I Am Because We Are: What I Learned About Building Cultures of Belonging from Leading a Rural Sex Positive Organization
There is a beautiful saying among the Xhosa tribe in Africa , Ubuntu, that says, “I am, because we are.” My sense of self is directly related to the depth of my being known, being an integral part of the whole.
If you took a peek behind the Redwood Curtain in Northern California between 2008 and 2013, you would have found an unusual community built on that very principle. A group came together to produce sex positive events in Humboldt County, a rural community best known the world over for its marijuana. The organization – which we called The Impropriety Society – was led by three women – myself and two others.
These events were unique in the US because they were inclusive of all sexual expression – straight monogamous couples, swingers and polyamorous tribes, queer and trans folk, and all sorts of kinky players. In cities, the various sex positive groups tend to gather exclusively with similar people. Rare is a party where every form of expression is both welcome and celebrated. But when you live in a county with a population of 150,000, this was the only way to throw regular events that involve more than a handful of the same people. These all-inclusive parties built a foundation for long-term community engagement.
Parties included a dance floor and DJs, catered food, amateur performances, cuddle spaces for intimate activity, and a separate dungeon for kinky activity so that non-kinky folks could choose whether they could see what was going on. Every party also had a blue room – a chill out space where no sexual activity was allowed so that people could take a break if needed. Our events were not orgies. They were simply a safe and creative space provided for consensual activities between adults.
When we started this endeavor, the three of us really had no idea what we were getting into. As one of my partners would repeatedly say, we just wanted to throw fun sexy parties. Instead, because there is so much shame in sexuality, we birthed a radically inclusive community where deep questions around inclusion and belonging came to the surface regularly.
The first step we took towards radical inclusion was the Vibes Crew.
Large parties had a volunteer staff of 80 -100 people to manage up to 300 guests. We had crews for food, music, performances, security, the dungeon, clean up, and Vibes. Security was responsible for external and physical safety. Vibes was responsible for emotional safety for both guests and staff. Their task was to foster a sense of welcome and belonging. Vibes held a safe container, held space for expression, exploration, and connection. They were trained in how to encourage and support the intense emotional energy that people experience in such a highly charged and vulnerable environment. Some of the basics included making sure everyone was personally welcomed – we didn’t want anyone to leave without having known they were seen and appreciated as a participant – and handing out water at 3 a.m. when everyone was dehydrated from dancing and playing. Vibes was trained specifically not to look for problems, but to look for opportunities to connect, inform, and support, especially when things were awkward or challenging.
With the Vibes crew, a modified Vibes training for all staff, and the commitment to operate from our core values (including love and service to the greatest good), we invited people out of isolation and fear into love and acceptance. We practiced radical inclusion with people of different body types, with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and mental health challenges, people with unusual and taboo interests, single men who were perceived as “creepy” (which usually translates to someone who is socially awkward and/or insecure), and even people who publicly attacked us (it’s amazing how you can disarm people through love and transparency).
We nurtured a sense of belonging by actively encouraging vulnerability and connection. I led trainings that required vulnerability to help our staff to be mindful of what guests experience in an erotic party environment. Just showing up to one of these events is vulnerable. Dressing in what we think is sexy is vulnerable, especially for anyone that varies from our cultural beauty norms. Sharing and living out one’s deepest desires and fantasies is vulnerable. Seeking new friends and play partners is vulnerable. Having an unusual kink is vulnerable. So we had interactive training activities that provoked vulnerability. For example, we guided small circles, in which each volunteer had to share a desire or a fear for the upcoming party and be lovingly witnessed and held by the group.
For guests, we started with a pre-event primer at which people new to the community could meet the hostesses, some volunteers, and other new party goers, as well as have all of their questions answered. At events we encouraged guests to be active participants through games like get-to-know-you BINGO with sexually oriented content, missions on small slips of paper that required finding someone to fulfill, or unique valentines and thank you cards for people to give each other (like Camp!). We did everything we could imagine to encourage people to connect.
We were told over and over again that people were transformed by our events and our community. We had gender-queer people who felt comfortable expressing themselves in public for the first time. We had people with deep wounds around sexuality who were healed through positive interactions. We had people who had felt incredibly alone in their kinky interests who found not just acceptance, but celebration of their authenticity. People became whole because they were known for their truth and beauty. There was no Other. When the community gathered, everyone was part of the tribe.
Now that I’ve witnessed and experienced the power of a culture of belonging, I am passionate about taking this work into the greater world. I currently work for a nonprofit that provides radically inclusive community for people who are poor, addicted, and/or physically or mentally disabled in the downtown neighborhoods of Portland, OR. I am also developing community art projects that explore our stories of belonging and how we can work together to provide belonging for each other in our local communities. My hope is to bring this concept of Ubuntu into our culture and meet the need for belonging and wholeness that exists in all of us.
Thank you for including me and co-creating this incredible culture of belonging.
April Cheri for Life is a Verb Camp 2015