Hold these rocks and look out for the Piranha

Contrasting communities can be useful, because observing the differences helps us to see into the social and cultural implications of the alternative choices.  Until quite recently, one of the stark contrasts between Twin Oaks and Acorn was the number of orientations given to visitors who are considering membership.  Twin Oaks has around 19 over the three week visitor period, Acorn had just one.

Recently, Acorn realized that we needed a second one and Belladonna facilitated the first one this week.  It was on consent.  “Why do you need a whole orientation around consent?”  You might ask.  “Isn’t it enough to just tell people they need to ask before they can touch anyone?”  It turns out it is not.

No i dont want to kiss you

No, i don’t want to kiss you

For a recent visitor group at Acorn i gave our only orientation, which is mostly a tour of the community to one visitor, let’s call him Rod.  At the end of the tour i gave my rant on consent (see the official rant below).  I stressed that this appears to be one of the most tricky areas for visitors to get right.  That we have lost otherwise lovely visitors, because they messed this up and made an inappropriate pass at someone or were simply too physical without checking in.  I explained that part of what can be confusing is parties where it seems like members who have never been intimate before are kissing and cuddling with no sight that they have had these perhaps awkward and buzz killing consent discussions.  “Things just seem to be flowing, without words, can’t i flow too?”

No is the answer.  Just because you can’t see or hear the consent conversation, does not mean it is safe to assume it is not happening.  Rod indicated that he understood.  I felt good about our communication.  I felt like i had been clear about the nuances and the problem.  I patted myself on the back for advancing our healthy culture.  And as is frequently the case when i am self congratulatory, i was wrong.  Rod would later go to an Acorn party, get a little drunk and try to kiss someone who did not want him to kiss them.  His membership plans then unraveled.

So as good anarchist do, we change our internal culture around communicating consent.  And while Acorn still largely maintains a “you need to figure this place out yourself” attitude towards most aspects of community life (an approach one frustrated visitor describe to me as “The way Acorn orients people is you throw them into the deep end of the pool and say “Hold these rocks and look out for those piranha”) with consent stuff we are definitely stepping it up.

I did not make it to the workshop, but i heard great things about it and a bunch of Acorners as well as visitors went.  Belladonna Took and Strandbeest did an amusing role play of poor consent practices, intoxication, party etiquette and direct communication were all stressed.  Afterward i told the visitors who attended. “This is what we want you to export to the world.”

Aster suggested oven mits

Aster suggested oven mitts

Acorn’s Official Advice on Relationships and Consent Culture

We would like to cultivate a responsible sex positive culture, where sexual expression and engagement is not repressed or discriminated. That being said, idiosyncrasies and complexities of relationships here are not always readily apparent to newcomers, with premature involvement often yielding messy or unexpected outcomes. Being self-governed, we try to avoid strict policy statements that often oversimplify or fail to fully represent various member viewpoints; as such, we encourage relational choices of those involved to be made with thoughtful discretion, through an emphasis on interactive communication, personal responsibility, and clear boundaries.

If at any time you’re uncomfortable with surrounding situations or interactions, please feel empowered to communicate your needs and concerns. If you’re uncomfortable conveying your concerns face-to-face, please talk to any of your orientation cos (or anyone else you feel comfortable approaching) and we will make sure you have an advocate to support you and help you resolve discuss your concerns with.

Your involvement with current members may produce power imbalances. It is each person’s responsibility to go about relationships in a respectful, consensual manner. Your membership decision will not be influenced by romantic/sexual encounters during your membership visit.

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About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

10 responses to “Hold these rocks and look out for the Piranha”

  1. Seby aka Twigsy says :

    I hope you post this on Facebook. There are some points that this brought up to my mind I would like to discuss. 🙂

  2. moonraven222 says :

    Glad to see this orientation is happening–although I’m sorry it took some messy situations to initiate it.

    Having been thrown in the deep end at Acorn, I think the visitor is exaggerating–I’m not sure anyone will tell you about the rocks and the piranha unless you think to ask. (Although they might quickly point out a piranha on the tour–if you’re paying attention.)

  3. Gordon says :

    Can this statement be true?
    “Your membership decision will not be influenced by romantic/sexual encounters during your membership visit.”
    It’s hard to believe that some encounter or other might not rub some other member the wrong way, leading to membership difficulties in a consensus group. I’m not thinking of consent but rather of other interpersonal difficulties.

    • paxus says :


      i missed that line and tend to agree with you. But for the opposite reason. If you spark a romance which is not fleeting, you virtually assured membership. The communities almost always accept romantic partners of members in good standing.

  4. Zimel says :

    I still remain curious what the reasoning is behind this policy in the first place. Obviously you all prefer to be asked when it comes to physical interaction, rather than to say no upon an advance coming your way. I.e. You prefer to convert the communication (which would happen either way) from physical to verbal. Both approaches have tradeoffs. Why do you all prefer the approach you’re going with? And I wonder if the people who have run just afoul of it didn’t understand the reasoning you have.

    • paxus says :

      Perhaps. I think in most cases we have done a pretty good job of explaining. Non-verbal communication is fraught with problems, including simple misunderstanding of signals.

      THe advantage of verbal confirmation of consent is that it is unambiguous, which turns out to be tremendously important

    • Rejoice Miene says :


      I strongly support this policy at Acorn. I am fascinated by commune intrigue, and so I have informally interviewed a lot of people about consent violations.

      It’s staggering how many people find themselves in the following situation:

      Jack says that he thinks he’s getting along well at Acorn and is forming some strong friendships. He’s been practicing non-violent communication with his new friends, and he thinks that his social relationships in the community are pretty good overall, and that he has a good handle on non-verbal consent.

      Everything sounds good, right? But the reason I had this conversation with him is that three other residents have approached me saying that there’s a problem with Jack. Jill was hitting it off with Jack and thought they were developing a good friendship, and then Jack started casually touching her when they were sitting by themselves–a hand on her knee or shoulder, not in a way that made Jill afraid, but it made her uncomfortable to talk to him in private, and she started avoiding him after that. Julie thought Jack was really cute and they went on a date, but when they kissed, Jack was really forceful and touched her in ways that made her feel upset, even though she had been really interested in him. Jane approached Jack at a party and asked if she could give him a hug, but was shocked that he interpreted this to mean that he could grab her ass during the hug. Jane told him that wasn’t cool, but she didn’t think he took her seriously.

      When I try to explain this to Jack, step-by-step, he sometimes doesn’t take me seriously, either. But then I just tell him that he has to leave because he violated our consent policy, and that someone is waiting to drive him to the bus station.

      Why is this better for us? We are more likely to get people that we like and enjoy interacting with this way. People who don’t make our friends feel uncomfortable, and who don’t drive away exciting new membership candidates.

      The honest thing is, that if someone actually is really good at non-verbal consent, they don’t get into trouble here, because their actions don’t upset people. However, there’s a big disconnect between people who think they’re good at it and people who actually are, so we warn people to ask perm ission verbally. It’s virtually impossible to fuck it up except by not asking.


  5. cybunny60 says :

    Love the oven mitts. Love the piranha analogy. And above all, I love the continuing discussion. There is, IMHO, no perfect way to “orient” new people to a complex and nuanced culture. Especially one that itself shifts some over time, as most real cultures do. Especially one that sets itself up as an alternative to the “one” (another myth) that visitors have been learning since birth.

    having said that…perhaps getting “consent” about consent with such minimal contact is not likely to succeed with those who most need a richer description of the concept. Hence the importance of the Belldonnas of the world.

    Good stuff.

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