the entire community.
There seems to be an insidious meme: that one’s personal sexual gratification trumps all other considerations – including considerations of relational integrity and respect. Particularly problematic in this regard is that people with higher social status can and do engage in egregious abuses of their power with impunity. Why? Because they can. Power needs no justification. I question whether they would willingly subordinate their personal sexual gratification to considerations of integrity and respect. I question whether addressing lapses in sexual integrity is an arena in which to expect leadership from leaders who may be compromised themselves.
In any case, there is a potential social cost to confrontation. A community member may disapprove an objectionable behavior, but still very much value the benefits of being on friendly terms with the abuser. Alienating them by taking a principled position might mean being shut out of some really fun events, or excluded from an important social circle. It’s pretty sure to cause friction. Also, as long as things simmer beneath the surface, it may seem that everyone else is okay with the behavior, so… it must not be that bad, right?
The ability to take advantage of that ethical ambiguity depends on a lack of transparency. As mentioned previously, sexuality is intertwined with many other parts of the psyche, including wounds like fear of rejection, vulnerability, belonging, guilt and shame. Understandably, there is a reluctance to expose those wounds. However, concealing them has the nasty side effect of enabling the perpetrator to continue their behavior, and of course prevents resolution. If you sweep something under the rug that’s where it stays.
It’s inevitable that people will talk, and people will take sides. What happened, and how people feel about it, will leak out, will spread like a virus. The competing narratives are injected into the “gossip channel,” the flow of whispered confidences that, while not exactly public, are nonetheless widely known. There they create distrust and schisms, or simply alienation and ostracization. Not good!
Sunshine is the best disinfectant. And while I do value introspection and dialog, there are times when it’s impossible to avoid some kind of community process – and some public acknowledgement of what exactly happened and how it is being dealt with. I suspect that just the existence of some structure of justice and reconciliation would serve to prevent abuse, since potential abusers might rethink their course of action if they thought they could be called to account. But isn’t seeking a shared understanding of the truth a legitimate and laudable endeavor in its own right?