Sex and the Intern

August 2, 2018


Most everyone who thinks of coming to Windward is curious about the sexual dimension of intentional community; some people ask, but most just assume or project, and since that often leads to unnecessary problems, we’re figuring that a Notes article directly addressing the issue might help.

The short answer is that we ask interns to not engage in sexual relationships with anyone–not with the members, and not with each other–during the first three months of their stay here. [Note: there are some differences between “interns” and “apprentices,” but I’m using the terms interchangeably in this context.]

“Okay,” you might say, “what’s that all about?” Well, like most things having to do with unraveling the knots that society ties around people’s hearts, it’s complex. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll sketch out some of the underlying reasoning involved. We believe that since we’re committed to being different enough to make a difference, the burden of explaining ourselves to new people falls on us. So here goes.

First of all, the three-months-no-sex request didn’t start out as a Windward policy. About four years ago, interns started coming to Windward as part of a program that awarded academic credits to those who successfully completed a three-month course of study here. In setting that up, the accrediting institution required us to adopt their standard agreement stipulating that there would be no sexual relationships between students and staff.

On the one hand, that was a bit confusing in that Windward doesn’t have any paid staff, and everyone here is a student of the art and science of building sustainable community. But we got their point and felt that the spirit of the request was inline with our desire to not get emotionally involved with people who are just passing through.

The work we’re undertaking to do necessitates establishing a high degree of trust within the community. We don’t know how to do that without developing deep, emotionally meaningful bonds with each other. The problem is that over the years, we’ve learned that in order to remain emotionally available, we have to protect our hearts from those who are just looking to hook up and move on.

We gets lots of inquiries from people who want to come up for a day to check things out, but our experience is that usually they’re just wanting to come up and check out the “chemistry.” If that’s the dynamic in play, then we’d rather just pass; this is one reason why we ask people to engage in some correspondence before visiting. We want to get at least an initial understanding of the basis of their interest in Windward—are they seriously interested in studying the art and science of creating sustainable community, or are they just wanting to indulge a fantasy.

Now, some people will argue against the three month policy on the grounds that they have a fully mature, self-aware sexuality that’s perfectly capable of engaging sexually in a wholesome, holistic manner that will only enhance the impact of their time here.

Yeah, sorry, but we’re not buying it. Our experience is that the challenge of successfully integrating the biological, social and intellectual vectors involved in one’s sexuality is an incredibly complex process. Even with the best of intentions, the outcome is uncertain. Understanding one’s deep, inner self is the work of a lifetime; it’s not something to take on within the scope of a three month internship. Getting to understand and appreciate the social practices we’ve developed over the decades is challenging enough without also adding in the sexual dimension.

An internship is a chance for someone to gain a feeling as to whether this comprehensive way of living might actually suit them. That involves the development of a complex, intuitive understanding that’s not going to have a chance to coalesce if they’re caught up in the throws of New Relationship Energy.

There are lots of reasons why very few secular intentional communities survive for any length of time. Windward’s lasted well into its fourth decade because of our commitment to learning from the past and using those lessons to chart the next leg of our journey. In addition to there being a wealth of embodied experience to learn about here, Windward has an extensive research library that explores the wide range of topics that are relevant to creating sustainable community. We’re looking for leaders, and the cold reality is that those who wish to be lead must never cease to learn. So starting out, anything that has the potential to derail the learning process needs to be set aside for the time being.

At Windward, we see ourselves as servants of the seasons, and when we dance, nature calls the tune. In order to thrive within an authentic relationship with nature, one has to be able to delay gratification. We plant seeds in the spring in order to harvest food in the fall. We store food in the fall in order to plant in the spring. If a person is unable to wait until the time is ripe to act, then this is probably not the lifestyle they’re suited for.

If an intern does decide that they want to stay and embark on a period of experiential learning, then, yes, the role of sexuality in sustainable community becomes relevant. And while sexuality is an issue we can’t avoid dealing with, still, our experience is that it shouldn’t come first.

Windward endeavors to embody meaningful change, and we have no idea how to create a new way of living without changing some of the old ways that people relate to each other, but meaningful change is a risky business. In order to have a reasonable expectation of success, we undertake to make thoughtful changes based on the principles that ground our efforts:

  • People aren’t property
  • Don’t lie, cheat or steal
  • Don’t initiate violence.

Translating those simple basic principles into everyday life is not simple, but we understand that when trying to transform complex systems, you start by sorting out the parts you do understand, and thereby reduce the complexity down to something more manageable. Even when the mind believes that a given change is good and necessary, the heart can take a while to catch up and adapt.

In the specific case of the incredibly complex realm of sexuality, we feel that it’s better to address other issues first. So, yes, if someone decides they resonate with the land, the animals, the gardens, the energy systems, and want to step into the role of Assistant Steward, then we’re up for closing the circle and addressing the sexual issues inherent in community. But until then, we’re just not interested in situations in which sexuality is the primary motivation.

Protecting our hearts from folks who are just passing through isn’t the whole of it; there are darker issues to consider as well. If you’re not up for considering some of the darker concerns that a community has to consider, then I’d invite you to stop reading this article and go check out some of the lighter articles.

Still with me? Okay, then…the no-sex-for-three months “quarantine” is a way to address some issues that can seriously harm a community. This is especially important in the case of:

  • Diseases such as type II genital herpes that are incurable.
  • Diseases such as chlamydia that are effectively incurable.
  • Diseases such as hepatitis that can devastate a community.

Yes, we know that hepatitis isn’t only transmitted sexually, but hepatitis has caused the terminal collapse of communities in which a significant fraction of the members came down with the disease at the same time, so it’s something to keep in mind.

The incidence of type II herpes infections among potential interns was brought home to us by an intern who related the shocking report that one in six of the students at her school were infected with genital herpes. A recent report by the New York City Health Department noted that in NYC, two out of six NYC residents had type II herpes, and that in some groups the incidence was three out of six.

In the case of chlamydia, it’s not so much that it can’t be cured; rather it’s that it’s so easy to contract chlamydia again and again with life-altering consequences. For example, in the “friends with benefits” culture that many twenty-somethings come from, it’s common for chlamydia to be passed from partner to partner and then back again. This can result in a circular pattern of infection that’s difficult to stamp out.

This matters because while chlamydia won’t kill you, it can scar a woman’s fallopian tubes to the point where she won’t be able to bear children. While most interns aren’t focused on having children any time soon, an exposure to chlamydia could result in their never being able to have children.

There are even darker, more malicious concerns in play such as sperm jacking. We recently had an intern who focused her attention on seducing one of the male members of the community. When it was explained that this conduct was inappropriate, she got angry and left. But in going, she left behind a series of diary videos in which she described how she was desperate to have a child, how she’d gone off of birth control and was looking to hook up with a man in order to get pregnant.

In All About Love, an insightful analysis of a word that’s difficult to define, the author (bell hooks) described the problem of women tricking men into parenthood. She interviewed a series of women and was shocked to find that two out of five felt that it was okay to use a non-consensual pregnancy to trick a man into getting married, or to pressure a man to remain in a relationship he wanted out of.

When a woman tricks a man this way, he has no say as to whether or not she carries the pregnancy to term. If she does decide to go ahead and have the child, then he’s legally required to pay twenty years of child support—or go to jail. The upshot in this case would have been that this key member of the community would have been forced to leave Windward and get a city job in order to pay child support.

In another of the diary videos she left behind on a community computer, that intern also discussed her pattern of using her STD status as a way to discourage would-be suitors she didn’t want to have sex with, but then hiding her status from suitors she did want to have sex with even though she knew this was a serious consent violation. That’s an example of why we don’t rely on someone’s word; if someone wants to become sexually active within the community at the end of the three month period, that’s fine, but we’ll want to see hard copies of the STD test results.

So, those are some of the reasons why we believe it makes sense for us to ask people we don’t know well—people who haven’t yet demonstrated a commitment to the welfare of this community and its members—to hold off on exploring the sexual dimension of community life. Once they sort out how they feel about our overall approach to creating sustainable community, there’s plenty of time to develop relationships that suit their needs and the long term welfare of the community.

I hope that helps address the perennial question of what’s happening with interns during their three months here, or perhaps better said, what’s not happening. Essentially, it boils down to the importance of allowing time for everyone to get to know each other. Courtship may be an old fashioned concept, but it works for us.

Your feedback and further questions are welcome.