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Appropriate Touch: Write up for workshop on Boundaries at Munches

posted Feb 25, 2011, 8:49 AM by Mr. M   [ updated Feb 25, 2011, 8:58 AM ]

Appropriate Touch: Boundaries in a Munch environment


Before I begin I would like to establish with my readers my perspective. I am not a lawyer, nor am I a medical practitioner. My knowledge and research on these subjects comes from a different set of qualifications. I have been a certified Educator Advocate for the Prevention of Violence Against Women for seven years, a Massachusetts certified Human Rights Advocate for four years, and I have worked in Behavioral training for the last decade.  I have been a member of the BDSM scene for eleven years during which time I have tried to frequently participate in munches and other social gatherings within the scene. The following was developed after I was encouraged to put together some information because of harassment that was occurring at local munches. This information was put together more for a workshop environment than an essay so I hope you will forgive my rather disjointed prose as it is meant to be supplemented by activities and discussion. The information will be presented in four categories:


* Sexual Harassment, and the Law

* Physical Understandings

* General Munch Etiquette


* What to do about an assault


It is my profound hope that this will be of help to some in the scene and that those who take the time enjoy reading it.


Sexual Harassment, and the Law:


When talking about the law let us first establish some frank truths.  While the abuse of men is a topic that happens far more often than reported, the sexual harassment and abuse of women is far more pervasive, during a 10 year study women made up 94% of survivors(1).  Much of this starts with social understandings based in cultural misconceptions that tend to lend themselves to the abuse of women. Perhaps the greatest of this is the idea that women are indecisive and therefore their judgement should not be respected. This incredibly false claim is nonetheless consistently put forth by both the media and social environments.  The right of men to overwrite the desires of women in society is demonstrated constantly and the results of this campaign is ridiculously underplayed. We are given to understand that sexual harassment is a limited phenomena experienced by a very few and sexual repression is far more rampant in other cultures than our own. The facts however, reveal quite a different understanding. According to the US Department of Labor, 50-80 percent of American Women experience some form of sexual harassment during their academic or work lives(2). Consider that for a moment, and I apologize for the redundancy, but this indicates that bare minimum 1 out of every 2 women a person knows likely has had such an experience.  Further the Massachusetts Department of Public Health compiled the following facts using anonymous data from Rape Crisis Centers:


* From 1988 through 1997, MDPH-funded rape crises centers collected reports of 26,018 sexual assaults(3)  

* 88% of sexual assault survivors knew the perpetrator(1)  

* In 1997 Massachusetts Risk Behavioral Survey found that 10% of all high school girls reported being hurt sexually by a date(4)

* The same survey stated that 27% of students who had experienced sexual contact against their will had made a recent suicide attempt(4)

* According to the 1999 MYRBS report, Massachusetts students reported that 16% of all high school girls and 6% of boys had had sexual contact against their will(4)


“Why are these statistics important in the context of appropriate touch at a munch?” you may ask.  When confronted by inappropriate touch at a munch, this may be far from the first time an individual is doing so. This means that the touch, however affectionately meant, might well be far more traumatizing than the instigator may realize. In addition these statistics make one thing very clear, this is not someone else’s problem.  Given these numbers it is impossible to believe that this issue does not affect everyone and therefore it is up to everyone to do all they can to combat it.


Further a Munch environment can invite people not to report being harassed.  When a person is sexually harassed at work there is a major economic incentive not to report as a person fears losing their job and perhaps risking future jobs. This is one of the reasons that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act expressly prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. Within this legislation is the term “hostile work environment,” the creation of which is a direct violation.  Munches have a similar impetus for their members. As an expressly minority sexuality, areas of free expression and social acceptability are few and far between. People attending munches generally wish to continue to be able to do so in order to be able to freely express who they are without fear of judgment and recrimination.  Therefore when someone harasses them at a munch, particularly if that someone is well liked, there is a significant amount of pressure to stay quiet lest the survivor be ostracized and lose access to the community and its supports.  Munch leaders for this reason must be no less stringent with their members than an employer (ideally) would be.  Sexual harassment is a form of abuse and must be met with the force of law, social if not legal. It should be understood that such behavior will not be tolerated by the group. 


Some that are reading this may not be members of the choir, but hopefully are joining in and might be asking themselves; “What constitutes sexual harassment?” I offer this spectrum of behaviors that should be considered inappropriate unless expressly allowed by the other individual. Certainly none of this should be done with a stranger at a munch (there will also be more about specific physical dynamics later):  


* Subtle pressure for sexual activity.

* Patting or pinching.

* Deliberate brushing against another person’s body.

* “Friendly” arms about the shoulder.

* Deliberate assaults or molestations.

* Sexually explicit pornographic pictures posted or shown.

* Demanding sexual favors, accompanied by implied or overt threats concerning job, grades, letters of recommendation, scene reputation, etc.

* Explicit offers of money for sex. (5)


While some of these may be considered beyond the pale at a munch, others happen far too commonly. I encourage those who witness such actions to speak up. Talk to the survivor, make sure that they are supported rather than isolated by the action. Also this limits issues of a different sort that is rather scene specific. People at munches are often reluctant to intervene because they are aware of possible fantasies being acted out or power dynamics that might be previously established.  Talking to the person who has been assaulted, especially in a public environment like a munch, is not a violation of their sexuality. If doing so is uncomfortable for you, treat it like a dungeon and speak to the Monitor; or in this case, the person organizing the munch.  The best way to defeat harassment of any kind is through transparency.  When everyone knows precisely what is going on and how the people involved feel about it, then violations can be rooted out before they become major problems.  It is the right of every person to feel safe and it is the responsibility of every person to assure those rights are protected.  The creation of a safe, respectful environment is what allows a group to sustain, grow, and defend itself.


Physical understandings:  


Now that we have established a clear sense of what harassment as a legal and societal concept, let us move to a true physical understanding of ourselves and others. First things first, I am going to expose a massive lie that all of us have been told, and likely told as well. Quickly without thinking about it, where are your privates? I would place a bet that most of us will name 2-3 areas of the body.  Now sit back and consider the following questions:


* Where are you comfortable having a significant other touch you?

* Where are you comfortable having a loved one touch you?

* How about a friend?

* What about a total stranger?  


Going back to privates I would ask you what that makes the rest of your body. Lets keep it simple and call them public(6).  Would you agree with this definition? Certainly not. The truth is that our entire bodies are private, and we allow other to touch them under only very specific circumstances in very specific ways.  Even proximity to other people, when it comes to comfort, can be defined.  If a person approaches you from the front, there is a moment for most of us (generally approximately 4 feet away) when we begin to feel a little uncomfortable. Our bodies subtly prepare to move and our eyes seek out avenues of escape. This is called the “Doe in the Woods Phenomena.”  We even feel it vicariously when we see someone approach someone else.  Physical proximity and touch is far more rigidly defined then nearly any of us are ever told. Allow me to guide you on a tour of appropriate physical interaction. While not absolute, I am comfortable offering these guidelines as general truths:


* Shoulder to elbow on the perimeter of the body. This is perhaps the most public appropriate area. This is where we are comfortable with a stranger tapping to ask a question.

* Elbow to wrist is interesting. If you actually consider it you will find that for the majority this area is only ok with us to touch if we are wearing long sleeves.

* Hands are another area we tend to think of as public, but this is untrue. We do not touch hands with strangers, we touch palms. The backs of our hands are reserved for people we have strong relationships with.

* One of the biggest physical boundaries between intimate and casual relationships is the spine. Being comfortable with someone reaching across your spine is often a clear difference between a stranger and a friend, if not a loved one.


Beyond these, most other areas of the body are only available to our intimate others, and each of those will have their own strictly defined limitations of access.


General Munch Etiquette:


Now that we, hopefully, have a clearer understanding of our rights as individuals and the touch barriers we have defined as a society. I would like to turn to more general social etiquette at a Munch.


One of the most frequent reasons that harassment occurs at a munch is simple, hopeful, seeking of companionship. As a minority group for whom, presumably, only someone else from said minority would be an appropriate significant other. The competition is fierce when it comes to seeking either romantic or sexual partners. For many, munches seem to be an opportunity to meet potential people to fill these roles. In addition, given the topic being discussed will generally have something to do with sexuality, some believe that sexual overtures are therefore more welcome. I encourage my readers not to make this mistake. While perhaps the topics discussed might be sexual in nature, at its heart munches are social gatherings; havens of community and mutual understanding. Sexual advances in such environments will be considered, more often than not, rude and off putting. By all means if you find someone interesting strike up a conversation, but keep in your mind at all times that the group is social, not sexual. Let this therefore be the guiding understanding of your behavior, BE social, NOT sexual.


Remember that self-same Golden Rule that we were all taught in Kindergarten: “Treat others the way you would want to be treated.” Further be aware that there is an interesting, and misleading, perspective shift that tends to happen between instigators and those subject to their advances. Those who instigate tend to think of the Golden Rule in terms of someone highly attractive to them. As in “I should act towards someone as I would wish to be acted towards by someone who I was deeply attracted to.” Whereas the people they approach tend to wish they were thinking more practically. My advice when applying the Golden Rule is to take sexuality out of the question. If you are a straight man consider how you would wish to be treated by a strange man, not a beautiful woman, and let that guide your behavior.


When it comes to the topic of the munch, whether it be erotic tickling or humiliation play, remember once again that though educational the goal of a munch is social, not sexual.  Make sure that your comments on the topic are appropriate and on topic.  When possible it is better to use abstract examples “lets say that someone is…” as opposed to specific ones “when my master is…” in order to keep the topics in that social realm.  Perhaps most important is the following understanding, how you define yourself in a BDSM relationship is not how you define yourself in regards to people interested in BDSM. This means:  

* Just because you are Dominant, does not mean that people want you to dominate them.

* Just because you are Submissive, does not mean people want you to submit to them.

* Just because you are Dominant, does not mean you have to dominate anyone.

* Just because you are submissive, does not mean you have to submit to anyone.

 The concepts of top, bottom, dom, sub, ab, mommy, daddy, pet, guru, mentor, carebear, etc. are ones that are directly defined by a personal relationship between you and another person. The group of people at a munch, while likely your friends, do not fall into this category.


What to do about an assault:


People want to be wanted and will constantly seek out those that interest them in order to try to establish a relationship. This can never justify sexual harassment or assault. Pushing beyond physical boundaries and making demands without an established relationship already in place violates the rights of individuals. This not only hurts the people involved but hurts the scene in general. In order to safeguard our lifestyle as well as the individuals we care about we must make stronger efforts to be self-policing and to educate people on appropriate conduct. Remember that the benefit of the doubt should always be with the person who has undergone the ordeal. Remember that you do not have to make a scene to make a point. If you are uncomfortable confronting your aggressor, let the person organizing know and ask them to have a quiet word with the person instead. If someone is repeatedly crossing your boundaries, be sure to inform the organizers every time they do as well as your friends within the community. The perpetrator, not the survivor, is responsible for the assault – always.


Survivors of harassment or an assault frequently feel one or more of the following:

* Self-blame, or shame

* Anger, or rage

* Isolation

* Fear

* Loss, grief

* Sadness, anger turned inward

* Powerlessness, Loss of control

* Flashbacks, nightmares

* Triggers – traumatic memory brought about through circumstance

* Changes in sexuality, difficulties with intimacy

* Physical concerns

* Spiritual crisis


Any and all of the above is more than possible. This is even more so if the person attending the munch is new, and for whatever reasons cannot share their sexuality with other friends and/or family. This means that the person entering the munch is already socially isolated when it comes to anything having to do with the munch or this sexuality in general. They have no one to talk to. Vigilance and community support is the answer. One of the best ways to assist a person in trauma is to create a safe environment.  Everyone who attends a munch must endeavor to do precisely this. We must be willing to believe those who come forward and stand by them. The strongest defense against abuse has been proven again and again to be an open and respectful community in which the participants feel safe to tell the truth without fearing for their social, emotional, mental, or physical health. Above all else, be willing to listen and believe. That is the first and most important step to helping anyone.


In conclusion:


Munches can be a powerful tool to bring together a community, particularly one that is frequently ostracized. Because we are willing to treat each other with a respect that a large portion of the government, if not society at large, is not we can create a place for ourselves that allows for the safe presentation of our true selves. This is a precious gift, an honorable tribute that should never be abused. In ancient cultures the breaking of the rules of hospitality was a grave offense. We can be no more tolerant of such abuses. I urge everyone reading this to treat each other with respect, and to help enforce this simple rule upon the scene in general. When respect is violated, let the person who did so know. I cannot possibly say what is simply lack of tact, and what is hostility, but I do know the only conceivable cure is education, and for us to stand strong as a community.




1. MA Department of Public Health (November 1999). “Sexual assault in Massachusetts: Findings from publicly-funded rape crisis centers and the behavioral risk factor surveillance system.”


2. Hughes and Sandler (1986, 1988); Merit Production Board (1987), as cited in “Facts About Sexual Harassment,” U.S. Department of Labor.


3. Criminal Victimization 1999: Changes 1998-99 with trends 1993-1999. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey. August 2000.


4. Massachusetts Department of Education, 1997 MA Youth Rish Behavior Survey Results, August 1998.


5. Sexual Violence Facts and Statistics, Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (1993).


6. Hingsburger, David. Ethics of Touch. The Diverse City Press. 1998


7. Post, Peggy. Etiquette. New York: The Emily Post Institute, Inc./Harper Collins Publishers. 1997


8. Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault: A Journey to Justice, Health, and Healing. Boston, MA: Jane Doe Inc./The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. 2002.