Credit: Illustration by Julia Terbrock; Image source: Vecteezy

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At the Alexandria Westin in January, some Interfusion Festival staff members wore badges that said “consent” and armbands emblazoned with the letter “C.” The festival offers workshops in movement, holistic practices, and intimacy and sexuality, and these staff members were the guardians of its consent policy and code of conduct. The code was posted throughout the space, and incident reporting forms were stacked on tables. 

The festival will happen again in 2020 in Crystal City, from Jan. 16 to 20. This year’s festival brought around 1,500 attendees. This was the first year it introduced a consent code, on-site team, reporting system, and intervention protocol.

Interfusion is among other D.C. organizations addressing consent in their dance, art, and community-building programming. The leaders of Interfusion, and Meso Creso and Mischief DC, two arts collectives that host events all year, say that people have reported harassment or assault at their events in the past. Now, the leaders of all three organizations are creating their own “consent culture,” by introducing trainings, policies, and procedures that are meant to protect attendees. 

As the #MeToo movement has brought conversations about sexual violence and consent further into the mainstream, these organizers are trying to be both proactive and reactive. While they express that the structures in place may not be perfect, they agree: They had to take a first step.

It’s difficult to imagine that any event drawing hundreds or thousands of people could issue comprehensive consent language and practices, accounting for every potential context and variable, upon which everyone agrees. Interfusion, Meso Creso, and Mischief leaders all say they’ve experienced some pushback just for trying.

Interfusion founder Christian Rodriguez posted the group’s code to Facebook on Jan. 9. It includes: “Check in during any physical activity for another ‘yes;’” “Consent resets: a ‘yes’ once does not mean ‘yes’ in the future;” and, “Compliance: If someone says STOP to you, that means your interaction ends immediately.” 

Many commenters applauded it, while some deemed it “ridiculous” or “draconian.”

“We got some heat from people,” Rodriguez says, particularly from dancers who thought it might be “disruptive” to ask for consent repeatedly when switching partners often. 

Indigo Dawn, Interfusion’s consent team director, says they know what spurred the “heat.”

“People think this means that there’s going to be a victim and a perpetrator, or [think] ‘Yeah, yeah, I know I shouldn’t penetrate someone without asking,’ or, ‘We’re not having sex here, why should we talk about this?’”

Rodriguez answers: “We have a responsibility as an organization not to just assume [that people understand consent],” he says.

Meso Creso and Mischief are both 10 years old, and Meso Creso will host a Halloween party on Oct. 26 this year at the DC Eagle. 

The language on Meso Creso’s website and online event pages says, in part: “We love consent-based activities, believe that altered states are no excuse for bad behavior, and have a zero-tolerance policy for those who think or act otherwise.” 

Emma Kaywin and Diana Rhodes are consent co-leads at Meso Creso. Three years ago, they instituted a crew of “safer space” volunteers at events, who wear light-up crowns to identify themselves on the dance floor. 

Kaywin says organizers at Meso Creso hear pushback “all the time” from people who think the organization’s consent culture is policing them. But volunteers, she says, are not present at events as a “policing factor”—they’re “partying with their eyes open.” 

She created Meso Creso’s two-hour volunteer training, which includes training on bystander intervention, dealing with and de-escalating situations involving intoxicated people, and providing crisis support to people who report incidents. She’s done the same training at House of Yes in New York, where she directs its consent program.

Meso Creso, Kaywin says, is creating “a container of safety within the reality of pervasive rape culture.” 

Mischief, meanwhile, has volunteers called “consent rangers,” says Liz Kramer, board member and creator of its consent policy. Naughty Snowball, Mischief’s annual holiday party, was held in December last year at the DC Eagle, a “historic leather/fetish bar.” There were areas where people could engage in kink scenes, and Kramer says guests had to check in with consent rangers before they began. If they didn’t, rangers could intervene to make sure everyone was safe. This year’s holiday party will be held on Dec. 14 at the same location.

Kramer says Mischief received flak about its policy. It outlines that consent must adhere to the oft-referenced acronym F.R.I.E.S.: freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific. It also goes into examples readers can consider, and explains that people in positions of power cannot get consent from someone who is a subordinate. Some said it was too long, or it restricted personal expression, but one consent ranger dropped out, citing not enough regulations for safety.

“We’re never going to please everybody,” Kramer says. “It’s a jumping-off point. We have to start somewhere.” 

Nexus, emeritus board member for Mischief, stepped down June 5. In a public September Facebook post, he cited concerns with how the board handled a consent-related allegation and said it failed to project consent as a value. He says consent volunteers should roam event spaces in pairs, obvious to guests as people to whom incidents can be reported, and feels they would be most effective if they had specific training. Kramer says since he’s left the board, it has resolved the allegation issue as best it could and has found a way forward that works for all parties. 

At Interfusion, Dawn says, the consent team adapted its code from the SoulPlay Festival in California, which has a 10-page consent code and protocol.

On the incident reporting form, attendees can choose what kind of response they would like: facilitated mediation, the team’s follow-up with involved parties on the person’s behalf, a further conversation with the team, or no follow-up—“I just want you to know about the incident.” 

What follows, Rodriguez explains, could and has included discussions with both parties, warnings to the accused and education of appropriate behavior, required statements of apology, and follow-ups with everyone involved.

Meso Creso, Kaywin says, emphasizes “acculturation” and explaining to someone why their behavior isn’t OK. For example, “You just grabbed my ass, you’re not allowed to do that. Can we talk about why you can’t do that without asking?” she says.  

If someone continues to engage in harmful behavior, they’re removed. As a rule, Meso Creso does not perform mediation, Kaywin says.

At Mischief, Kramer and the board handle reports on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, those who are accused are offered a “path back to the community.” In the past, multiple reports accused someone of making others feel uncomfortable and they were blacklisted for a year. To come back to events, they had to enroll in the “Rethink Masculinity” course by the Collective Action for Safe Spaces or get what Kramer calls “some kind of personal therapy.” They haven’t, and remain blacklisted.

“We value providing a path back to the community but we also value keeping our spaces safe,” Kramer says. “We have had instances where pillars of our community, [people] in the community for 10 years, things have come up against them and we’ve said, ‘Sorry dude, you’re not allowed at our party.’”

While all three organizations have banned people, their leaders also say that law enforcement has not been involved when someone reported discomfort, harassment, or assault. 

In May, Salon reported on Burning Man’s organizers’ “dismissive” response to reports of sexual assault and “inadequate self-policing system.” Burning Man’s volunteer security team members are “primed,” according to a former volunteer, to “interrogate victims to find out if their experiences are the result of having sex with regret,” and evaluate “if and when consent falls into a ‘gray zone.’”  

Interfusion, Meso Creso, and Mischief leaders, however, say their protocols let the reporting person guide what happens, without organizers making decisions themselves. 

“We follow the lead of the person who has been harmed and support them in their decision,” Meso Creso’s consent co-lead Rhodes says.

If contacting law enforcement is the route someone at Mischief wants to take, Kramer says, “We are happy to help facilitate, hold hands, hold space, in whatever capacity they need.” 

Codes of conduct, the creation of a consent culture, and a reporting protocol won’t necessarily prevent harassment and assault, of course. But these leaders are trying to make space for people to be heard, no matter when they speak.

This year at Interfusion, Rodriguez says there were seven total reports of minor violations that did not require involving authorities. 

Just after the festival on Jan. 23, two reports had been made. Interfusion then sent an email to attendees on Jan. 27 called “Post-Festival Guidance.” “Kindly reflect on consent,” it read. “Reach out to the consent team and report any issues, larger or small, even if you are feeling unsure.” Then, five more reports came in. Rodriguez says further updates to Interfusion’s consent policy will be made public in the next few weeks.

D.C. is a diverse city, Rhodes says, and creating unique consent cultures is important when many people from different backgrounds come to events.

“On some dance floors, one thing might be acceptable, [but] Meso Creso is a global music and arts community, many of us are immigrants or kids of immigrants, so we understand that there’s cultural differences,” she says.

Kramer thinks there’s another reason the people of D.C. can appreciate consent policies designed to raise our collective consent consciousness: They like structure and policy in general.

“We’re a bunch of nerds,” she says. 

During a workshop at Interfusion, someone reflected on a time they may have crossed a boundary, acknowledging they weren’t conscious of another person’s feelings. It was an admission of a potential mistake framed as a space for growth.