On Diversity & Inclusion in Sex-Positive Culture
In 2014, the San Francisco Chronicle named William Winters the "de facto king of the East Bay polyamory scene." He's been working to earn the title ever since.
An activist, educator, and intimacy coach, William is the founder and co-producer of Bonobo Network, an Oakland-based organization that brings together folks who understand that monogamy isn’t right for everyone and that pleasure comes in many different packages to become more sexually informed, liberated, consensual, communicative, kind, and inclusive so that we can all get the pleasure, connection, and understanding we deserve.
William has also been an advocate for polyamory in the media, appearing in San Francsico Magazine, KQED's Forum, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New York Times. He has facilitated conversations about polyamory and sex-positive culture in settings including university campuses, political conferences, living rooms, Burning Man, and beyond.
A campaign strategist by profession, a culture nerd by avocation, and a philosopher by major, William lives with his wife and their stupid cat in Oakland, CA.
Ethical Subculture Creators
William: It came at a time when I think there was actually a lot of demand for POC spaces and events and so, completely independently, this amazing ecosystem of sex positive and kinky events were forming, and Groups was one. The work, I think, is certainly like to fight systemic racism and also to like make sure that, to the extent possible, the communities with bases that we're creating are operating with a sensitivity to those systemic realities. That's, like, what inclusion is.
Lianne: I'm Lianne. Welcome to Strippers and Sages, a podcast that explores sex and eroticism through the lenses of art, culture, politics, spirituality and racial justice. Today I'm speaking with William Winters, named in 2014 by the San Francisco Chronicle as the de facto king of the East Bay polyamory scene, a title he's been working to earn ever since. An activist, educator and intimacy coach, William is the founder and co-producer of Bonobo network, an Oakland-based organization and community that throws play parties and events to help people become more sexually informed, liberated, communicative, and kind, so that we can all get the pleasure connection and understanding we deserve. A campaign strategist by profession, culture nerd by application, and a philosopher by major, William has been featured in San Francisco Magazine, KKD forums and the New York Times. In today's episode, we speak about inclusivity and diversity within the polyamorous and sex positive culture, consent as care and the intersection of activism and erotic liberation, all my favorite things. Hey, William, thank you so much for joining me today to talk about all of your exciting projects.
William: Surely, thanks for having me.
Lianne: So just to start off, I would love for you to orient us and just tell us a little bit about Bonobo network and how it formed, how you got involved with it, or how you started it, and give us a little bit of a lay of the land.
William: So, Bonobo network brings together people who understand that monogamy isn't right for everyone in that, and that pleasure comes in many different packages, to become more sexually informed, liberated, consensual, communicative, kind, and inclusive. So that we can all get the pleasure connection and understanding that we all deserve. So what we ultimately done over the years, is were building community, and connection, and capacity, and effects of positive and non-monogamous worlds. One of the ways we've been that is, by throwing play parties creating these, you know, sort of safer spaces for people to come together in celebration of the erotic. We are a lot more than just a play party, I would say, like the group of folks we've assembled over the years are a legit community. And, you know, we put a lot of effort into the community-building aspect, and cultivating that sense of community, which, of course, has come in really handy in the face of a global pandemic, when you can't exactly, you know, get down in the same way as we've been getting down in these last nine or 10 years. As for how we got together, how the group started, it basically began, as a party that I threw for my 31st birthday and you know, 25 people in my little two-bedroom apartment in Oakland. And it just sort of ballooned from there. I think it dovetailed with my growing presence and leadership in the Bay Area non-monogamous community. I was at the time leading an event called the Open Relationship Community Potluck, and also moderating the Facebook group. And at the time, it was the biggest regular event for non-monogamous folks in the Bay. And so there was just a lot of there were lots of happy feedback with virtual circles.
Lianne: Cool. So you started with the party in your home, and it was a play party, you set the stage for that to be what that party was gonna be about? Like, what did you go into that first event wanting to create?
William: Really good question. When I threw this party, I'd been living in the Bay for about a year and a half maybe - I landed here in November 2008. So the first party was in like, July 2010. And so my network was just forming. My sense of possibility was really just sort of being created. And so, earlier that year, I had been invited to my first for larger scale, private play party, and you know, there was this amazing opening circle, and, you know, the sort of workshopy sort of thing that was really like, heart-opening and connecting, and it also did a really excellent job of letting everyone in attendance know exactly what was expected of them. You know, not just in a, sort of, like logistical perspective, or from a rules perspective, but also from an emotional perspective. And after experiencing that, I just knew that that was the kind of experience I wanted to create. So I brought some of that experience and some of that learning into that first party.
Lianne: Yeah, I'd love to talk about that opening circle and other opening circles that I'm sure you've since facilitated or been part of, because I think that is so important - setting the stage - and not all other parties do that, or do that well. And especially when you're talking about it's not just about the rules, but it's about it being heart-opening, it's about, you know, guidelines for engagement and opportunities. And so yeah, I'd love to hear a little more about what those circles consist of, and what you have found to be effective in setting the stage and creating a safe space for people.
William: Yeah, I mean, I see that a lot of different social technologies could be effective, you know, like, they're are many roads to Rome, they say, and I don't claim to have any, like, sort of lock on the one right way. But I will say that, like, the most effective opening that I've seen, and I've led, include a few elements. One is that people need to understand that, and need to communicate to folks what they're there for, you know? Like, what the common project is, what everyone is getting up to together. And I feel like that's one of the places I most commonly see opening circles, like, fail, you know, like, not do well, like not sort of getting that we're all in this together. Because it's from that sense that people get the sense that like, folks in the space might have each other's backs in a particular way. And actually playing that up, and like, sort of setting the expectation that in the space, we have each other's backs, and we're looking out for each other, and so on and so forth, is just like, to me, so important for weaving the many individuals in attendance together into a community. Because that's what a community is, like a community is isn't just a group, it's an entity, a collective entity, where its members feel like other folks might happen back when things go wrong. And I think that there is another important element of just like, conveying the rules of the road. So, you know, like, what are the cultural expectations? For us, for instance, it's not just conveying that consent is important. You know, it's also making sure that everyone in attendance understands, like what the consent really means and really looks like, and understanding that consent isn't just the pro-forma thing that you ask for that is a speed bump to getting what you want. You know, it's like a subjectifying practice that really puts the well-being and autonomy and pleasure of the people you're connecting with at the center. You know, with the practice grounded in empathy and care and concern. And so taking the time to actually communicate that, like, again, it's not just the rule, but it's like the North Star, you know, like the thing behind the rule, that everyone can be aligned with. Because when you give people not just the rule, but the principle, then anyone can hopefully look around and be like, "Oh, that person may be asking for consent, technically, but like, they are out of sync with this principle that I understand" And so all of that, I think, is really important, to getting people in sync with the culture. And for us, our culture is non-pressuring. And, we're rooted in a principle I like to call "high possibility, low expectation". And I think that having that principle be like at the center of our existence creates the vibe. And I think that, like, vibe is the sort of felt sense of the culture, you know? It creates the vibe that makes for a sexy party, but also, hopefully, one where you're where, like, no one's going to experience a pressure to do anything that... it's cultivating a spirit of invitation, I would say, rather than expectation.
Lianne: I love that. I love that so much. And I also love how you were framing consent, because I think, again, to think about it as caring for the others well-being - I actually don't know that I've heard it so explicitly presented as like, that is what consent is. And I think it really shifts the onus, like you're saying from somebody trying to get something and then otherwise being rejected or denied that thing, too. Not that it's all goal oriented, but if you're thinking about the objective of consent and asking for consent, if the objective is to be looking out for one another and for one another's well being then no matter what, whether the answer is yes, I'd like to engage or no, I would not, the objective has been fulfilled, and you both like created that together. And the possibility and no expectation is really beautiful - a good way to live life, I think! Good way to bring that out into the world in some ways.
William: Yeah, for sure. I mean, so much of what we talk about in our culture setting activities, I think of as, as just stuff we all should have learned in kindergarten - like high possibility low expectation, like so much as possible, and no one owes you anything. Consent, like ask before you touch, that's really important.
Lianne: Kindergarten play parties is what they should be called. So what are some of the activities that you do?
William: Some of the actvities at the parties or in the circle?
Lianne: Either or both.
William: Um, so I'll just say that, like, you know, our opening circles have undergone a little bit of a transformation. Partly because a few years ago, the opening circles stopped being the primary point of transferring culture, from organizers to attendees, and instead we started requiring that everyone who attends our events, first attend an orientation, right. And so, that has allowed us to use the opening circles to certainly still convey a culture, because some things just bear repeating even, and maybe even especially, the more experienced people who can sometimes like, you know, get a little lax on their content practices as they get more comfortable in a space. So the opening circles have been have become places where, you know, we can do more like participatory activities and exercises and emphasize different practices. For example, at our opening party in 2019, and only party in 2019 I should say, thanks, COVID. We invited Celeste Hirshman and Danielle Morale from Somatica, which is a sexual relationship coaching method to lead an exercise for the opening circle. And so, they did an interactive exercise that was like grounded in consent, but that really like, dropped people into their bodies, into a more playful mode. And that really helped the party to like, get off to a even sexier start, I would say. Even though, like most parties, some people can stand around awkwardly and do some sorting, but that hasn't typically happened as much in Bonobo because it is such a long standing community. And there are so many pre-existing relationships, sometimes it's a little bit like, off to the races after the opening circle, and so the activity that Celeste and Danielle lead definitely amplified that, which was really cool. And, you know, as for the rest of the party, we typically have a DJ, or have DJs playing all night, we book great DJs, there's a DJ duo, gK 47, who have come on as our music directors, and they're amazing. And we have like, an amazing lineup here. Sometimes we'll book live musicians, like Rachel Lark has played at our events before and you know, we'll have workshops sometimes before the party starts. So, you know, we'll give people a chance to learn different fields, we've had Midori come to teach about BDSM communication and rope. And we've had Marcia Puginsky teach, she's an amazing sex educator. And yeah, we like to make the parties opportunities to connect, and also opportunities to learn if folks want to learn. We've had folks come teach about like, humiliation, play, and about, you know, BDSM communication and about in about, you know, consensual course, and just about, you know, female ejaculation or squirting, like, just so many, so many topics.
Lianne: That's awesome. I love that you're making it an educational as well as experiential space.What are the venues that you hold? And what is the sort of layout? Like, is it sort of? Do you have designated spaces for designated play areas? Or, you know, is it sort of open layout? or, how to how do you navigate space?
William: Yeah. I think it's really important in these parties, especially again, when you're trying to cultivate a sense of community to have social spaces that are separate from the sexual spaces. Not every venue allows that particularly because in our party it can be big, but for the most part, you know, we only select venues, you know, we try to select venues where that's possible. I guess the first thing I should say is that parties tend to be 150 to like 200 or 225 people.
Lianne: That's big!
William:150 is on the on the small end for us, and that's usually for our daytime parties, because those are typically held at like private homes with a pool. Because what's better than a sex party around a big pool?
Lianne: I can't think of anything better than that!
William: Yeah. For the for those parties, we're gonna have 150 people and you know, we'll again try to have like social spaces that are somewhat separate from the sexual spaces, although, you know, particularly when the venue has a private enough backyard, then you can certainly have like sexual play outside and then have like the DJ set up outside and have the speakers be a bit of a sound buffer so that the sex sounds don't like waft into the neighborhood.
Lianne: I'm thinking of like the sounds of sex wafting over the Berkeley hills...
William: I'm sure it happens just because people have sex. But, you know, I'm also sure that people aren't used to like hearing, like, dozens of people having sex. You know, just like asking people in the opening circle to just like, try to be, like, quieter than the music, right? Is the play, you know. But yeah, we also always have like, dedicated play space- we'll try to have like one space of setup as a dungeon so that there's... you know, BDSM play can happen anywhere, but you know, particularly more intense stuff might be triggering, it's often nice to just be able to, like, go deep into that without having to worry about like, whether you're gonna, like trigger someone or whatever. So having that space is pretty important. We also have a room called the angel room. And that's like a dedicated non-sexual space. It's a space to get away from the more intense energies of the party, maybe have a quiet moment. If folks need like, emotional support, and that's a really great place to go and, you know, have quiet conversation and you know, even like cuddle, just ask the people keep their cuddles like PG, as opposed to, you know, R rated. We actually have volunteers at the parties called Angels, and they're our space monitors, but they're also like, our emotional support volunteers. So if someone is having a hard time, if they're feeling lonely, if they're having a hard time meeting people, if they're triggered, because they see their partner is like hooking up with like, a hot new thing. And, you know, it's hard for them for whatever reason, they can like talk to an angel and expect to get like some high quality, listening, like not advice, but just like, you know, listening and reflection and you know, caring presence.
Lianne: Are they angels trained? Or they're just very emotionally adept humans? Who are the angels?
William: Yeah, I mean, we do have an internal Angel training, we also, you know, encourage people to have like, therapy and counseling, and, you know, we're in the Bay Area. So a lot of like hippy personal transformation, people. So people like, with skills, like with, active listening skills, and so forth to practice supporting people emotionally.
Lianne: So talk a little bit about the demographics of like, who, who comes to these parties, you were talking about that, in some ways, you've really built this community over the years. So a lot of people know each other. What's what's the sort of makeup in terms of who attends and how people find you, and age, race, like who's shown up at the door?
William: Yeah, sure. I mean, because the party started off as like, my group of friends, it has reflected my circles in a lot of ways. When I started during the party, I was 31. And now I'm 41. And I'd say the party has aged as well. So, you know, the sort of biggest age band and attendance that like 35 to 44 age men, where before it was like, probably 24 to 35 or 25 to 34. Whatever. Yeah, I'd say that, you know, be sex positive and non-monogamous and BDSM communities in the Bay Area, tend to be whiter than the population at large. And I think that while Bonobo Network is more diverse than the Bay Area, like poly sex-positive BDSM network, I think there's still a lot of work to do. You know, I think one of the things that helped us is, you know, A) that I'm a black person- definitely, like, having a black guy in front of the room I think like, it helps to make the space more attractive to folks of color who get to like, see someone in your ship who looks a little bit like them, perhaps. And instill some confidence. And then the other thing is that, you know, a big part of my network has been the sort of area sort of non-profity, social justice activists world. So those folks have also participated over the years and still participate. And that's also been helpful. But like I said, I think that we still have work to do, like, you know, every other institution. One of the strategies that we used to sort of help that is, I started a second party, or helped to start second party, called Express Yourself with a dear friend . And we later brought on a whole team of co-producers, and it's called Express Yourself, and its a POC-exclusive event. And so, we throw these parties quarterly. And the really cool thing about Express Yourself that it came at a time when I think there was actually a lot of demand for POC spaces and events, and completely independently, this amazing ecosystem of sex-positive and kinky, bdsm events were forming, and groups were forming and so there's you know, kpoc kinky people of color which grew out of San Francisco you know, the next generation, next-gen poly community. There was Black Kink bay area called be BKBA, there's Kinky, Colorful and Conscious, which is a discussion group that is happening at Vox body, oh and Mission Control also helped to see a POC party called Full. And so that's also happening. So now, there's this just incredible ecosystem that I'm just so happy and proud to be a part of, and I take absolutely zero credit for, because it's just a small, beautiful ecosystem right now. And, and I think that like supporting that ecosystem, through Bonobo helps to, well, I'd say is just like, good in and of itself. And then secondly, I think that it does help to bring folks into a little bit of a pipeline.
Lianne: So what do you attribute the initial lack of diversity in play spaces and in the poly community to, and how is the culture in Express Yourself and in these other POC parties, how to how does the vibe as you were saying earlier, like, how does it feel different?
William: Oh, well, I mean, so the answer is systemic racism.
Lianne: But particularly in those areas, like, you know, what is it? Is it something about, um, I mean, yes, of course, and everywhere, but in particular in the poly community, you know, like, what...
William: I think that first off, there is, there is in the polyworld, this tendency to think of what we do as like being like, super new, super special thing, but like, having fun vocabulary, and we're like constantly making up words like compersion and, you know, poly-saturated. And the reality is that in many communities of color in the United States, you know, especially about the black communities that I know personally, there's actually a long history of non monogamy that, you know, has been, like, demonized in reports about the dissolution of the American family for generations, like back to the 60s. And so, you know, I think that part of it is that when these conversations were sort of developing, in, like, white spaces, they were doing so largely, as white phenomena, and sort of separate from the experience of other folks who, like, have done it differently for a long time. So, that's one thing. I think that secondly, at least the sort of early practitioners of will now call polyamory like, you know, have come from like, white counterculture, more sort of, like, educated background that we're never like, that sort of inclusive to begin with. And that's one reason why I say that systemic racism is part of what kept us separate before like, housing segregation, and, like, lack of access to institutions, and, you know, like, that sort of thing. And like, so, you see the knock on effects of both, of course, in our intimate activities. And the work, I think, is, you know, it's like, it's certainly, like, fight systemic racism, and also, like, make sure that, to the extent possible, the communities with bases that we're creating, are operating with a sensitivity to those systemic realities, you know, what I mean?
Lianne: Totally, thank you so much just for speaking of that, because I think it's especially that point you're making about the white phenomenon, the newness, like, we've now invented polyamory is is a really interesting and important thing to presence.
William: Yeah, it's interesting that my cousin is doing what I was now, when I was a kid.
Lianne: Right, and like, as you were saying, the sort of demonization or vilification of communities that were practicing those modalities prior to it then becoming, you know, sanctioned or respectable through the white construction of it. Yeah, we had Dr. Kim Tall Bear on a few weeks ago, who was talking about the institution of marriage and compulsory monogamy and how that became a tool of settler colonialism. And so just looking also at indigenous communities, and how there's like a real irony there to look at, in how those practices were, as you're saying, like, blamed for breaking up the nuclear family and, you know, deemed just threatening to American respectability and way of life. And now here we're like, in the flourishing of polyamory, and that it's concentrated in these white communities, at least in the public eye.
William: Yeah. And there are definitely folks, you're just doing an amazing job of bringing these conversations to non white communities, like there's Ron Young, he founded Black and Poly and is an amazing guy and a wonderful advocate for non monogamy in black communities, he's a real resource to folks. And many other amazing sex educators and writers of color who are expanding the conversation and helping to expand this sense of relational possibility.
Lianne: Absolutely. So, what was your route into... I know, you spoke about how you started the party, but what what about like in your 20s? Or what was your sort of journey towards non-monogamy and these explorative spaces?
William: Yeah, good question. So I am originally from South Louisiana, I grew up in a little town called Liberia. And it is the home of Tabasco sauce and it is the home of the equally famous Louisiana sugarcane festival - houses are like surrounded by sugarcane on four sides. So, you know, I went to college at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, really started getting exposed to the world. And in many ways importantly became an activist organizer, before I first got exposed to the idea of polyamory or open relationships. But, you know, I didn't really think that it could work. And in fact, when my current partner, and I were sort of talking about it, like 15 years ago, like 2007, or something. We were both like thinking about the polyamorous people who we knew, and it's like, oh, yeah, like those two open their relationship as a prelude to break up that relationship with a crash and burn. Yeah, there's just like, weren't really models, you know, but we had this conversation about our values and, and realized that, like, our values were sort of aligned with non-monogamy and I relayed this conversation to a co-worker in the restaurant I used to work at and she was like, oh, well, you know, I just got a copy of this book, the Ethical Slut from the Women's Center book sale. Want to borrow it? And so she just like, handed me, what I thought was likethe instruction manual to open relationships. And it seemed fine. So we started checking it out and reading the book and decided to give it a shot. Against all odds, here we are, you know, 15 years later in the Bay.
Lianne: What were the initial values, because, I think people come to polyamory through different, as you said, different routes to Rome, so what what were the sort of values that you honed in on that resonated with you, in terms of the lifestyle?
William: We'd both been in relationships with pretty controlling people at various points previously, and we're sort of reflecting on that, and reflecting on the idea that, like, relationships shouldn't be equivalent to ownership, you know, and that's what we attributed to being in relationship with before. And so that idea was really important. I think I have a slightly different idea now, but the idea that, like, jealousy was something that was like, to be overcome, and that it was, like, corrosive when it you know, sort of a main organizing principle of a relationship. That was important at the time. And then, of course, like freedom and autonomy, you know, that was really important to me, certainly. And,I think also just like the value of like, pleasure and variety, you know, is also pretty relevant. I was my partner's, like, maybe only sexual partner, when we first started dating and, you know, I think one of us sort of reflections of like, well, like... those were some of the ideas that led us to consider it, and then we sort of got caught up in, you know, poly floppity.
Lianne:15 years is a is a success story. Indeed.
William: Yeah, I think that one of the really interesting things that I've seen of like, we moved to the bay and became like organizers in the non-monogamous world and became like, more reasonable, it's like, a lot of people have this investment in seeing us succeed, in the way of like, longevity, and, like not breaking up or whatever. And I just don't think that that's like, the right measure of success, you know? It feels like the measure of success is like being able to navigate what is in a relationship with, like, flexibility and love and skill and like staying in connection, even through the hard parts, even if, like the form of the relationship shifts, which, you know, I'm quite sure I don't have to tell you, but you know, for our listeners, you know, it just feels like an important thing, because, you know, relationships, change and romantic relationships end, and it doesn't mean that they're any less successful.
Lianne: Totally, I mean, my favorite is when people are like, "oh, it just sounds so hard, like polyamory just sounds so hard," like, monogamy is pretty challenging too. Like relationships are challenging in a beautiful way. And so, yeah, I think that's really important, what you're saying about refining our terms of quote, unquote, evaluation, longevity and success, and disentangling those things. So what do you see as, like, the intersection of your activism work, and the... I want to say function, but it is maybe not the right word, but like the container that these play spaces provide? How do you see those things intersecting?
William: So I see them intersecting in a few ways. I mean, first off, having a framework for thinking about inclusion and diversity, and like beings are socially aware and, and trying to invite a pretty, wildly divergent community in terms of like ideology, or even like global awareness at all, to also behave and speak in ways that support our community's goals of inclusion has been, like pretty big and important, and informed by my time as an activist and organizer and like, trainer on systemic racism. So I'd say another big piece is in how we deal with consent violations when they happen. We have adopted an approach rooted in transformative justice. We're trying to orient away from disposability going away and that is another thing that's like been informed by like my panels and organizer. We wrote a an accountability policy that was shared pretty widely around the sex-positive world and that informed a number of spaces like sort of thoughts so they construct their own policies and you know, we adopted the various reformative justice coalition's accountability pod model as like one of the technologies we use when a breach has happened. And, you know, we work with folks to form accountability pods and really just take accountability for the impact of their actions or behavior and construct a divine road towards, like, transformation. So that hopefully folks can can have a path to like, rebuilding the broken trust with the community. Mm hmm.
Lianne: And so in a pod, are you holding... what does a transformative justice circle look like in this context? Like, are you actually bringing together the... I don't know... violator feels strong, but you know, the two people implicated within a circle or what, how do you actually build or rebuild in that way?
William: I would say that, that mediation is not a core aspect of the approach, partly because, you know, we don't want to force someone who has been harmed to, like, do a bunch of extra emotional work, you know? The way I think about this, man, I went back, and it was me, and my co-producer, Misha, were like, writing the policy and like thinking about it. And I went back and re-read John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, where he like talks about the role of the state in meaning out punishment. One of the things that people do when they come together, and form a society, it's like, the individual gives up the right to revenge, and, like, the state is, like, the only sort of like power to have that right, under the compact with the government. And, you know, I don't think that we are the government, I don't actually think that we have the capacity to do punishment well. But, we basically say, like, if you as a person who has been harmed, want to go the punish route, we will totally support you in like, engaging with the criminal justice system, etc. But like, that's not what we do here. And, you know, here's sort of how we're going to handle it in our, in our space. And, and, which isn't to say that, like, there are consequences for one's actions, you know, like you violate, like, the trust of the community in some way, then you may leave access to the community until that trust is rebuilt. And these accountability pods are one path to rebuilding that trust. And one accountability pod is, is essentially a group of people, ideally, people who you have some relationship with, who are invested in seeing you do better, you know? Like being accountable for the harm that you do? Like, support a person in their path towards like, accountability and transformation. So they help provide like... Because accountability work is hard work. As a society we generally haven't built the muscles of accountability very deeply, particularly for men. You know, I think that's true. Most of the people who we've had to engage in these processes have been men or at least assigned male at birth. And so you know, that's a real thing, you know. And so, approaching that failure of our society with a degree of compassion and with a focus on the outcome of transformation, is what these accountability pods are all about. And the goals that we set in Bonobo for accountability are: one, we want to see evidence of taking full responsibility; second, we want to see some evidence of the animal process of transformation, we want to see evidence that someone like, actually understands, you know, what happened and that they have developed and internalized strategies for addressing whatever it is went wrong, that led to the breach; and then the third thing is, we would like to, to the extent possible, we want to see some evidence of restoration, you know, some like, attempt to contribute to the well-being and wholeness of someone who was harmed or to the container of the community that was harmed, right? And so like, once a person in their pod have like, gone through a process and sort of like gotten to this point, then they can be evaluated for re-entry into the community, if you're suspended as a condition or as a consequence of whatever happened.
Lianne: As you're speaking, I mean, I think that's all very, first of all, I love applying Locke to play party space, very original. Appreciate that. And, yeah, accountability, I think is just a really great word when this is we're talking about this. And it brought me back to thinking about, like, the kindergarten space that we started off speaking about, because it acknowledges how there is so little education. And I think that a lot of consent violations so often are subtle, and due to someone being misinformed or just not conscious and aware. You know, there are also, of course, many more egregious violations, but it's when it's in that sort of murky ground. I think that, that it gets interesting and challenging. And so, I think, to create a container where it's not about just rejecting someone without any sort of education about what went wrong, and you finding a way to hold someone still in community, feels really important, as we, as a culture continue to figure out how to navigate these situations.
William: Yeah, for sure. I mean, yes, I think that's exactly right. And, you know, not everybody is that into transformative justice. I can imagine that a lot of people have probably had experiences with, you know, restorative justice circles or transformative justice circles that like went wrong, because they were like, under-resourced or not set up for success, or whatever. We really understand that, because like, this stuff is hard. Because non monogamy is hard, right? It's not hard because of like, anything about itself. It's hard, because life is hard. But there isn't like, a bunch of scaffolding just like passively set up in society to help us deal with it, like there is with monogamy or like there is with carcerality. Right? So, um, yeah.
Lianne: Yeah. And so then there's this parallel, because there's the invention of new culture with polyamory, with these play spaces, too, right? We started off the conversation speaking about how you're really creating a culture. And so I think there's a real parallel in terms of erotic exploration as well. It's like, in the absence of scaffolding, or in the recognition that the scaffolding we do have is flawed and myopic and problematic, how do we unlearn and then reinvent? And, of course, just doing that in our own personal erotic lives is like an exercise in that as well. And then how do we bring that into society and reconstruct?
William: Yeah, and that concept of unlearning is so important. And I think that it's like one of the most frequently underestimated or unconsidered challenges of being in sex-positive or non-monogamous community or spaces or lifestyle. It's like, as a human being, you have internalized a lot of messages, of habits, of narratives about the way the world should be. What we're trying to do is creating a space that compassionately lets people not just like learn something new, but also do the flow work of unlearning. The, perhaps, counterproductive stuff that makes it harder, again, to be, like non-monogamous or to orient towards, towards the new thing. And, I mean, one of the cool things about having a community built around these play parties and these, like expressions of the erotic is that there's this like, very powerful reward for unlearning!!! You get access to community and connection and sensuality and sexuality and pleasure and touch and, you know, what I mean? And, like, as much depth as you want, and so on. And, to me, that is a powerful reward for...
Lianne: Doing that work.
William: Doing that work of un-learning that way. Yeah.
Lianne: Yeah, totally. Can you speak to the name, Bonobo? How that name emerged?
William: Yeah, totally. So there is a book called Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá who basically write about the question of whether human beings are naturally monogomous, the critique of the idea that is held that all human beings are naturally monogamous.from an evolutionary biology perspective... or evolutionary psychology, excuse me. It basically says that, like human beings are evolutionarily equidistant between chimpanzees and bonobos. And chimpanzees have these sort of violent, aggressive, patriarchal cultures, where bonobos have... I think the reality is actually that Bonobo's aren't as peaceful as people think they are. They have these cultures that are marked by more complex conflict resolution, and alliance building. And specifically, they use sexuality to mediate conflict and to create connection. A quick hump is like a bonobo handshake in many respects. You know, they're just as likely to like, or do a quick, a quick hump or GG rubbing, you know, genital genital loving, as like, do grooming or other similar primate bonding activities. And so, Ryan's argument is basically that human beings actually have a choice. Like we're situated between chimps and bonobos, and we see evidence of human societies that are built in more chimp-like militaristic structures, and we see evidence of human societies that are built in more like communal peaceful, free flowing bonobo-like structures. And that was the inspiration behind you know, having the bonobo be our mascot.
Lianne: I love that. I love that. Well, just to close, I'm curious how you are keeping the community alive in times of COVID. And also how, in terms of polyamorous practice, how are you navigating the network and the personal and the extended network?
William: Great question. So Bonobo has close to 30,000 people at this point who have attended our events and been connected to us in some way or another. And we have a Facebook group that we have used for a long time as the sort of online gathering place, and we're not doing in-person gatherings. The online space has been just a huge resource for people as they've navigated the waters of COVID, for finding housing, finding connection, for feeling like they're still connected to the non-monogamous world, even if their individual practice has perhaps become more necessarily monogamous, based on, you know, their own personal circumstances or risk factors or whatever. So, that's one piece. The second thing is that when the pandemic hit, we were planning to throw our second party of the year on March 14. And we canceled the party a week before that, and my business partner, Misha, and I just immediately started strategizing about what we could do to create as much connection as possible during a time of like profound disconnection when there was a lot of disappointment, when there was a lot of fear, when people didn't feel like they knew a lot... we didn't know a lot about what it was, you know? People are locked in their homes. And so we came up with this approach of bringing everything online, we've done virtual parties, we we're doing them weekly for a while. And then, after about two months, they became every other week. And more recently, in October, we started doing them monthly. We were doing like a monthly happy hour in real life. And we decided that that would just become a weekly virtual happy hour. We started a daily online angel room, so people could just like pop in from noon to one, Monday through Friday, and then we expanded to seven days a week, and that became some days a week and few evenings. Now it's back down to just five days a week, Monday through Friday, but you know, noon to one, there is a space that people can just like pop into and expect that there's going to be someone there who's oriented towards just like listening, and gently facilitating the space when there are multiple people and you know, making sure that that people feel like a connection. We have studied using the icebreaker.video app, which is like one of my favorite video app.
Lianne: Oh, I don't know about it.
William: Oh, it's so great. So it's kind of like the Zoom breakout room feature. But basically you sign in, and everyone who signs in gets dumped into like a text chat room. And the person organizing the event can start a game, and then everyone gets matched into one on one chats. And you have the opportunity to set up questions or conversation prompts with each round. And so we have a whole spreadsheet full of prompts about you know, from personal stuff to emotional vulnerability to stuff about the community and stuff about like, flirting and sexuality, informal support, BDSM and we have different rounds on different topics. We even created some games - one of our volunteers came up with a game called Name that Sex Act. Like, you're giving us a ridiculous name of a sex act, and you have to make up a description for it. We were doing that weekly for a while, and then it also became a monthly event. But we started a weekly interview series where I interview different sex culture creators every week. And so I've talked to such an amazing, amazing group of folks - Carole Queen and Bossy Easton and Shay and Stefanos and poly superstar Funky Swan, Kevin Patterson, and the poly organizer himself in Philadelphia, I mean, just like all these just amazing, amazing folks who are brilliant and soulful and ethical subculture creators. Yeah, it's a really, really great. We're gonna talk with Jessica Fern, who just wrote a book PolySecure a few weeks ago.
Lianne: I'm gonna link to all of these and follow up with them.
William: This is good.
Lianne: Good intel.
William: Always, always happy to share contacts. Yes.
Lianne: Yeah. I hadn't heard of that book, PolySecure?
William: PolySecure. It's a fantastic book. Basically, you know, a lot of the literature on polyamory is kind of polemical, in many respects, like philosophy of polyamory, and how it's done, and ethics and so on. But there are not a lot of resources that look at non monogamy from the perspective of trauma or attachment theory. And so this is a book that tries to bring those threads, and it's written by a therapist for lay people, but also as a way of informing therapists. So anyway, yeah, it's amazing.
Lianne: What does an online play party look and feel like?
William: I mean, things are done a little differently, of course. But yeah, so basically, we're on an online video platform, and it looks like a gallery view, where people are seeing all kinds of things. You have some folks who are couples, or, you know, small pods of people who are on camera playing. Mostly, you have a bunch of like individuals, and we invite people at the beginning of the party... So we start the party actually with an icebreaker. So we'll do that icebreaker app. And we'll give people a chance to really connect with each other and to like, create connections and build trust and maybe get some flirtations started. And then we'll do an opening circle, really brief one, and then we'll sometimes have like a burlesque dancer or something to help get people in the mood. And then we'll do like a meet market - where we'll invite people to speak their desires into the space...
Lianne: Meet market m-double e-t, not m-e-a...
William: So yeah, we'll invite people to share, either verbally or in the chat of the app, you know, the kinds of things they'd like to receive, or the kinds of things they'd like to offer, or the kinds of connections they're looking to make. And people will sometimes just have these really fun things - like one person is like, really into receiving compliments, and there's another person who has really just stepped into her inner cam girl and just puts on amazing show, and sometimes I'll like lead people in a group butt plug insertion at a particular time, you know? So we just kind of make really fun and participatory. And people actually do a fair amount of flirting via the chat. And we'll encourage people, because we want everyones microphones to be off unless they're making sexy noises, like we don't want like conversation. We'll encourage people that like if they're having like a one on one connection with someone you want to be him free, to have their phone handy. And like use their phone to actually talk with someone through like this scene.
Lianne: Wow! that sounds pretty awesome. It's like a bunch of little peep shows, but participatory peep shows.
William: Yes, exactly. It's very exhibitionist. But its also very voyeuristic, and you know, you might be in a scene with like one other person, but like, everyone's watching and you might get like a bunch of compliments in the chat for people who are like, Oh my God, that's hot, you know?
Lianne: That sounds really fun. Well, William, thank you so much for this conversation. It's been really rich, and I hope to be able to attend one of your events once we're able to meet again and perhaps virtually before then.
William: For sure. Yeah, we'd love to have you! Thank you so much.
Lianne: If this conversation turned you on, go ahead and drop a five in the ratings. Subscribe, send it to a friend. We think it's pretty sexy when you do that.
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