October 30, 2022

Dear ISTA Facilitators and Governance,

We’re writing on behalf of the leadership team at Safer Sex-Positive and Spiritual Communities as well as the “Issues with ISTA and Highden” Facebook group regarding the question of
“What would we like to see ISTA do?” We have spent a significant amount of time in discussion with survivors and amongst ourselves to come to some clarity surrounding this, and we have reached enough of an internal agreement to put forward this public statement. We sincerely thank you for your patience and the proactive steps you’ve taken towards solutions while we have been in deliberation.


We will begin with being abundantly clear: there are factions within the community which will be satisfied with nothing less than the complete dissolution (and, for some, prosecution) of your organizations and its leaders. While we have empathy for those who want that, it is not the approach we are taking. We are community leaders who believe in transformative justice, and feel that a solution which allows for both accountability and meaningful reforms to be made is ultimately what is best for the majority of people involved. 

While we also recognize that ISTA has taken a proactive approach to cooperation since the public outcry, we understand why many feel this is not enough. Some do not believe that this is a viable path because many have tried to bring these suggestions to ISTA faculty (albeit piecemeal) for over a decade, and it felt to many people as if those concerns fell on deaf ears. It’s only now that there is a sizable group of disenchanted, organized, and vocal activists that ISTA has begun to take the criticisms seriously and take meaningful action. 

Until recently, Bruce Lyon, leader of Highden, who is also a member of ISTA’s wisdom circle and an ISTA lead teacher, had been posting narratives online that deflected responsibility, justified potentially dangerous practices, attributed survivors’ claims of harm to lack of spiritual depth, and expressed concerns about potential nefarious motives of our group. We do not think this is a helpful contribution.  However, because of the differences in the structures of your organizations and some of the promising ways ISTA has responded to this movement thus far, we’ve decided to address Highden separately. 

You have recently stated in the media that your organization has “been the target of an online campaign of lies and misinformation.” We’d like to assure you that our intent is to help achieve solutions rather than foment chaos and it certainly isn’t to spread misinformation and lies. We hope the voluntary labor and care we have put forth in collecting, analyzing, and organizing 54 “incident of harm” reports provides further evidence that we care deeply about truth, accuracy, and transparency. 

We want to give your organizations the opportunity to respond in a meaningful way to the people who have experienced harm by their engagement with ISTA, but please understand that while we strive to represent those who have been harmed, we have no control over how they feel. In this letter, we hope to propose a way forward that will satisfy many of those who have been harmed, and that (if followed) we can stand behind in solidarity with you and channel the public uproar in a direction that can bring not only reform to ISTA, but healing to the community at large, which we all represent. We have already put forth a request to have mediated talks with a neutral 3rd party present to negotiate our suggested reforms, and are very happy that you have accepted this request.

We discourage anyone who is reading this letter (from inside or oustide of our Facebook group) from making unsubstantiated allegations of sexual misconduct or engaging in harassment of any kind towards ISTA or Highden leaders, or the training venues while these negotiations take place.

There is currently a great deal of media interest in the story, and we would like to be able to confidently say that ISTA has taken these concerns seriously, and are in collaboration with us to not only appear to care, but to actually care. We’re willing to look at our part in the creation of a solution that feels good to as many people as possible. We have collected and categorized a large number of reports from survivors. Some we have permission to share with you, and some we do not. Some we have permission to share publicly, and some we do not.

We have now sent ISTA, Highden and Safe Mediation all of the reports that we have consent to share, along with the summary report containing the data we’ve organized and the methodology we used to do so. We also plan to share a version of this letter and the summary report with names redacted publicly on our website at some point in the near future.

By initiating this transparent public dialogue, we hope to empower all community members to not only share their stories of harm and criticisms, but also contribute their lived experience and wisdom toward this common goal: defining the best practices, known challenges, and most appropriate transformative justice and accountability models for organizations, like yours, which aspire to support people in their spiritual and sexual development. 

We decided to split up our requests/suggestions into three categories (baseline, better, and best) in hopes that it gives us both a way to feel good about initial but important steps, as well as a way to look pragmatically into the future about what big changes might look like. We have based our suggestions on the 54 reports which were submitted to us, discussions and reports that arose in our Facebook group, and personal experiences with your organizations and/or teachers.

Baseline Efforts for ISTA

  • Permanently remove the three leaders that we have privately recommended you remove who have caused significant, repeated harm to participants, and make a public statement saying which members they were, and why their removal was necessary. Additionally, we request that you apologize for the slowness to respond to this in a compassionate or timely way. The effect we hope this will have is to validate the experiences of those they have harmed and support their healing process.
  • We recommend removing any members of ISTA governance with five or more harm reports against them from their governance until such time as the complaints are addressed to the satisfaction of a neutral third-party mediation team.
  • Pause all involvement of ISTA facilitators or assistants who have multiple or severe unresolved reports against them for three months to a year, while these reports get resolved via accountability processes, appropriate training, and/or mediation.
  • With the help of a 3rd party, generate a code of conduct for teachers, facilitators, apprentices, assistants, and participants that is enforced throughout your organization and shared publicly. This code of conduct should include clear policies on which violations would require participation in voluntary mediations vs. mandatory accountability processes vs. termination of employment or involvement with your organization.
  • Create separate forms for general feedback and reports of incidents of harm. Be sure to have an anonymous option so you can receive feedback and reports from those who do not wish to communicate further with you. Post the links to these forms prominently on your website, and more importantly, on each event page, and on each event email before and after every event. On the forms, be sure to detail how you plan to handle these reports so participants have informed consent around the process before submitting a report. Do not require mediations if the survivor doesn’t want one. Do not invalidate the claim if a survivor doesn’t want mediation. This is still very useful information for your organization.
  • Review and improve the agreements you ask participants to sign before and during your events to acknowledge how they can be used both for growth but also to harm. While we can appreciate the need to protect yourself from legal liability from some risks, we find it highly problematic that you require “radical self-responsibility” from people who may have little understanding of what this concept means to you. Issue a public acknowledgement and apology for the harms you have caused by using these types of agreements to communicate to your participants in a way that shamed them or invalidated their realities. Work to create an environment where it is safe, accepted, and encouraged for participants to voice boundaries, concerns, complaints and feedback. 
  • Provide more public information on your decision to use Safe Mediation as your 3rd party mediation and accountability process provider. How did you determine they were the best candidate for this task? Publicly share which facilitators are participating in mediation or accountability processes and give periodic updates on those processes, as well as solicit public input for those processes. Address community members’ concerns that Safe Mediation has hired one mediator with significant ties to ISTA.
  • Abolish any sanctioned sexual activity between teachers (including assistants) and students for any level one trainings, including 3-6 months after the training and outside of the training itself. Ban the potential for teacher/student sex entirely from the Level 1 SSSEX, even with returning students. We understand the line between teachers and students isn’t always black and white, however doing this would go a long way to hold the sanctity of an individual’s sexual evolution as the primary focus of ISTA facilitators, and curb the potential for harm. If you choose not to do this, provide a public statement as to why, and either way, include clear information about your policies regarding sexual activity between teachers, students, and assistants on all intake forms for incoming participants in the name of informed consent.
  • Reassess your assistant and apprentice structures and clarify the path to become faculty in order to eliminate or reduce the risks of sexual harassment or relational nepotism.
  • Re-evaluate the size of your groups, staff-to-student ratio, and level of training  assistants receive as variables to reduce the potential for negative responses during  activities that are more likely to elicit trauma responses in participants. 
  • Consider what informed consent could look like in the context of a “mystery school” in your intake process.  If this is the “skydiving of personal development,” then say so, be upfront about it —and the risks —people have left your events dissassociated, some psychotic, depressed, even suicidal.
    • Consider how ubiquitous trauma is, and how difficult it is for people to self assess and report in this regard. What would your curriculum and intake process look like if you assumed all of your participants had a history of trauma because it is statistically likely they do.
    • Practice informed consent regarding the most triggering exercises before students arrive at the event (i.e. trauma re-enactments, penetrative activities, student/teacher sexual relationships and animal sacrifice.) Doing so will increase the chances for positive participant experiences.
    • Perform a full vetting of facilitators and students for sexual and violent offenses prior to allowing them to participate in your trainings.
    • Establish a clear containment/exit protocol for students who prove to be abusive to other students at or in between events.

Better 

  • All the items from the “baseline efforts” category, and:
  • Ensure incident report forms are submitted directly to a neutral 3rd party first, not internal governance.
  • Change the structure of your organization/organism (which currently has no stable paid governance roles) so that you may take accountability or swift action in cases of harm caused by facilitators and practices. 
  • Elect and pay a group of lead teachers (who do not have reports against them) to focus exclusively (for at least 3-6 months) on the most urgent changes that need to be made in the organization:
    • Create and implement a plan to strengthen facilitator training, course content, and organizational policies. Doing this would indicate to your community and the greater community that you are taking these changes seriously. 
    • The most urgent areas we believe you need to address are: trauma-informed best practices, communication norms that are sometimes experienced as manipulative by participants, power dynamics in general, but also specifically in regard to teacher/student sexual involvement and predatory/grooming behaviors by some teachers.
    • Hire appropriate 3rd party consultants to assist with above (suggestions in next bullet). 
  • Audit your entire curriculum with the help of a trauma specialist, to ensure less re-traumatization and fresh trauma are generated through your catharsis, enactment, and other intense exercises. Adopt trauma-informed protocols, including teaching better resourcing and self-regulating techniques, not just emotional release techniques. One highly qualified resource we are aware of is:
  • Provide financial reparations for those who have been harmed in the most egregious situations (i.e. partial or full refunds for trainings) where it was a clear misstep on the part of the teacher, to be determined by a neutral third party. Funds provided by ISTA as well as either the teacher who created the harm or the lead teachers for the associated retreat where the participant was harmed.
  • Appoint an external accountability board and/or create open community forums to assist you in the creation of improving your curriculum, internal structures, and accountability processes. Choosing to engage the community in this way would demonstrate a commitment to transformative justice, which means “an ethos and a set of tools that builds on restorative justice by implicating the responsibility of the community for contributing to the conditions that allowed the harm to happen, and responding to the harm with collective support of survivors, healing of the community itself, and movement towards a world free from violence.” 

Best 

  • All the additional items from the “baseline” and “better” categories, and:
  • Pause the majority of  ISTA programs for three to six months and use this time to reflect, re-evaluate, and implement many changes listed in this document. We realize this is a near-impossible request, but believe it the most powerful choice you could make in this situation. We believe it would both send the message to survivors and the community how serious you are taking this and would give you the space and time required to implement so many changes. If this isn’t possible, at least make sure adequate paid staff are focused on reforms and working with skilled consultants.
  • In addition to financial reparations for those who have been harmed (see Better), fund additional therapy and counseling for those who need it due to the harms they experienced in ISTA and associated events. Funds provided by ISTA as well as the teachers who caused the harm or who were the leaders for the associated retreat where the participant was harmed. For practical purposes, this may be best addressed by the creation of a group healing/therapy process for those that have been harmed where the group is run by a qualified 3rd party but funded by ISTA. 
  • Ban all teacher/student sexual interaction entirely. This would indicate a solid commitment to sexual healing, and make predators less likely to want to rise through the organization’s ranks.

In conclusion, we fully understand our suggestions will require large amounts of time, labor, money, and humility to institute. Perhaps even more challenging, they would require you to part ways with people you have deep relationships with and call into question cherished ideologies that have been core to your group for many years. This is very challenging work. We will likely need to have a logistical conversation, but we are not interested in having a conversation about whether our response is warranted or a witch hunt. We are not a witch hunt. We are professionals trying to ameliorate harm that the way your organizations are run have caused, and we want to work with you on creating a success story. We will be just as enthusiastic to publicize your successes as we have been with publicizing the grievances.

We want to acknowledge that many people have positive experiences at your events, and great experiences with some of your teachers. Yet, for far too long, the experiences of those who have been abused, traumatized, manipulated, and harmed in other ways have not been tended to in a respectful way. It’s not enough to say your programs “aren’t for everyone,” or blame participants’ problems on their past traumas or differing belief systems. 

Can a mystery school create powerful spiritual and sexual experiences for groups of people without harming anyone in the process? Perhaps not, but many steps can be taken to ensure significantly less harm is caused. We’re here to help you integrate these practices, should you choose to collaborate with us.

Sincerely, 

Safer Sex-Positve and Spiritual Communities

Lalita Diaz, Michael Author, David Booda, Sherry Froman, Kristen O’Guin, Wilrieke Sophia

Attachments:

  • Folder of reports we have permission to share with you anonymously
  • Folder of reports we have permission to share with you with survivor’s names attached
  • Summary Report of the 54 incident of harm reports we collected from 6/30/22-10/24/22
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