A Path Forward: Progress & Change

Dear Community,

Thanks for your patience. Please accept our apologies for being quiet for so long. We’ve been hard at work and have a lot of updates for you.

On October 22, we contacted ISTA to request an official dialogue between our leadership team and theirs to be facilitated by a neutral 3rd party to ensure we stay civil and productive. Our primary intention is to discuss the suggestions we have offered on how they can address the harms that have occurred and implement reforms to reduce future harm. While we haven’t ironed out all the details yet, ISTA has agreed to participate. We have chosen a highly experienced mediator, and we will begin what will likely be a three-month process in January 2023. 

On October 23, we contacted Highden to explain that we will have to prioritize the process with ISTA first due to limited bandwidth of our small volunteer team. However, we sent two members from our communication committee to begin an informal dialogue with them to discuss our mutual concerns. They met for the first time on November 24.

Also in October, we met with Safe Mediation twice to discuss our concerns and offer suggestions. After those discussions, we felt better about their ability to manage the complex tasks at hand in a neutral and professional manner, but emphasized the importance of them building trust within our Facebook community by addressing your concerns directly. While they made an effort, it wasn’t well received. We paused comments on their post when it became too contentious. We do want to highlight that on that thread the director of Safe Mediation, Anaisa Seneda, announced that based on the community’s feedback around Kamela Love’s conflict of interest, she would not be involved in any further mediations with ISTA survivors. Our hope is that Safe Mediation and/or ISTA will begin to provide public updates about the many mediations that are occurring within ISTA.

On October 30, we sent the following to the following parties:

  1. ISTA & Highden: A 43-page summary and analysis of all 54 reports we collected between 6/10/22 and 10/24/22, which included: all public reports with names redacted, the reports that survivors consented to be shared privately with them, and our analysis on what types of harms were most commonly reported.
  1. Safe Mediation: Reports that survivors consented to be shared specifically with them.
  1. ISTA: A letter with our detailed suggestions on how to address the harm and move in a better direction as an organization. This included things like: considering removing certain teachers; implementing adequate harm reporting structures and an abundance of supportive options for survivors like refunds, mediations, accountability processes, and therapy; as well as many structural shifts, such as reforming policies around student/teacher sexual relations and improving curriculum, teacher training, and intake procedures with the assistance of qualified consultants who specialize in high-demand groups and trauma. ISTA has already agreed to and began implementing some of these changes, while others remain topics of discussion for our upcoming dialogues.

Also during this time, our leadership team formed an official name for our organization: Safer Sex-Positive & Spiritual Communities (3SC). We’ve developed our mission and vision statement, an improved incident of harm report form, and a compilation of other resources, which will all be available on our forthcoming website. 

When this journey began, we honestly had no idea how much labor we’d signed up for. But as we held space for the community to express their pain and frustrations, we felt more and more determined to do right by you.

However, we quickly realized that “you” are not a homogenous group. You are survivors from many different parts of the world in many different stages of healing. Some of you are allies and activists who have been in this fight even longer than we have, and all of you represent a wide range of opinions on what the best next steps in this process could be.

We are under no false illusion that we can satisfy everyone in this community, but in the extensive strategy talks we have had lately, we always strive to center the survivors who bravely shared their stories with us. Second only to that, we must consider our values and bandwidth for this work in our busy lives when making any decisions about our path forward. Because we all have increasingly less hours a week to commit to this work in the coming year, we have to be very precise in how we allocate our time and energy going forward. Please keep this in mind as I detail the next steps we have chosen.

While we started this Facebook group with the intention of creating a safer space for survivors to share their stories and feel supported by allies without fear of ISTA or Highden interference, we quickly realized it also needed to include some capacity for us to discuss the larger issues at hand as a community of activists as well. This made admission decisions and moderation quite challenging and labor intensive. 

While we were always upfront about our concerns that no Facebook group can really be truly private, we were quite discouraged to recently discover that some members of the group have sent screenshots of content here to ISTA and Highden. We don’t believe ISTA or Highden leadership solicited these actions, but nonetheless it impacts our group. Our moderator has worked very hard to eliminate these leaks, but the problem remains. 

Because of this, we tightened moderation on posts and comments significantly, and are going to now pause all member posts, at least for the time being. We do not believe this is currently a safe place for survivors and activists to speak openly. Please be aware that anything you contribute here in your comments might be seen by ISTA and Highden leadership, and thus could result in unwanted attention (including legal action) from them.

In all honesty, as I write the above paragraph, my concern is that some of you will become even more angry with ISTA and Highden than you already are, as I know I was very angry when I first learned about these things. And while I fully empathize with that response, it is actually the last thing I want from you during this time of delicate negotiations. 

In ISTA’s initial response to us, they alluded to potential legal action specifically around contacting venues and the liability for the loss of revenue that occurred as a result. The timing was unfortunate, as we were about a week shy of handing over the analysis, reports, and suggestions that we put many, many hours of volunteer labor into. We wanted more than anything for them to take our work seriously, and for the conversation to shift toward solutions for survivors and away from legal threats in either direction, as legal action could significantly impair our progress. This is when we put out the request for everyone in our Facebook group to cease writing letters to venues. At this time, we also made the decision to not publish our summary and analysis of reports as planned, but instead share that information directly with ISTA, and advocate for a mediated dialogue based on our findings and suggestions.

This wasn’t an easy decision to make, but as we sat with this situation more, we felt like it was the right and fair thing to do. My anger began to fade as I also realized ISTA is doing what any corporation would to protect their ability to operate. On a more human level, I saw they were understandably defensive. Regardless of how you feel about ISTA personally or how justified you feel any of our actions have been in reaction to the harm they have caused, it is not hard to understand that when a large group of people organize to potentially end your ability to operate, while also actively excluding you from the conversation, a strong defensive action is the most likely result. Due to the cooperation of the majority of our community and excellent diplomacy on both sides, the tone of our communication with ISTA has since shifted from defensive to respectful. 

We acknowledge that some of you may feel this is us bowing down to them in some way for fear of being sued, but that isn’t what actually occurred. Internally, we had already come to believe that our best chance for ensuring significant change would require a shift toward more civil and collaborative efforts with ISTA. We admit that we didn’t necessarily start this journey with that tone, but we were also building the plane as we were flying it. 

Our leadership team came into being from a shared sense of frustration that developed over many years, feeling like we had been trying to get our individual concerns to be taken seriously many times, only for them to be ignored or deflected by ISTA leaders. We have never pretended to be completely neutral in our personal opinions of ISTA and Highden, but we do feel our leadership team has always been fair and moderate in our methods and in any public statements we’ve made about them. 

While we think “call out” culture was an important stage in this process, we are fundamentally opposed to perpetuating a “cancel culture” or social media mob mentality to solve complex community problems. Legal action against either organization is not something that we have the capacity or desire to lead due to our values, bandwidth, and the likely challenges and outcomes of that path. We believe community dialogue grounded in a transformative justice approach is the best way to move toward solutions which the vast majority of us can feel good about. It won’t be easy for either side and may require uncomfortable compromises, as well as extra emotional labor, creativity, and compassion. We feel that strengthening these skill sets is a crucial part of creating healing and lasting change in our community.

Please remember that everyone in the SSSC leadership team has been involved in sacred sexuality communities for the past 10+ years in some way. We offer a unique and experienced perspective that is fundamentally in favor of sacred sexuality education existing in the world, albeit with significant upgrades to repair harms and reduce risk of future harms. Also, our extensive experience with these communities makes it uniquely difficult for ISTA or Highden to manipulate us. 

We have also decided to pause all media outreach. While we think it is important to utilize media to bring attention to this movement, we also find it quite risky, as many mainstream media outlets will inevitably sensationalize the sexual elements of these organizations from a sex-negative point of view, even if we ask them not to. While we support spreading word of the risks to the public in general, we want the risks to be depicted accurately, and are skeptical that most media outlets will do this.

Our complaints against ISTA and Highden are NOT that they teach or offer controversial sexual or spiritual experiences. While there are some reports of sexual harrassment and abuse that need to be addressed, the vast majority of the harms people officially reported to us were around lack of trauma-informed leadership or manipulative and suppressive communication norms. Furthermore, when we examine other organizations that have experienced massive social media and traditional media campaigns against them, like Agama and The New Tantra, we see that despite all that, they both continue to operate without any significant accountability or reform. What we take from that is that ultimately those methods were not effective. 

We are interested in being effective. To our knowledge, no precedent exists within the field of sacred sexuality for transforming an organization to become more accountable to a community’s needs. We hope to build this model together with all of you, so when future problems arise in other organizations, they can learn from our experience.

Though it’s not easy for the public to see this yet, we do feel that ISTA is listening and has already made significant changes, which we hope they will make public soon. We celebrate the more recent public statements ISTA and Highden have made that show they understand that the grievances we are voicing are valid and cannot be entirely dismissed as a campaign of lies or misinformation, despite their earlier comments to the media. Also, learning that there are some ISTA leaders who have already been calling for similar changes and are largely in support of the reforms we are suggesting, has made us more optimistic that meaningful reform is possible.

While we have serious concerns about many ways that ISTA and Highden operate and the ideas they promote, we do believe significant portions of their teachings can be beneficial for personal and transpersonal growth. Many of their teachers are well intended and have no complaints on record. And, we also believe some of their teachers should not be teaching in the field at all, and others should undergo public accountability to be considered for continued employment.

That being said, we strongly believe the issues with ISTA and Highden are not just due to a few people that are the “bad apples.” We believe there are structural and systemic problems in both organizations that have perpetuated unnecessary harm that need to be addressed thoroughly. We hope to lead the community into a productive and respectful dialogue around how to address the root causes of these problems and move toward solutions collaboratively. 

This approach exemplifies what transformative justice means to SSSC in that we feel it is our collective responsibility as a community to regulate ourselves and decide which policies, structures, and practices will best hold us and this field of work in integrity. As challenging as it is, we all must be willing to examine how our actions or inactions contributed to the problems at hand, and commit to putting in the difficult work of finding solutions that are a win for the greatest number of people in our community in the most impactful ways.

Because of our commitment to this approach, we are moving forward with the following changes:

  • We will continue to collect incidents of harm report forms here: https://bit.ly/ReportISTAandHighden and will be sharing those reports with the parties that we are given consent to (such as ISTA, Highden, or Safe Mediation) on a regular basis (rather than holding them for analysis) so survivors can get support for their individual concerns more quickly, if that is what they desire. Please note that you may submit reports on teachers that occurred in the greater sacred sexuality community, even if they are not affiliated with ISTA or Highden.
  • We will be pausing member posts in our Facebook community for the time being, both because of the security leaks and also so that we can focus our limited time and energy toward three projects that we think will serve the community and our goals in richer ways:
  • We will be hosting a series of survivor support groups on Zoom. These will likely alternate between free survivor-led gatherings and low cost groups led by therapists and/or high-demand group experts.
  • We will be hosting a series of townhall-style community meetings on Zoom, where people from all sides can participate in solution-focused civil discourse, and where we can gather more insight from the community to put forth in our mediated talks with ISTA. We are seeking advice from transformative justice experts on the best format and facilitators for these events.
  • Most importantly, we plan to begin professionally mediated dialogue and negotiations about accountability and suggested reforms with ISTA, and potentially Highden, some time in January of 2023.

We will continue to use our Facebook group as a vehicle for the leadership team to provide updates on what we are working on and the progress of our communication with ISTA and Highden. On those update posts, we will welcome your comments, criticisms, and questions if they are respectful in nature, and do our best to stay in a timely dialogue with you about your concerns. We value your input and we are also aware that we cannot devote as much time to the Facebook group as we have in the past, given everything else we are working on.

Our requests of our community are as follows:

  • If you are curious about the potential of transformative justice, challenge yourself to move away from black and white thinking of “cancel culture,” become reflective about your impact and contribution to our community in the past, present, and future. Cultivate the willingness to explore nuanced issues that deserve thorough respectful debate and creative, inclusive problem-solving. At this stage, it is simply not enough to identify the problems; we must now work toward solutions.
  • Continue the cessation of all letter writing to venues. And be careful not to perpetuate any unsubstantiated claims about ISTA or Highden (and their teachers). Do not make public statements that over-generalize the issues at hand, or are sex-negative, or harassing in nature. Make an effort to speak from your direct experiences only and offer your opinions from a place that leaves room for curiosity about a variety of perspectives.
  • Consider getting involved or participating in a deeper way. While participation in this Facebook group, even just by witnessing, has been a valuable contribution, more voices and hands are needed in this broader movement. If you feel aligned with our values, we invite you to consider stepping up your involvement by participating in the upcoming Zoom events, or answering the call to volunteer when we request help.
  • Remember there are many routes to healing, accountability, and justice. If the strategic decisions we have outlined here are not for you, please consider that they may be quite helpful for others. If you feel strongly about taking an alternate path we respect your decision, and ask that you do so without demeaning the choices that we have made.

We know for some of you this update might feel like a big shift in trajectory, but for us, it is actually a deeper articulation and refinement of the intentions we set when this process began in May. We understand some of you may not feel fully represented or in alignment with what we have offered in this message, and will understand if you can no longer support us. 

The 3SC leadership team’s decisions here represent the changes and methodologies we feel we have the power, skillset, and capacity to advocate for in a way that keeps us in alignment with our values. In taking these steps outlined above, we believe we have the best chance to create the most healing and reduce the most future harm than any other route available to us. 

We want to thank our amazing survivors and survivor allies who helped foster such a loving environment for survivors since the beginning of this journey. We are sad to see the original purpose of our Facebook group transition, but feel invigorated by the possibilities these new approaches allow for and will be providing more updates about them in the new year.

Thank you,

Lalita Diaz 

Safer Sex-Positive & Spiritual Communities

(Originally posted on our Facebook group.)