Friday, March 23, 2012

WTF is this?- by Jessica Mason-Paull

It's been years that I have been hearing stories about sexual assault in the Poetry Slam community in Vancouver.

Some told me to "watch out" for this guy, some told me that this guy has "poor boundaries", some said "this place is run by men, don't sleep with them" and it went on.

I started going to VanSlam in 2006. It was a life changing experience being in a room where over a hundred people listened, really listened to what whoever was on stage had to say. The stuff I loved the most was the really honest poems, poems about incest, poems about love, poems about rape and all the other poems about things we don't talk about in day to day life because of shame and fear.

The moment I arrived in the community I felt preyed upon, the men who had been around for a long time and the organizers/men in power positions would regularly make their sexual interest known, often under the guise of helping to improve my writing or making me a better performer. Some of them I am still friends with today, some I'm not very close to but we have a shared interest of Poetry and some gave me the creeps and I stay away from.

In early 2007, I was sexually assaulted  by a man in that community. At the time of the assault I was in a terribly vunerable emotional, financial and social state ( here is my experience) and I didn't know who to talk to about it, didn't know how to name the experience and wanted to forget about it and move on with my life.

That was working pretty well for me until a few weeks ago. A male friend who i had met my very first Slam and who I am still close to today disclosed that a mutual female friend of ours had had a negative sexual experience with the same man that I had. We were at a bar, I was a few beers in and felt incredibly triggered so we finished our drinks, I expressed my sadness that these things were happening and went home.

For twenty four hours I kept getting flashbacks from my experiences with this man and could think of little else. My partner was concerned and asked me what was on my mind, then I told him. It was the abridged version, something like a magazine review of the story rather than the actual story. It was after this that I named what happened. It was so hard to hear myself say, I knew what had happened was fucked up and shitty, I just didn't want to hear it being called "sexual assault". It felt dramatic, after all I was fine. I'm strong, I'm not a victim, especially to that guy. I didn't want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he hurt me.

A couple more days went by and my Partner (who is the singularly most fair and understanding person I have ever had the pleasure of meeting) and I talked about the experience a lot. Pretty much ever chance we got. We talked about how it affected my life in that community, we talked about the others who had been abused, we talked about how I was going to become the Slam Mistress (the one who runs the show) of VanSlam and whether people were safe at our events.

Whilst this was happening there was an incredible amount of talk in the international Slam community around sexual violence, safe space and women's issues steaming from the recent Women of the World poetry slam, Rachel McKibben's and Mindy Nettifee's recently released brochure on How To Identify A Predator which was circulated at WOWps.

I had been hearing for years the stories of Nationals (National Poetry Slam N.P.S), tales of wild sex and sometimes assaults. People often talked to me about Nationals as a great place to get laid and also a great place to become disillusioned with the Poetry community. This year would be my first year going to Nationals and I wasn't really looking forward to it because it sounded like a huge sex party, not a poetry festival. Some of the stories I had heard were incredibly disturbing, from more than one source. Like the woman who doesn't come anymore after she got so drunk she didn't remember having sex in public with a fellow poet. When she expressed that she felt uncomfortable at what had happened and her inability to consent whilst that drunk she was silenced and shamed for having sex in public in front of other poets. Or the story about the man who got women really intoxicated and took them back to his hotel room one night after another. These stories were rarely told to me in a "this is fucked up we should stop this happening" way, but usually in a "oh man, Nationals! What a wild ride!" way. The culture is violent, misogynistic and fear driven.

The conversations appearing online in recent months were all quite similar in content I began to notice. First, a women would express concern that there were sexual predators in their scene and asked how we could deal with them, explaining that women's silence was allowing these predator's to exist. Then women would chime in saying that we should have some official list/banning procedure of these perpetrators. Then no one (bar a few incredible exceptions) would make a list or share the information openly, due to valid fears about their or other's safety and legal ramifications. The cycle continued. Predator's rely on our fear to perpetuated their behaviour.

This made my blood boil. Chris Gilpin once told me that the only power this man had over me was my fear of him. If I wasn't afraid of him then he had nothing to use against me, he was pathetic. So, I decided with perhaps my not most rational mind that I was in a place where I could actually do something about this.

I was about to become Slam Mistress, I was well supported and loved, I was educated in the ways of victim blaming, legal issues and alike and it was my duty to protect the people who came to events in my community. When I thought about the worst case scenario of outing this man and trying to create accountability for him and others in our community, it was worth the risk. When you've been afraid that long of someone, then being sued, blamed, not believed and hated, seemed pretty small fry.

So, my Partner and I made a plan.


  1. This whole website is stunning. Really wonderful. Good job.

  2. I want to thank you for being a role model. This entire blog has provided advice, support, and action to ensure that my community will be a safer place for now on. And not just in the poetry slam community, but also in the arts and culture and university culture that I live in.

  3. Your courage is inspiring. I’ve been to a couple poetry slams and always been amazed by how open everyone is about sex and hooking up, but now I see that was only one part of the story.

    This blog has started a lot of conversations. I’ve sent it to my friends and we can all relate to your insights about powerlessness, guilt, and silence. We've addressed our own experiences in ways we probably wouldn't have otherwise.

    Thank you.

  4. As someone who is very new to the community and has thus far been dreaming of how wonderful it will be to get more involved - I feel both scared and hopeful. Scared, because I have experienced sexual abuse and assault and I'm wildly trusting. Hopeful, because you are talking about it and clearly you are a community of courageous, wise, and loving individuals.

    Thank you for saying something. I still struggle with my "secrets".

  5. Our Phoenix poetry community has been having this conversation recently, too. It takes courage (thanks to Miou who began the open coversation on FaceBook!) and it takes concern for the well-being of the whole community. We have a person in our community who is just...well, creepy in that sexual predator way. He approached me once and I was quite clear with my "NO!" That was a few years ago and I didn't know all the story about him. I know more now and he's someone our community will have to deal with...soon. Glad the men are taking part in this conversation, too.