10 steps I take to create a ‘safer’ workshop experience
People talk to me after workshops, or they fill in feedback forms. One thing they often say is ‘I’ve been to things like this before, and they didn’t feel safe, but this did!’
I have had a think about the ingredients that make a safe(r) space for people to explore touch, intimacy, boundaries and consent. See my 10 steps below.
CAVEAT: There have been well documented boundary and consent violations and exploitation of vulnerable people within the Tantra and sex positive scene, often by well-respected and successful practitioners. I am a professional member of Association of Somatic and Integrative Sexologists (ASIS), who mediate in cases where clients or workshop attendees are concerned about a practitioner’s actions or wish to make a complaint. If anyone attends a workshop I am running and has concerns about my behaviour or the safety of an event I organise and facilitate, I encourage them to approach me to discuss and/or contact ASIS. I also recognise that in some cases where people’s sexual consent is breached it is appropriate to involve the police and I completely uphold any client or workshop member’s right to take this action if they feel an offence has been committed against them.
1. Queer/LGBT or Trans spaces
In some cases, my workshops are aimed at a particular group of people who share an identity or life experience. This can create a wonderful space where there is mutual understanding, a feeling of equality and people can expose parts of themselves that it is not safe to in more normative, mainstream spaces. I want to go beyond efforts to be ‘inclusive’ but embracing of sexual and gender diversity. I aim to always ensure there are gender neutral toilets available. My whole programme is delivered in a gender neutral way that can include everyone including people who do not identify with binary gender, and no matter what bodies we have. These are basic tenets of ‘safety’ for people who are not cis.
I take an Intersectional approach, which means acknowledging how all layers of people’s experience (such as the impact of also being a POC, disabled, from a religious upbringing, being femme, or Non Binary, or being a Sex Worker or being fat) have an impact on our experience of the world, and also the workshop.
2. Slowing down
People will come into the space with all sorts of feelings, sensations and emotions, and not all of these will be caused by the workshop, me or the attendees. Many people do not have an inner sense of safety and we have to start at this point. The activities will build up very slowly, and the beginning of the workshop will set the tone for the rest; calm, with breathing spaces, breaks, quietness and structure/order. The acknowledgment is that people have brought with them whatever they have, and that even the slowest, gentlest pace might not be right for someone. That’s where permission comes in (step 3).
A workshop can be structured in a way that takes people on a journey from being on a metaphorical ‘shore’, to dipping a toe in the ocean, to going waist deep, to diving deep. We would never start a workshop with a ‘deep dive’ activity, because this would elicit a stress response. We want people to know there is always a safe shore to come back to. There will be a gradual build-up of invitations to go deeper, but first people have to know (in their minds and bodies) that there is a safe shore. ‘Titration’ (a concept from chemistry) is the idea of dripping a substance into a water one drop at a time, until it dilutes rather than separates. The workshops and exercises are structured in a similar way – a drop of an experience, and then a chance to integrate what has happened. ‘Integration’ can be lying doing nothing, talking about an experience, closing your eyes quietly, taking a break or paying attention to how your body feels after an experience.
3. Permission and encouragement
Workshop participants get permission and full encouragement to honour their own boundaries AT ALL TIMES. I don’t believe that because someone has booked onto this workshop, I am entitled to have them participate in everything I suggest. Nor is anyone here to ‘serve’ another workshop member or be a learning tool, by doing something they are not comfortable with. I am very clear that sitting out at the side, or in a designated safe area, is totally supported. This is a place to go where no-one can ask you for touch or to touch you. You can sit quietly, and watch what others are doing, or you can doze and switch off if you need to. It is like the ‘Shore’, but in fact you are even further inland, because you are not even up for playing in that sea. You can come back at any point though. No touch or exercises will take place in this area.
The space is intended to be a place where ‘what happens in the room stays in the room’ and people are encouraged to talk about the workshop afterwards but to talk about their own experience, not what someone else did or said about themselves. I ask everyone to sign up to this idea prior to or in the workshop. This clearly depends on trust, and an obvious exception would be where someone needed to raise a safety issue about the behaviour of a member within the workshop.
5. Guidance and intention
We are surrounded by rules all the time, so some people might feel like they don’t really want groundrules or guidelines for a fun workshop where you get to have touch and intimacy and nice things, that this might spoil the fun and make it feel restricted. However, this is not a play party (and play parties also need some rules and structure). There are a set of basic guidelines that might include how many clothes can come off, or whether the workshop includes genital or sexual touch etc. Drugs and alcohol are not a feature of ‘Conscious touch’ events. It is important that everyone coming into the space shares a similar intention. This is where the marketing and preparation, such as the questions I ask on booking forms, talking to people I don’t know comes in. If the workshop includes genital touch or body fluids, there will be specific protocols about making sure fluids are not shared, barriers are used and the space is also kept clean.
6. Space-holding people
I recognise that I am the primary space-holder and I take this seriously and recognise that there can be a power dynamic involved in being seen as a leader or facilitator. I do not take part and ensure that I can clearly stay present in my role of ensuring the workshop runs as it should and that people feel able to approach me or assistants if they need anything.
I have been really lucky to have some great assistants supporting me with my workshops. It is important that the space is ‘held’ and the small team is a big part of that. There will be someone available to demonstrate the exercises with so participants can just focus on themselves, and extra people who can respond if a group member is upset or leaves the room, and of course to hand out equipment (oil, tissues, antiseptic foam, and gloves and lube in certain workshops!) Assistants will usually not take part, so they are clear-minded and can play the role of witnessing and holding the space, which means being present and attentive.
7. Different needs and abilities
I try incredibly hard never to book a venue that does not have basic disability access, entrances, toilets etc. I include questions about sensory needs on my booking form (e.g. how do you feel about josticks?) I ask throughout the workshop for people to let me know about environmental issues such as temperature, lighting and music/background noise. I acknowledge without judgment some people’s feeling about touching others and uncomfortable feelings around germs, so I provide antiseptic foam (and permission not to, of course). Many of my workshops have welcomed people with different mental health and neuro-diverse conditions and we often have an open dialogue about these things and how they affect touching, verbal consent, reading your body, making connections with others, etc. It is ongoing learning about how to create a space that embraces all of our different needs and ways of being.
8. Trauma awareness
I am trained and practice in a ‘trauma informed’ way. My workshops are planned to take into account that (particularly LGBTQ communities) there are high levels of trauma, including body based and sexual trauma. Many of the steps I have described above take this into account and this awareness is woven into the whole event. There are corners I would not cut due to this awareness. I aim to create a space where we welcome all sorts of different responses and reactions to the work, and that the facilitators, assistant and the team (and the sofa of safety) will be a part of containing and supporting what comes up for people, because we are a community for that time.
I acknowledge too that sometimes people’s mental health and active trauma is just too heightened for a workshop like this to be a good idea at that time, and would support people to make the choice that was right for them and other participants. I work on a one to one basis with people who might struggle with a workshop for these reasons, and ensure that they also have support from talking therapy.
9. Breathing is not always easy
Any breath based activities I include in my workshops are done with the awareness that many people, particularly in the client group I work with, are intensely stressed, hyper-vigilant, over stimulated and anxious. There are a range of breathing techniques often taught in yoga and other body-based and spiritual practices that are designed to ‘up-regulate’ our nervous system, that is wake us up, enliven us and in some cases create an altered state. Many people who experience anxiety, panic and are already stressed find these kind of exercises very unpleasant and uncomfortable. It can be difficult to say no, or to decline when in a workshop setting where everyone around you is doing a breathing exercise.
In my experience, even being told to do deep breathing, or to count breaths or to focus attention on the breath, can be a disturbing experience for some people. So, in the spirit of true Consent (my feeling is that if we cannot be in full choice and control of our breath, our very life source, what can we be in control of?!) I have a light touch with my use of breath in my workshops. I do believe in the power of breath and will share what I know and believe with people, but I approach them with an invitation to ‘experiment’ and see how it is for you? And I share what I know, that deep slow breaths, with a longer out breath are the most relaxing, so try it if you like. I emphasise the importance of a deep breath and a pause before making consent decisions, but that deep breath is individual to everyone. and if someone comes along to my workshop and they are a breathing master, they are fully encouraged to use breath in a way that is right for them!
I share with people the reality that even if they leave the event feeling high, and connected and wonderful, they might have a little crash a few days later. Leaving a space we have created that is so safe and gives so much permission to be ourselves can be so hard to leave and to return to our lives, the streets, work, the usual expectations that are enforced on us. I encourage people to take care of each other by staying in touch and by being in touch with me by email or social media.
For my next event (Quintimacy Birmingham on Sat 9th March 2019) please see https://www.facebook.com/events/190285878538335/