Communicating Consent at Summer Music Festivals: What We Learned at Lightning In a Bottle

Is affirmative consent possible when it's too loud to talk? With these nonverbal methods, it can be

The onslaught of summer festivals is upon us, and with Tomorrowland, Electric Zoo, Hard Summer and others still on the horizon, there's a good chance you and your friends will find yourselves in the deafening squall somewhere. So what happens when you spot someone you want to meet but the obliterating bass frequencies make conversation impossible?

What if you or someone in your orbit has taken a mind-altering substance? What if you spot someone acting sleazy? How do you take everything you've learned about consent and apply it to a setting that's predicated on sensory overload?

These questions and more were explored at an event at last month's Lightning In a Bottle—Do LaB's transformational festival that pairs live music and DJs (headliners this year included Flying Lotus, Santigold and Disclosure) with a slate of talks and workshops. Within a cluster of tents on the banks of Kern County's Buena Vista Lake, you might have found yourself being guided through a liminal dreaming exercise while overhearing the throb of the nearest dance stage and the shrieks from the Kundalini laughter meditation class next door.

That Saturday afternoon, two activists, Paula Kahn and X Razma, led a talk called "Interactive Intervention: Harm Reduction for Sexual & Psychedelic Crisis on the Dance Floor." This was one of a handful of events curated by MAPS, aka the Multidisciplinary Associates for Psychedelic Studies, who since 1986 have advocated for the healing properties of MDMA and other psychoactive substances. The takeaway: that drugs and volume needn't get in the way of clear communication—that consent can and must be clearly expressed regardless of the circumstances.

Kahn and Razma spoke with Playboy later that afternoon. As they had in their talk, they offered a wealth of ideas and strategies that took root in festival culture but could someday make the leap to clubs, concerts and just about anywhere else people gather to get their endorphins flowing.

So whether your thing is Electric Zoo, the Burger Boogaloo or something else entirely, read on and consider discussing these ideas with your festival-loving friends.
To a festival novice, your remarks about nonverbal consent on the dance floor could be pretty surprising. Can you really communicate consent in a context where talking is not an option?
RAZMA: I would very strongly say yes. The reason it’s not put forward as a method of getting affirmative consent is because it requires a very, very deep degree of attunement, and we as a culture have lost some of our literacy of body language. There’s a re-education process that needs to happen before that becomes more of a blossoming into the mainstream culture, but I very strongly feel that it’s possible. If you’re not sure, always check in verbally, but there are contexts in which that’s not possible, like if you are in front of a speaker. You can always guide someone to a place that you can speak, but our first language is body language.

PAULA: Something that I do to empower myself on the dance floor, as someone who has felt transgressions where I really like to harness my erotic, creative energy through dance, is to open up space around myself. Sometimes that looks like me twisting my arms side to side while I sway my hips and using my elbows to secure space behind me, and sometimes that looks like me making circular movements with my wrists and clearing space to the sides of me and in front of me. If your intention is to connect with someone on the dance floor, we have so many nonverbal tools and so many things we can rely on, such as the gift economy, to open up a wedge of engagement. Something that was really inspiring to me is the way that people exchange bracelets made out of colorful beads at raves, and it’s a really friendly act that can open up a conversation and see if there’s mutual interest. 
We also have to talk about bystander behavior... It’s a collective responsibility for all of us to be well-versed in observing.
But what about the people who don’t speak this language—who are not there in good faith or whose intention is just to get laid?
PAULA: I’ve been attending festivals and raves since I was 14, so it’s been a constant struggle to deal with the people who do commit acts of transgression on the dance floor because they haven’t been socialized to respect someone that they feel some sort of gravitation towards. If you are entering a festival with an ambition to get laid, it will show in your behavior. You'll blow your cover and risk turning off and annoying potential mates because your prioritization of fulfilling your primal needs will not be in sync with the culture of mutual respect, reciprocity and collective, communal pleasure that makes festivals so unique. 

If your sexual energy is potent, learn to harness your sexual creative power! There are often workshops at festivals on sacred sexuality or how sexuality can be spiritual or playful. Sometimes there are designated spaces to explore BDSM, nonmonogamy or orgies at festivals. Try attending those designated spaces where sexuality and eroticism is invited and celebrated, where you will receive more tools to engage in experiences that dial up pleasure and play for all those participating. Who knows—you might find what you are inviting into your life. But the best you can do is ensure that your approach to sex is not extractive or demanding.

RAZMA: I want to decouple “someone not entering the space in good faith” with “wanting to get laid.” There should be no shame in desiring to simply get laid, and I postulate that much of the shadow of sex occurs in the imposition of shame and guilt on the humanimal—the human animal—urge to merge. This suppression of the sexual urge results in a hidden pressurization and perversion of the desire for pleasure into darker twisted forms that emerge explosively and without control, resulting in violence. If simply getting laid is your desire, be upfront about it so that you can find a good match and not pressure anyone into doing something they don’t want to do. I use the phrase “consent is sharing intent."

Riffing off of Paula’s response, I want to acknowledge the constrictive cultural context of touch isolation that most male-bodied people are confined within. When boy-bodied beings are taught to suppress and dull their emotions, sensitivity and sensuality, the only way that they can access nurturing touch is through sex with female bodies. When the only culturally acceptable script to access intimacy and tenderness is through the salve of sex, a mass of needs is only able to be satisfied though or with women. I propose a reframe from “thinking past” to “diving deeper into”: Why do you want to have sex? What needs are you trying to meet? How can you satisfy these need so that you can be more relaxed about sex? How can sex become more of a choice and less of a desperate obsession? The more delve into your desire in detail, the more direct your description and dialogue can be, clarifying direction toward delivery of your deepest “darkest” desires. The playground of physical variety is immense, and you may find your needs more deeply through other ways of connecting beyond sex.

PAULA: I’d like to add also when there is that person that is so lost or disassociated from themselves that they’re not receptive to someone’s body language, to someone’s nonverbal cues, I think we also have to talk about bystander behavior—how it’s collective responsibility for all of us to be well-versed in observing. We need to pay attention to other people’s nonverbal cues and get over the stigma of being socially awkward so that we can make sure that everybody’s having a good time, that everybody feels safe. “Is anybody bothering you right now? Do you need a buddy?” Just having those tools to intervene and being confident that that will never be something that will degrade a person’s experience at festivals; it will enhance people’s experience and make them feel more protected and more safe to be free. And if someone just seems too out of their mind to be respectful, then it’s a community responsibility for us to not impose that burden on the person that is being energetically invaded.
I noticed that a lot of people here are having very individual experiences, giving each other room and dancing all the way to the back of the floor. If you’re at a rock show there’s usually a crush toward the stage, and if you’re in a club it’s much more about hooking up. I was kind of knocked out that people were so happy to just be in their own spaces.
RAZMA: This is reminding me of a body-based affirmative consent principle that I teach: “The Prolonged Pause.” So what you do is you give an invitation without expectation potentially in the form of movement, mirroring someone else’s dance, eye contact. And then you pause and you give them space to respond. You don’t continue to pressure energy towards them; you actually hold your desire within yourself after you’ve invited someone and you give them all the time they need to respond, and this is beautiful also because it works very well with the freeze trauma response. Tonic immobilization is what a freeze response is called in the psychological literature, and it’s an indication of a greater level of trauma. So what happens with animals is the fight-or-flight response is first—adrenalin. And then if the animal’s nervous system perceives that there’s an inability to escape it enters into the freeze state, because it’s playing dead for the predator in the hopes that maybe the predator will release its grip and then it can eventually get away, but it’s kind of like a last-ditch effort. It’s actually an escalation in the trauma ladder, which most of us don’t know. And so when we have this acculturation where we know that human animals have particular trauma responses, we can then be aware and look for that freeze state. When you do a prolonged pause it gives someone the spaciousness, even if they are in a freeze state, that you can actually track.

PAULA: Something I want to start asking is, like, “Hey, do you want to go on a festival adventure? Here’s my information.” Just leaving that invitation or that expectation, and if there is rejection, being grateful to someone for exercising that agency and then letting the experience go. Sometimes when people feel like they’re attracted to an energy, for whatever reason, they have to capture it, extract it, make it theirs—a toxic logic of conquest and domination. We can just be grateful for the ephemerality of so many people’s beauty here. You can offer to connect on a deeper level and to be okay with it not happening.
When I experience a transgression on the dance floor, it indicates to me that there is a pattern of extractive behavior that’s coming into the festival space.
So what’s one takeaway you might offer to someone who’s looking forward to a robust festival season?
RAZMA: I would say really dive into the delight of being present with yourself and other people. So much of the challenge in navigating these realms is lack of spaciousness. As you were mentioning, people are very spacious here, so give your invitations without expectation, in spaciousness and in a spirit of respect for other people’s body sovereignty. And if you’re seeing something or you’re feeling something that feels off, verbalize it and address it and gain clarity through communicating. 

PAULA: For me, I would recommend that people set intentions—out loud and with their camp mates or with themselves. Like, “My intention in this festival is to harness my erotic power and in alignment with healing the earth,” or “My intention is to connect with someone deeply.” Really being creative about how one is going to interact with other people, especially people that they feel attracted to or people they might meet on the dance floor. If people are going to be consuming psychoactives—especially mixing psychoactives—something I’ve learned over the years is to start in smaller doses rather than having one single big dose or taking both things at the same time, because sometimes we forget our tools when we’re at the peak of an experience that’s more than our bodies had anticipated. So it’s checking in with our intentions and knowing that, when you consume psychoactives, it’s not a guarantee that you’re going to connect intimately with someone even if that’s what you want. So don’t force intimate connection when you’re high on the dance floor, because maybe that’s not what needs to happen. Maybe you just need to dance it out and say a little silly prayer on the dance floor to connect some other time.

RAZMA: Let me just add a phrase that comes up: Start low and go slow. That applies to ingesting compounds, taking medicines and interactions—to move away from a feeling of scarcity and instead embody the abundance of what you seek.
Are you seeing these ideas start to seep into the world we’re all going back to after this festival?
RAZMA: Definitely. The pace of transformation can be slower than we prefer, but more conversations are happening, and awareness is evolving. For example, there’s the whole Me Too Movement brought to light a lot of insidious longstanding predatory behavior in the dominant culture that’s no longer tacitly acceptable. I’m seeing major changes happening in the mainstream city 9 to 5 settings that echo the evolutionary edge we embody in festival culture.

PAULA: For me, I’m reminded about how we have a lot of work to do. When I experience a transgression on the dance floor, it indicates to me that there is a pattern of extractive behavior that’s coming into the festival space because we carry collective intergenerational trauma from historical events of transgression. So the question doesn’t end at “How can we make festivals safer?” It also means that we’re ensuring that we uphold the processes of consultation, consent and cooperation in the way we engage with indigenous territory and in the way we compensate labor. And so something I’d like to see is some of the historically more advantaged and privileged people in festival spaces going back to the default world and committing at a higher level to engage in processes of decolonization and repairing the harms from historical trauma and building historical memory. That way we’re changing culture within festivals and in the default world, so that soon they’ll become one and it becomes mainstream to engage with each other in such a beautiful, collaborative, creative way.

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