As some of you may know, there has been a festival happening here in Vancouver this week – the Vancouver International Poetry Festival. We’ve had poets from across Canada make their way to Vancouver to compete in the Canadian Individual Poetry Slam Championships, and it’s provided a forum for a lot of conversations about what the Vancouver Poetry Slam is doing in terms of calling out sexual assault.
This week, I had a conversation with a visiting poet about how little we talk about how people are seen in the spoken word community – how little we discuss and disseminate our impressions about other people. Unfortunately, this often means that some people who are just totally unaware of how inappropriate their behavior is, and don’t realize that they are making people uncomfortable and unsafe, never get called out. The people who feel uncomfortable assume that they are the only ones, and they continue to feel uncomfortable.
Some common examples of this include:
- Trying to sleep with all of the new young women who come into the scene as the host, slammaster, board member or other senior volunteer. The newcomer inevitably gets the impression that being welcomed into the community is contingent on the senior volunteer’s goodwill. This can make it awkward to effectively enforce boundaries – it can also make the newcomer feel like ‘fresh meat’. (This was a phenomenon that we heard a lot about at our Van Slam community meeting.)
- Being incredibly touchy-feely with someone who hasn’t consented to being in touch space with you. When a person goes rigid when you touch them, or verbally shuts down, that is a sign that the behavior you’re engaging in is not okay. If someone says “don’t touch me” – back the fuck off.
- Telling someone repeatedly how much their poem turned you on, and making comments about their attractiveness, sexual availability and/or your sexual prowess in an insistent way.
I need to be clear that I think all of this qualifies as sleazy behavior – behavior that would send my red flags way, way up. I also think, however, that there are some people who think that their behavior is appropriate and that they are just being affectionate and affirming community members. This post is about how to have conversations with folks who mean well, but who consistently demonstrate ignorance regarding the damaging effects of their behavior.
So, back to the conversation that I was having. The conversation was with someone who I like very much and have known for a long time. This is important to mention because it means that I had enough information about him to be confident that he would be willing to hear what I was going to say – not because his friendship with me gives him some sort of “I can’t be a creeper! I’m friends with Lisa!” merit badge.
At some point, while we were discussing generalities, he asked me how he was seen in the community. I took a deep breath, and asked him whether he really wanted an answer. He said that he did. So, I took another deep breath and told him – “you have a reputation as a nice guy who tends to be aggressively flirty and touchy with new, young women in the scene. There have been a few people this week who have felt uncomfortable about it, and have talked to me about it because you and I were friends.”
To his credit, he was able to hear that feedback and not react negatively. He later thanked me for engaging in a lot of “real talk” with him while he was here, and giving it to him straight. He said that he felt like I had given him a lot to think about. I hope that he will carry that feedback with him and will let it shape part of the way that he behaves in community in the future.
One of the things that our core organizing group had to prepare ourselves for in the lead up to the community meeting was the possibility (probability) that we would hear stories about bad behavior from community leaders, our friends, partners and poets we admire. This is where I am so grateful for this value system that does not pathologize or monsterize people. This is where I am so grateful for engaging in this work in a way that acknowledges that we all fuck up and break safety – I am grateful for the idea that we can become safe to be in community again as a guiding principle.
There are lots of people I know who sometimes demonstrate predatory behavior. Sometimes our privilege is invisible to us, and we don’t realize that we’re exerting it over other people. Things that are not illegal can still be creepy, and many of these behaviors fall on a spectrum. The more effectively that we can call out these early behaviors, the less likely someone is to progress to the more serious behaviors. If we send the message that we are going to call shit out early and unapologetically, it removes the silence that allows these behaviors to persist.
If you are planning to have a conversation with someone about inappropriate behavior, here are a few guiding principles:
1) Be sure that it is safe to have the conversation. Preferably, have it in public with someone else there. Let other people know that you are having the conversation, and have a safety plan in case it goes sideways.
2) Focus on the behavior, not the people who it was enacted against. It is easy to get caught up in someone’s victim-blaming, or to empathize with their sentiments that they are not a bad person and therefore could not have done this. Be clear that it is the behavior that is unacceptable, not them, and be prepared to connect them to support and resources to improve.
3) Line up some support for yourself. If the person responds with victim-blaming vitriol, it could be traumatic or triggering. Make sure that you are set up to practice good self-care.
4) Be okay with the idea that the person might react negatively and it might not make a difference. They might be awesome and be able to hear you – but don’t assume that will be the case. Often, you are setting yourself up for disappointment and to feel like you are failing at tackling this issue. Calling stuff out is its own success, even when it doesn’t feel that way.
If you are calling out bad behavior, you are taking a step towards making our communities safer. Thank you. As Tara Hardy said in our community meeting, we know that a space is safe when people are openly talking about these issues. As other folks have said, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” The more openly that we have these conversations, the more likely it is that this behavior will not present so often in our community – and the more likely it is that we will be able to spend time in an artistic community that feels safer.