Consensual events

In the weeks leading up to #IDOConsent on 30th November I’m sharing a few posts dealing with consent and non-consent at all levels: in wider culture, in our communities, in our relationships, and with ourselves. In this post I explore how we might make online and offline events more consensual.

You can check out more of this year’s #IDOConsent content and events here.

Many thanks to Justin Hancock for the podcast conversations which were the starting points for these posts. You can find those over on megjohnandjustin.com and on our Patreon. If you want to learn more about consent, there’s no better place to start than Justin’s new book Can We Talk About Consent? Available for pre-order now.

Consent

The definition of consent is ‘agreement to do something’. Being able to agree to something requires everyone involved feeling free-enough and safe-enough to tune into ourselves, and to communicate openly with others, about who we are, what our capacities are, and what we want and don’t want. So how can we run professional or social events – online and offline – in ways that maximise everyone’s capacity to consent?

Consent is the aim

First of all when planning an event, can we ensure that the aim is that everybody involved is consenting, instead of the aim being that it happens in a particular way, or that particular people attend, or even that it happens at all?

If people feel under pressure to attend a social or professional event then it’s hard – if not impossible – for them to be in consent. So can we attend to ways in which this might be the case and do what we can to mitigate those?

In the case of a social event, is there space for every potential attendee to be open about whether or not they fancy it, with recognition that it’s probably not everyone’s thing? For example, if you were planning a birthday party, wedding, or similar, you might think of providing friends and family with other ways they might celebrate you if that wasn’t their thing, or if they couldn’t afford to take part, or if they didn’t get on with other people who were going. That could be getting together with you personally at another time around the event to celebrate, or contributing a video message, for example.

In the case of a professional event, might people feel they have to attend even if it’s not a space they feel comfortable in, due to being asked by a manager, or their being financial penalties if they don’t? How might we reduce any sense of duty or obligation as much as possible?

Informed consent

When planning the event, it’s also important to consider informed consent, ensuring that people know what they’re getting into: what they will be doing and why, and what exactly will be involved. It’s important that they know these things before they decide whether to sign up.

This is particularly vital because, if you don’t tell people what to expect in advance, they may well find themselves in a ‘foot in the door’ scenario. Because they’ve shown up, paid, participated in the first part of the event, etc. they may well feel that they have to keep going, and can’t opt out if they begin to feel uncomfortable.

Important things to let people know about before they sign up include:

  • Any content or activities that could be potentially triggering for anybody
  • Who else will be involved if there are potential clashes
  • Whether they will be expected to talk with strangers – particularly whether that might involve difficult decisions about whether to out themselves or remain closeted about aspects of their experience
  • Whether activities will happen which are designed to elicit big memories or feelings
  • Presence of drugs/alcohol

It’s rarely possible to meet all potential access needs and some may be in tension. For example, physically accessible spaces can often be more financially expensive. Going slowly enough for some people may mean an event which is too long for others. Creating an event which is safe-enough for people new to a topic to ask basic questions and potentially mess-up may not be safe-enough for those who that topic is personally relevant to. This is why it’s good to be mindful of access needs, and to be clear what is and isn’t catered for at this event, and who it’s aimed at. 

Your role

It’s also worth thinking about your role in the event. Is this a co-created event where everyone is responsible for what happens, or is it one where you’re explicitly the organiser or facilitator? 

If it’s the latter then it’s important to recognise that that is a big role, and it takes a lot of energy and attention, so it might be wise to have somebody else available to assist. For example, that might be someone to sort out the technology at an online event so you’re not worrying about that, or someone who will check up on anybody who needs to leave, or more of a co-organiser or team to spread the load.

Probably the most important thing you can do in preparing for the event is whatever self-care helps you to be as present as possible to yourself and others, counting this preparation time as part of the work, and seeing this as more important than learning the content of what you’re planning perfectly. 

It’s worth being mindful, for example, of the risks of scheduling too many events back-to-back, of organising both a whole event and a workshop within that event, or of having people attend a professional event who you have other relationships with (e.g. clients, partners, family) without a clear plans with them about how that will work, and them understanding that you are ‘on’ and can’t be for them in the way that you usually are one-to-one.

It’s also important that you, as facilitator, are treated consensually as much as it is participants. You might work through a yes, no, maybe list to think about what kinds of events you are – and aren’t – up for being part of, and what your own consent agreements need to be, as well as considering what you’re offering to participants as a facilitator.

For example, with the shift to online events I’ve found that I generally want somebody else to monitor and filter questions coming in on chat, as it’s very hard to remain present to the conversation if I’m also watching chat comments come in. I’ve also had to be open with participants in online workshops about what kinds of situations I do and don’t have the capacity to hold.

Consent agreements

Early on it’s useful to form a group agreement, ideally through a process of asking the group what they need in order to feel free-enough and safe-enough to participate fully in the event (i.e. to be in consent). With shorter events it can be harder to do this, but you could ask people to write things down (e.g. in chat on an online platform) and then write a list of key ones. 

Important points for the group agreement would be: the kind of conversations we are aiming for here, treating anything people share confidentially, not putting people on the spot, listening, use of respectful language, looking on people with kind eyes if they make mistakes, checking in with yourself before sharing, and being being free to opt-out of anything or leave at any time. Some more suggestions are here.

At the end of the group agreement it’s great to model adding any access needs. For example I might explain that I’m hard of hearing and request that people don’t talk over each other. This, followed by asking if anyone else has anything to add, can enable people with other access needs to mention them.

Before or after the group agreement it’s useful to have some form of activity to help people to ‘land’ in the room and get a sense of who is there. For example this could involve inviting everyone who wants to take three breaths to orientate themselves in their body and the space; or inviting everyone who wants to write their name and location in the chat online.

Including pronouns in introductions is appropriate with groups who are already familiar with that practice, and where it’s likely that more than one person has pronouns that aren’t ‘he’ or ‘she’, otherwise one person can feel very exposed so it’s worth being cautious. If there’s an option like pronouns on badges or online handles that can be easier, especially if you model having yours there. You definitely need to flag up not assuming people’s pronouns if they’re not stated, perhaps by encouraging use of names and second person pronouns (e.g. ‘when you said…’ – looking at the person concerned – rather than ‘when he/she/they said…’).

Ongoing consent

Ongoing consent is important during the event. Just because people agree to something at the beginning, they may not as the event unfolds, so it’s important to give people opportunities to check in how they are feeling, particularly before a shift in activity.

To be consensual it must be possible for people to leave at any time, and it’s good to make this clear up front and provide easy ways to do so. For example, online, you might give multiple options ‘It’s fine to go mute, to blank your screen, or to turn down your volume and step away for a while if you need a pause. If you want to leave entirely, you can either let us know in the chat or just end the call – no need for an explanation.’

If people are breaking out into smaller groups, consider whether they get any choice in who to work with, and how to enable them to make choices if that is possible. For example in one online therapy course it was possible that some people might be clients of others, so people were encouraged to let moderators know if there was anybody they couldn’t be in a group with before break-out groups happened. Remember to be mindful of cultural power imbalances with dyad / group work, and how they may restrict who feels able to take openly.

Active consent

Group pressure and social scripts makes it very hard for people to opt out of activities which everyone else is participating in, and easy to passively go along with something that doesn’t feel right. 

It’s great if there can be two or three options to actively choose from, for example; or a group process to decide on what fits everyone’s needs; or an option to be an observer – where that is an important role; or a norm of a craft table or chill-out space people are encouraged to go to whenever they don’t fancy something; or – online – an option of writing responses in the chat rather than taking part in discussion on camera/audio, or an option for self reflection rather than group work. It also helps people if you always let them know why you’re inviting them to do a particular thing rather than just doing it.

Try to be mindful of the different access needs that are likely to be present. It’s important to have breaks and endings at the time stated as people may have very different energy capacities, concentration spans, requirements for nourishment, caring responsibilities, etc. Ideally people with such needs shouldn’t have to say something, but rather the space would be designed to be inclusive and/or opportunities given to state any specific needs in advance anonymously. Again modelling is great, e.g. ‘I’m going to stand up/lie down for this activity because my back needs it. Anybody else feel free to do whatever makes you comfortable too.’

Building in self-consent check-ins as part of the event is great, so people have a specific chance to tune into how they are feeling, whether they want to engage with something, and how. 

Endings and aftercare

It’s important to allow a decent amount of time to close the event to help people through the transition back into their everyday life. For example you might have a closing round of ‘one thing that people are taking away’, or an opportunity to write something in chat online. As facilitator you might offer to be around for a certain amount of time to deal with any individual debriefs that need to happen. It’s good to be super clear with yourself in advance what you can and can’t offer with this, in relation to your own needs and what you’re being paid for.

Make sure that you build in self-care time to recover from the event. Holding space takes a lot of energy, so this needs to be budgeted for as much as the time planning and facilitating the event itself.

It’s also worth thinking in your own self-consent reflections before, and in the group agreement, about how any feedback after can be given consensually and constructively, and how you’ll be kind with yourself around receiving it and considering what to take on board.

Consent checklist

You might find it useful, when planning events, to go through this consent checklist and to consider how the event meets the various criteria for consensual engagement:

  1. Consent as the aim: Have we made everyone being in consent the most important thing here rather than specific things going the way we planned? 
  2. Consent of all: Is the event planned so that the most vulnerable people in the room are likely to feel able to consent (e.g. survivors of trauma, people with various access needs, members of marginalised groups), rather than defaulting to the assumed needs and capacities of the most privileged people?
  3. Informed consent: Is everyone fully informed beforehand about what will happen during the event, what they’ll be expected to do, who else will be involved, how long it will last, etc. so that they can make an informed choice about whether or not to engage with the event?
  4. Active consent: Are we aiming at active consent of all involved, rather than their passive agreement to ground rules, activities, etc. (i.e. are we going beyond assuming consent if people don’t actually say ‘no’)?
  5. Ongoing consent: Is consent ongoing before, during, and after the event with enough pauses for people to check in with themselves? Is ensuring consent seen as a process rather than a one off event at the start? 
  6. Awareness of scripts and power dynamics: Are we aware of the default script for ‘successful’ engagement in an event, and have we shifted this to giving multiple options so nobody feels pressured to participate in anything, or to stay beyond their capacity? Are we aware of the power dynamics which may make it hard for people to be in consent, particularly around our position as leader/facilitator?

Further resources

You can find more of my resources about consent on my consent work page.

You can check out more of this year’s #IDOConsent content and events here.

Patreon link: If you found this useful, please feel free to support my Patreon.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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