Excerpted from the Summer 2019 edition of Communities, “Sexual Politics”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.
I had a conversation recently with a woman who sighed a lot when I talked to her. She was a friend of a friend, and a women’s crisis counselor. I was speaking to her over the phone about my experiences with sexual misconduct in the intentional community I lived in. I wanted to know what she thought of our situation, and what she thought I should do, for the best interests of everyone involved. As I described the situation—what had happened, how it made me feel, and what I thought—she kept exhaling deeply; the characteristic sigh of someone who’s heard it all before, over and over. Even though it felt new to me, there wasn’t anything new I was telling her. These stories are patterned.
It’s so hard to talk about this. It really is, and there’s no other way for me to start this essay than with that statement. I would rather be writing about anything else on earth right now. For example, a story about linoleum peeling, or a poem on bad bowel movements, or an essay called All My Failures in Life. These would all be topics I’d be more inclined to throw my energy into. But instead here I am, sitting inside on a sunny day, writing about sexual misconduct. I can’t avoid it, I can’t ignore it, I don’t seem to be able to stop it, so the only remaining recourse is to simply talk about it. I need to talk about it because I need to connect with people in a way that not talking about it no longer solves. And I need to talk about it because part of the pattern of sexual misconduct is a pattern of gender discrimination, and that’s a pattern that we really need to change.
Of the many reasons this is hard to talk about, one is that it’s just embarrassing. Even after all this time, I still feel strangely, deeply ashamed. I’m ashamed of my long-term confusion in understanding these issues, and my inability to solve these problems in my own community. I’m ashamed of the way I have, in my own life, participated in, condoned, or neglected to see behaviors that I now realize were damaging and discriminatory. And I’m ashamed, painfully, of the depth of my own necessity. I need human intimacy—real, authentic connection with other people—with as much feral force and vulnerability as any of us. Sexual misconduct of all kinds stabs at the heart of that personal need, and forces us to feel it—feel the shame of our own vulnerability—so much more viscerally. It is a unique kind of hurt.
But as uniquely felt and deeply personal as this hurt may be, it’s not only personal; it’s also prolific, and it’s patterned, in ways that have sweeping social consequences, especially for certain groups of people. As I sat down to write this, it wasn’t difficult to find women to talk with about these issues, and every woman I asked had a story to tell. Sexual misconduct, harassment, assault, abuse—these are just the normal threads of so many women’s lives. My male friends don’t have these same stories in the same way or with any fraction of the same overwhelming consistency. This pain is personal, but most of the time it’s personal to individuals who are linked by one unifying factor—their gender. Sexual misconduct of all kinds is mostly gendered: it’s mostly done by men, and mostly done to women. Recognizing this as a systemic social pattern instead of just an individual problem is what makes this issue relevant to all of us. And understanding that there are real, serious, and predictable consequences, both personal and professional, for women who are exposed to sexual misconduct, is what makes sexual misconduct a form of gender discrimination.
Sexual misconduct is a tricky phrase in and of itself, because it’s defined so differently by different people. It’s often used as an “umbrella term” for any negative sexual behavior (like sexual harassment or assault) that is not a felony offense. Additionally from Wikipedia, the term sexual misconduct is used “particularly where the situation is normally non-sexual and therefore unusual for sexual behavior, or where there is some aspect of personal power or authority that makes sexual behavior inappropriate.”
In this essay I discuss sexual misconduct as one specific iteration within that umbrella, and define it as sexual behavior by men in positions of power towards women under their power. This could be the case of an employer/employee relationship, a teacher/student relationship, a mentor/intern relationship, etc. I think this particular lens on sexual misconduct invites an exploration of power and intimacy that is extremely relevant to communities. Intentional communities come in an array of forms, many of which combine, intertwine, and blur working and personal relationships in ways that are different from other home and workplace environments. There is a real confluence of many factors that shape, hold, and replicate power dynamics. This essay seeks to explore the way that male sexual misconduct towards women is an abuse of power which holds a high risk for personal and professional consequences for women. Sexual misconduct in this form is so common, and the consequences for women are so predictable, that it is a form of systemic gender discrimination.
Life and Work at The Branch
When I was 24 years old my boyfriend and I arrived for a four-month internship at an education center and intentional community in an isolated village in Central America. The following year we returned, and the owners (a married couple with an infant daughter) asked us to partner with them in the business. They had established The Branch about eight years before we arrived, had built structures, and gardens, and business contacts, but were worn out and needed help with organization, program development, and financial viability. The owners were in their late 30s, were kind and charismatic, and the whole place had a vibe of boundless creativity and possibilities. I was flattered to be considered for what seemed like a lot of responsibility, and excited to commit to this new and wonderful world. My boyfriend and I made a large, sweeping commitment to work there for five years in directorship and development roles, on a handshake deal for co-ownership and profit sharing. In hindsight, how crazy. But at the time, it felt so special and so genuine. It was all about idealism, trust, and community—we would just do this thing together, and how unique, and how untethered, and how cool were we.
As well as being a professional education center that hosted international groups, The Branch was also a radical commune, in many of the ways people think of that phrase. We built our own houses out of earth and local wood, grew and processed a lot of our own food, made most decisions as “a collective,” and treated most non-hospital type medical ailments with turmeric and love. We cooked and shared all meals in a single, open-air communal kitchen. We had no television, cell phones, or on-site internet, and entertained ourselves with home brews, scrabble, costume parties, and frisbee. The closest significant town was a day’s bus ride away, round trip, on rough dirt roads that frequently washed out. Most of the buildings had few, if any, walls. There was very little privacy, and the place was packed with educational groups and students almost every day of the year. There was a lot of laughter, a feeling of unbridled creativity, and a soft blanket of shared trust that seemed to coat the entire place and everyone in it.
Fast forward five years: my boyfriend and I had put in a huge amount of labor, helped stabilize the business financially and organizationally, implemented new professional programs, and had become independent educators in our fields, but we still didn’t have a profit share, co-ownership, or compensation. The owners acted and spoke as if we were all a cooperative, but in reality, my boyfriend and I had no real power or ownership whatsoever. The power dynamic was gravitational: I was working seven days a week to the point of burnout, creating and filling roles that were essential to the business’s success, but was still completely dependent on the owners in every aspect of my life. Even though I was working hard for our shared home and business, it wasn’t really ours—it was really theirs, and that difference was real, no matter how much we imagined it wasn’t.
Positionality and the Sphere of Power
This type of positionality—the positionality of having significant power over, or power under, someone else, either personally or professionally―can be a defining factor in the context and consequences of sexual misconduct. When someone controls resources you really need and value, your entire identity and mode of perception shifts, or “positions” itself in relation to that person: you need that person to like you, and/or to like your work. If they don’t like you, for any reason whatsoever, your access to those resources will be at risk. This heightened influence can make consent to sexual advances difficult or impossible to fully assess; significantly reduces women’s likelihood to speak up against uncomfortable behaviors; and creates a space where denying sexual advances from someone who has power over you is very likely to have personal and professional repercussions. None of this is necessarily cognitive or premeditated. Positionality is a felt experience that continuously moderates perceptions and behaviors, within a sphere of power. In addition to the gravitational pull to be likable to people who control resources that you need, women have an added enculturation to be likable to men. We are raised to listen and to soothe, to be good girls, to smile, to gather and nurture and defer. As an employee, to not defer or agree with your employer’s desires, and/or as a woman, to not defer or agree to a man’s desires, often has cascading consequences for your subjective likability and by extension, the perception of the value of your relationship and your work. This subjectiveness is at the root of why the consequences of sexual misconduct can be difficult to see, understand, or prove. And it’s also one of the reasons those consequences are so persistent, and so damaging: they arise from internalized motives that people may or may not be aware of.
In my own case our fifth year arrived, still with no ownership or compensation. By this time I loved The Branch dearly as my home, and had invested years of labor into it. I had an excellent personal and working relationship with the owners, and several new colleagues. The owners often described my boyfriend and me as their “little angels” because of how we had stabilized the community and made the business more professional and financially viable. But even though the business was starting to make money, it wasn’t financially viable for me or my boyfriend. This situation became extremely stressful, and that stress filtered into all aspects of my life. I felt really confused, and trapped.
One day I approached one of the owners, the husband (I’ll refer to him from here on out as “my employer” since that’s the simplest accurate description of his working relationship with me) in a fit of tears, confessing my insecurities and confusion about what I was doing at The Branch. My boyfriend was away at the time, leading an educational group off-site. That evening I went back to my cabin and lay in bed, alone, in the dark. A while later I heard a sound outside the window, and saw my employer standing in the doorway. Even though it was nighttime and I was alone, I felt relieved, because I thought he was there to continue our conversation and offer guidance for my situation. Even though he had never visited me at night in that way before, I trusted him and believed he was there to help me. But he wasn’t. He was drunk, stumbled over to my bed, and lounged over me, asking for a kiss. I lay there, frozen and unable to think of what to do. It didn’t make any sense. This wasn’t the person I believed him to be. He was a mentor, a friend, an employer. He was someone I liked and admired, who I needed to like and admire me. He had control over everything in my life. I trusted him, in most ways more than I trusted myself, and for this reason had put so many of my personal and professional eggs in his basket. I told him, in a small voice, to go back to his wife and family, who lived in another cabin a 10-minute walk away. But he didn’t. He stayed there, sitting next to me on the bed, one arm crossed over my body, leaning in, asking for a kiss, over and over again, while I just laid there and quietly said no. Finally he rubbed my side, kissed my cheek, and stumbled out.
When he left, I was still in the same position I had been when he entered the room, flat on my back, with my arms plastered to my sides. I heard another sound, a fast paced tapping, and turned my head to see what it was. Then I realized it was my teeth. I was so upset, my whole body was shaking, and my teeth were chattering in my head, uncontrollably.
I am a tough person, and not easily rattled. And this story is not about sexual violence, nor did I ever once feel threatened physically. And yet, this experience, within this context, was so disturbing, and so emotionally wrenching, that it upset me to the core of my being, to the point where I froze so tightly my teeth chattered. It wasn’t cold in Central America. This was an embodiment of extreme anxiety. It was the pain and pressure of discovering myself, suddenly, to be completely bound in another person’s sphere of power, and then realizing they were willing, able, and ready to abuse that power in a way that was not in my best interest. If I had an affair with him, it would destroy our community and I would lose everything that was important to me. I trusted this person’s character so deeply, I knew he wouldn’t put me, or us, in that position. But here he was, putting me, and us, in that position. It was impossible to understand, and it just felt terrible.
This situation was disturbing, and deeply hurtful, but it wasn’t insurmountable. We could have all gone to sleep that night, woken up in the morning, talked it out, made some organizational changes in our home and work lives, and moved on. Maybe he and his wife could have found a marriage counselor. It would have been hard, but it could have been done. But that’s not how it happened—that’s almost never how it happens. I was afraid to talk to anyone about it, because I thought if I did I would lose my position in the community, and everything my partner and I had worked for. And on top of that, what would I say? At the time this happened I was in my late 20s, and my understanding of the context of the situation was limited. I didn’t have any words for what happened, except that it made me feel really bad about myself.
I never would have believed that this one moment would spiral into so many consequences for my personal and professional life. I didn’t understand that this experience, and my reactions, and the long-term consequences, were so common that I could have sat there that night and made a fairly accurate list about what would happen next. If sexual misconduct were just about someone saying something inappropriate, or touching you briefly in a way you didn’t want to be touched—if it were just about the the literal behaviors of sexual misconduct—it wouldn’t be a big deal. What do I care if my employer comes back to my bedroom and wants a kiss? The literal behavior is not exactly life-shattering. It’s the context, the meaning behind it, and the persistent, patterned, ongoing consequences, that make these experiences so debilitating, and so discriminatory.
Immediately, two general, yet very specific, things happened after that night. One is that my attitude changed toward my employer and my employment; the other is that my employer’s attitude toward me and my work changed as well. My feelings of trust in him, and his feelings of personal and professional closeness to me, fractured, and that fracturing led to a slow avalanche of consequences for me, both personal and professional. This wasn’t this man’s first time approaching women sexually at The Branch. As it turns out, he had a history of extramarital affairs with interns/students, which had already been emotionally devastating for his wife. After the night he came back to my room, he no longer wanted to spend time alone with me, out of fear that his wife might think we were having an affair. This caused him to became less aware of or involved in the work I was doing, and therefore less able to recognize or assess its value. My personal and professional relationship with him became strained and uneasy.
From my end, my employer’s behavior to me that night exposed a serious host of power imbalances that I realized needed to be fixed, and I threw myself into fixing them. I started pushing immediately for improvements in our organizational structures and for legalization of our co-ownership structure. I educated myself and our community about group dynamics, communication, and gender; I bought us numerous resources and reading materials and hired a facilitator; I designed an organizational system for our decision-making circles and agendas, led us in mission- and vision-building, and created criteria for work and compensation (at the end of that year we did begin receiving some compensation, though to this day, legalization of co-ownership is still pending). Overall we succeeded in making quite a lot of structural improvements, but the process was like pulling teeth, it was clearly unwanted, and I was left feeling exhausted and increasingly alienated.
As I educated myself more about group dynamics, power, and gender, my perspective on our lovely little community continued to change. I started to see things that had always been there, but I had never paid attention to. The women on our team were extremely experienced in their fields, and worked really hard, but they were consistently funneled into assistantship or service roles. Women’s work was not valued as highly as men’s work. Women in our decision-making circle said they felt uncomfortable speaking, and/or unable to disagree with male voices in the circle. Women who spoke directly were “abrasive,” while men who used the same tone were “assertive.” These weren’t just random personality traits. They were classic symptoms of gendered power dynamics which constantly leave women with less economic and decision-making power. Over the years a number of women had complained to The Branch about sexual harassment, and in at least one case sexual assault, by our male employees. We all thought of these incidents as unfortunate mistakes in male judgment―“bad choices.” But these were repetitive behaviors that made women feel uncomfortable or even truly unsafe. Why had everyone, including myself, just accepted this? And why had no one ever talked about relationships, and the employer’s past affairs with interns/students? All of these pieces, which for so long had just seemed random or incidental, suddenly started rising up into a big coherent puzzle of enculturated gender inequality. Naively, I thought that the men on our team would genuinely want to know about this, and make changes. But presenting information about gender dynamics was largely met with disinterest, denial, and gaslighting.
At one point early on, I presented our team with some basic literature on gender dynamics, and said that I thought we might be experiencing some issues with gender. My employer looked at me from across the table, said, “We do a great job with gender here,” and just moved on in conversation. It was so unnerving. Repeated denial that we had any kind of issue, or that it was worth people’s time to consider group dynamics, made me question myself and my perspective constantly. It was really confusing, because before all this started, my opinion and perspectives always felt valued and included. But after the incident with my employer, and as soon as I started speaking up about power and gender, I lost my perceived credibility and influence. It was so strange, it felt unbelievable. A friend who was present at the time commented that it was like “living in the twilight zone.” Many people in the larger Branch community agreed with me, listened, shared their own stories, supported me, coached me, and worked with me. A lot of people who had invested in and still loved The Branch also realized there were some real problems regarding gender and power, and wanted to see change happen.
But even after several years of work, a lot of the central problems still remained, and my relationship with my employer continued to wither. I became increasingly anxious and unsettled. It became so untenable, and so pointed, that I finally decided to tell our decision-making collective about his incident with me, in the hopes of building context for why certain structural changes like legalization of co-ownership, and objective measures of work and compensation, were necessary.
Shortly afterward, out of the blue, my employer sat me down on a cob bench and told me that he wanted to change our previous compensation agreement, so that I would receive less compensation. When I asked him why, he replied that it was just “something he felt.” More than infuriating, it was crushing. All of this—all these little subjective alienations, and gaslighting, and nebulous reductions in pay or opportunities―is what retaliation looks like. It’s not a guy screaming at you or threatening you, while you stand righteous and tall in your own calm and coherent defense. It’s a slow withering from all angles, including from yourself, inside. As subjective as these experiences appear in the moment, they are real, and they are common, and they have significant personal and professional consequences for women.
Around this time my boyfriend also became romantically involved with one of our interns. She was a woman I lived with and worked with. It exacerbated any and all insecurities I had developed about relationships in our community. I was expected to teach and mentor interns/students every day. But I became terrified of every young woman who came to our program—all of them were threats to my home and job. I developed extreme anxiety, and slowly fell into a deep depression. Teaching became extremely uncomfortable, and my previous passions were no longer interesting or meaningful. I was surrounded by people I didn’t trust, and I felt sick all the time. The situation became so uncomfortable and untenable that I resigned, forfeiting the home and business I had worked so hard to build and save.
Consent and Intimacy
I stayed with my boyfriend and finally convinced him to leave The Branch with me. But as we were preparing our exit, he had an affair with another intern. He hid the affair for months, and encouraged her to lie about it as well, until they were eventually discovered. Later she wrote to a friend that he had manipulated her, that she hadn’t wanted a romantic relationship with him but felt desperate for affection and unable to say no, and that she was emotionally unstable when he initiated sex. She wrote that she felt like the experience had ruined her career in [the country we were in].
So there I was, on my way out the door from The Branch, separating from my boyfriend of 10 years, and trying to understand, once again, the context and structure of intimacy and sexual misconduct. The intern repeatedly wrote that she had only wanted mentorship and education from my boyfriend and not a sexual relationship; he repeatedly wrote that she had been open to a sexual relationship. Both of them independently asserted that the relationship was consensual. They also both expressed regret and confusion. Several people who had seen them interacting during that period commented that they looked like they were “having a good time.” Both parties expressed an inability to understand their own behavior and choices, or what they felt or thought about what had happened, or what parts of their own statements were most accurate. It was a big, tangled, mess, full of emotional contradictions.
And I was, once again, in the middle of that mess. “Well, it was her choice,” some community members from The Branch said. “She consented. This is a personal problem, not a professional one.”
This was a personal problem. But additionally, I think it was also a professional problem, in a way that’s really crucial for how we understand intimacy and power in a workplace or community. When someone is your student, in your sphere of power, and also personally vulnerable, consent is impossible to fully assess. And regardless of such assessment, this behavior puts women at an undeniable risk for lots of consequences, both personal and professional. This type of behavior funnels young women away from healthy mentorship opportunities, and derails their energy into sexual availability instead of professional development. It makes them question their own competency—did he spend extra time with her because she was capable, or because he wanted to sleep with her? Even if she doesn’t question her own competency based on those measures, chances are, someone else will.
Months before this happened, I facilitated a discussion on women and global health. During this talk, the same young woman who would later sleep with my partner commented about how important it was for young women to have mentorship, since mentorship is still heavily weighted across most professions towards young men. But this is the very situation that makes it impossible for healthy mentorship to happen for or by women. Women don’t want to mentor other women who will sleep with their partners. And women shouldn’t have to be sexual with men in order to receive education and attention. Professional and personal retaliation for denying sex with a teacher, employer, or mentor is high, and have real economic consequences for the women involved. Sexual misconduct is a real reason women hesitate to mentor other women, and why women have fewer mentorship opportunities to begin with.
In communities where you are both living and working with your monogamous partner, men having affairs with students creates a deep-seated feeling of emotional insecurity. At educational institutions it derails women from digging into their teaching careers and from connecting fully with female students. It prevents female students from looking up to female instructors with respect. It’s bad personally and professionally for women all around. It inhibits women professionally from all angles.
From a personal perspective, I do sincerely believe that all parties involved in all of these situations were genuinely trying to meet deeply felt needs for connection, agency, and intimacy. I understand that we are universally vulnerable to a need for human connection, and that these feelings can be tangled, contradictory, and misguided. This is not a charitable assessment, but rather a reflection on my own lifetime of learning intimacy through trial and error. It is also not an excuse for bad behavior; but rather, a call to consider the ways that our attempts at intimacy do or do not function in the way we hope.
I believe my boyfriend’s relationship with our intern was consensual, in the way that society currently defines consent. But what does consent really mean, if you are consenting to do something that is bad for you or bad for someone else? That type of consent has less to do with personal well-being, community health, connection, and intimacy, and more to do with an expression of desperation, confusion, or narcissism. It’s a consent that says, “I deserve to be treated less than,” or “I deserve to treat you less than.” Intimacy that arises from either of these places is malfunctioning—it is not doing its job to help people connect, trust, understand, and support each other in positive ways. Men in mentorship positions, especially in these isolated communities, need to hold themselves accountable for fostering healthy and caring environments for the young women that trust them and inhabit positions of vulnerability under their guidance. It doesn’t matter how much you feel attracted to someone in a moment; how much you want to connect physically with them―if it’s not in the best interest of both parties involved, it’s not healthy intimacy, and it’s not part of a healthy relationship dynamic in communities. And given how common this behavior is, how consistently gendered it is, and how frequent the personal and professional consequences are for the women involved, it really is a form of gender discrimination.
The professional consequences for women who are subjected to sexual misconduct often exist regardless of whether or not women consent to the behavior. Consequences can be overt or subtle, premeditated or spontaneous. Most women who report sexual harassment at work experience some type of retaliation. This can come directly in the form of reduced opportunities, pay, or promotions, or it can come more subtly in the form of reduced likability, credibility, and weakened relationships—all of which carry their own cascading consequences. Sexual misconduct also infuses itself into the psyche of women’s expectations for themselves and the way they are valued. Even when “nothing happens” or “she consents” there may be consequences for these behaviors that almost always affect women negatively.
A few weeks after I left The Branch, I phoned the crisis counselor who cameoed in the first paragraph of this essay. I’ll call her Maggie. She had counseled many women about their experiences with sexual misconduct, and I wanted her perspective. Wasn’t my situation so bizarre? And everything I tried to do such a failure? The Branch was a vibrant, creative, fun, and funny community. These weren’t bad people. These were people who made their own soap, and sang songs about sauerkraut, and really believed we could change the world if we just worked hard enough. They held hands every evening and gave thanks. They planted trees. And they taught me some of the best skills and most beautiful lessons of my life. So what happened?
And this is where Maggie would let out a sigh. Because what happened in my community is what happens in so many communities. Sexual misconduct, enculturated gender inequality, gender discrimination—this isn’t just the behavior of raging lunatics and power-addled CEOs. This is kind of normal stuff. It’s stuff we grew up with, and were raised on. It’s stuff we don’t see because it’s just always been there. It’s stuff that perpetuates power dynamics that a lot of really nice, progressive people feel really uncomfortable letting go of.
None of us arrives to community with a clean slate, and I continuously find myself implicated in my own critiques. I recognize my own participation in maintaining a status quo of structured inequalities for marginalized groups, including women, over the entirety of my life. All of us are caught up in social patterns. The narrative reveals those patterns. The way we think and feel about that narrative is what gives us an entrance point to positive change.
It’s in all of our best interests to learn about how to care about one another better, as individuals and within groups, and no person or community is exempt from difficult truths and vulnerabilities. Engaging with these truths and vulnerabilities creates personal and societal growth. And that is something all of us can offer each other, no matter where we find ourselves in the story.
For comments and responses, you can contact the author LK at interwebslk [AT] gmail.com.
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Excerpted from the Summer 2019 edition of Communities, “Sexual Politics”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.