During the preparation for the Van Slam meeting where we raised the issue of safe space and sexual assault (and folks shared their stories of inappropriate behavior that they’ve encountered at the poetry slam), one of the things that our badass facilitator Tara Hardy remarked on was how our community had pretzeled itself around such a dysfunctional person.
I have been spending a lot of time thinking about this. As Jess mentioned in her story, I had spent an extensive amount of time with the man who assaulted her. I have seen him cross boundaries, yell at people, refuse to leave someone’s house when he was no longer welcome, and many other anti-social and inappropriate behaviors. As a part of my commitment to creating safe space, I had to re-examine my unwillingness to confront him on his other inappropriate behaviors. Why hadn’t I put my foot down?
In doing some reading about parallel struggles against sexual assault in the BDSM/fetish community, I clicked on a link to an article about geek social fallacies, and I found the answer.
The geek social fallacies as described are mostly used to describe folks who are gamers, comic book geeks, etc – however, I think that they apply to almost any marginalized subculture. Many of the people who spend a lot of time within the poetry slam community have trauma, social anxiety, or other issues that isolate us from broader society. I think that, for many of us, writing and performing gives us an opportunity to work through our ‘stuff’ and to be celebrated for being original and different. It’s a place where the fat kids, the survivors, the queer and trans folk and the nerds can come together and be accepted.
However, in our quest to accept and celebrate people who are different, we sometimes veer towards geek social fallacy #1 (GSF1) – ostracizers are evil. As Michael Suileabhain-Wilson writes:
Many geeks have had horrible, humiliating, and formative experiences with ostracism, and the notion of being on the other side of the transaction is repugnant to them…As a result, nearly every geek social group of significant size has at least one member that 80% of the members hate, and the remaining 20% merely tolerate. If GSF1 exists in sufficient concentration -- and it usually does -- it is impossible to expel a person who actively detracts from every social event.
In examining my interactions with this man, I realized that I was permissive regarding his obnoxious and anti-social behavior because I believed that he didn’t have anywhere else to go, and that it would be cruel to try to forcibly exclude him from the community. And it doesn’t just apply to him. I can think of loads of situations where I didn’t put my foot down because I didn’t want to be the person who shuts someone out of the only accepting place they’ve ever known.
Some examples of shitty behavior that I didn’t call out include:
- A poet wrote an extremely graphic fantasy sex poem, which originated in a real conversation that he had with another poet in the scene. He performed it at the slam, and then proceeded to tell the person it was about that it was about her. She expressed that it made her very uncomfortable and asked him not to perform it again. He refused.
- A poet and organizer in his late 20s slept with an 18 year old volunteer at the poetry slam, and then wouldn’t return her phone calls and gave her the silent treatment.
- A poet and organizer criticized another organizer’s professional judgment behind her back because he felt that she demonstrated poor sexual judgment in her personal life.
In all of these situations, the reason that I didn’t call out this behavior is because I felt like I would be cutting them out of a group that they love. I am keenly aware of the social power I wield. I have quite a bit of social capital, and I know that being called out by me is a serious strike against someone. I have been unwilling to wield it, even in situations where it was more than warranted. One of the pieces of growth that I am working on is around holding people accountable for behaving in responsible and respectful ways.
I think it’s time for us to all take a hard look at how we behave in community, and ask ourselves: where are the places that we struggle with holding people accountable and calling them out for inappropriate behavior?
I believe that this commitment to calling out will make our communities safer. I want that. I hope you will join me.