Guardian reporter Yael Chanoff embedded at the Occupy SF and Occupy Oakland encampments during the months-long protest. Here, she reflects on the non-monogamy movement and what it could mean for the 99 percent
Temperatures were running high at Occupy San Francisco. After a day of hard work, the protesters were decompressing. Talented musicians shared their instruments with friends and strangers in impromptu jam sessions.
The evening in question took place during Occupy SF's early stages, back when police would swarm at the first sign of a tent being propped up, and all of the 200 or so people who camped out that night mingled and slept in the open air. I sat with two young women and three young men who were all topless, leaning on each other and using laps as pillows.
Another occupier, who said he had arrived that day, wandered by. “So,” he asked, “Is this thing about free love?”
“I don’t know” the guy next to me replied. He shrugged at the newcomer. “But we’re definitely doing that.”
One week later, I was sitting in the midst of a very different kind of alternative community. We were inside the Supperclub nightclub, in a hot room scattered with beds. The event's attendees wore sparse Adam and Eve-themed costumes and glittery pasties winked here and there. A video of bonobos copulating was playing.
It was a “second base” party, one of the many social calendar offerings of San Francisco's sex-positive community. The night – dubbed “Sex at Dawn” after author Christopher Ryan's book by the same name that explores the historical roots of non-monogamy – would feature a panel discussion with several of the leading lights in the alternative, kinky, political sex community.
Among the night's speakers: Dossie Easton, Carol Queen, Philippe Lewis, people who have devoted their lives to creating intellectual and physical spaces where free love is unquestioningly 'what it’s about.'
Their passion notwithstanding, the party that would follow their talk was not a sex party, strictly speaking. Event producers and Club Exotica founders Philippe “Fuzzy” Lewis and Jocelyn Agloro describe their gatherings as “co-created pieces of temporary social art,” places “for people to explore intimacy, relationships, sensuality, and sexuality -- in community.”
In some ways, the two nights were similar. But in other ways, they were quite different. The cost of admission, for example (Occupy SF: free; Club Exotica's party: $10-35). And the numerous beds. But I couldn’t help being struck by the similarities.
Both spaces were populated by humans whose need for connection wasn’t being met anywhere else, humans brought together by an experiment in revolutionary ways of relating to each other based on sharing and compassion.
As I see it, the two communities have important lessons to share with each other.
THE FUTURE OF LOVE?
Occupy SF's merry encampment is just a memory now. Justin Herman Plaza is empty these days, and somewhat unsettling – a grim square of concrete, bocce courts, and dead grass where 200 thrilled, at times confused, yet fiercely committed individuals spent two month trying to make a better world.
But the movement is not over. It’s just in the process of reinventing itself. Forums on “Occupy 2.0” are happening around the country.
And as I think back on that night with those free loving campers, I have to wonder, will Occupy hook up with the sexual liberation movement?
When it comes to sex at Occupy, experiences varied among the individuals I interviewed. One young man who has been involved in polyamorous relationships for several years said he didn’t see anything of the sort at camp. “People have met and started dating here,” he said, “but it’s usually monogamous.”
Be that as it may, more than a few people assured me that “there’s been at least one orgy in the tents.”
Two campers who had been occupying since late September told me that they were in a polyamorous relationship with a third occupier, and knew of other of other threesomes that had developed at camp. One of them, a calm, smiling young man, said the Occupy SF camp was an environment that definitely encouraged this kind of free love.
“I think it’s because you’re around each other all the time, in this rapid exchange of revolutionary ideas, and that’s another way you connect.”
But is sexual revolution part of the Occupy ethos?
The calm man's partner was an energetic twenty-year-old known to start dance parties at 4 a.m. when camp was still around. She didn’t think so.
“I mean, we talk about it with each other,” she said. “But it’s not really a part of the political side of the movement.”
Others found that Occupy had at least encouraged more sexual license, albeit unaccompanied by sex-positive theory. With wide-eyed disbelief one long-time camper told me, “I don’t understand it. I’ve been with more women since I’ve been here, homeless, than I ever did when I was housed.”
It appeared that societal notions of monogamy were being sloughed off at Occupy SF – but without any of the underlying theories of polyamory espouses by the city's sex-positive community. Many occupiers I spoke had never heard of any theory of non-monogamy, and agreed that a workshop teaching about alternative relationship models at camp could have helped sort out a lot of their ambiguous sexual experiences.
Ironically, some of the city's most qualified teachers might have been in the tent next door to these potential students.
SEXPERTS IN THE TENTS
Joani Blank, founder of Good Vibrations and longtime sexual liberation activist, spent time at Occupy Oakland. She told me that she saw ideas of love, sharing, and interpersonal connection brewing in that camp.
Said Blank, “the camps encouraged love and acceptance and egalitarianism. With Occupy, there’s been a significant opportunity for the nature of love and friendships to change and be more open, and a lot of people [are] relating to other people who are very much not the same as they are. A variety of relationships are being encouraged and supported because everybody’s united.”
Blank thinks that the camps bred sexual experimentation. “[The occupiers] will jump into sexual experiences they’ve never had. So, for them it’s very liberating. I felt that energy myself the night I stayed there, and it translates easily into other kinds of excitement.”
In the ambiguity that surrounds Occupy's future, one thing seems clear: this movement won't survive unless it's built on our love for our peers. That's the focus of parties like “Sex At Dawn,” where attendees are not allowed to have intercourse, but instead are encouraged to open up sensually to those around them.
The quest to open up in ways not traditionally encouraged within the bounds of capitalism was seen by many as a keystone of Occupy. The viral video-upcoming documentary The Revolution is Love focuses on Occupy and protesters' search to replace consumerism with intimacy.
Polly Pandemonium, founder of sex club Mission Control and its popular swinger's party Kinky Salon told me that “the sexual liberation movement and the Occupy movement…we are all working towards the same future. It's homo sapiens natural predisposition to share rather than hoard and fight. The mutual goal is to help people realize that it's safe to share, and that they won't be left out in the cold, and to create a culture which supports and rewards that kind of behavior.”
Even in its current transition phase, Occupy continues to capture the imagination of millions, including many involved in our sexual liberation movement right here in San Francisco. With a new, restless crowd of thousands who saw how community sharing could be applied to sexual relationships at the Occupy camps, some new sexual revolution may be stirring.
For now, Occupy and the sexual liberation movement are just getting acquainted. But if activists stick with the core notions of sharing and love, we might be seeing the start of a beautiful relationship.