Hello, my name is Erich Haygun and I am writing this to express my perspective of the situations and events described elsewhere in this blog. In order to understand where I'm coming from here, there are a few key things that I'd like you to know about me.
The first is that I am relatively new to the Vancouver poetry scene. I featured for the first time at Van Slam on December 5th, 2011 and on January 5th, 2012 I came to stay indefinitely at East Van's venerable Foxy House, (named for the fox mosaic in the kitchen floor not, contrary to popular assumption, for the undeniable foxiness of its inhabitants) which is also the de facto touring poet/ hobo crash space. It was an admittedly wild move, which I'll explain in a moment.
Since that time, the Vancouver arts community as a whole has thrown its arms wide open for me and Van Slam is no small part of that. Not only did I really care about the scene, I also actively started slamming again which I had not done in earnest since I was the 2008 IWPS representative for my home venue, The Cantab Lounge. I experienced a series of really immediate and intense bonds with people and venues, and I became as involved as I could in the local community. Still, I do my best to tread respectfully on unfamiliar turf.
The second thing you should know about me is that while living in Boston, I was a volunteer public speaker, workshop facilitator and state-certified crisis counselor at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (www.barcc.org) for several years. Mostly, I went to high schools, colleges and community centers to lead discussions on topics like consent, healthy relationships and being an active bystander for groups of all ages, races, classes and sexual identities. I also worked to find ways of using performance to raise visibility, for example by performing at Slutwalk Boston in conjunction with BARCC.
All of which is to say, I feel a really strong personal connection to the issue of sexual assault. In fact, I've often felt defensive about being treated as an "ally" in this specific area, as I've been acutely aware of how sexual violence has affected essentially every person I've known and loved since the time I could talk, in addition to feeling its impact firsthand multiple times at the hands of both friends and strangers. I was anxious to bring all of this experience to the Van Slam situation as a newly-welcomed outsider, except for one hitch…
… my partner, Jessica Mason-Paull, was the survivor. (Yes, we had been together exactly one month by the time I fell all over myself to leave Brooklyn and live with her in Canada. She is that kind of individual. And I am no sucker.) On the one hand, I was uniquely equipped to support her when she disclosed her sexual assault, especially as the first person she had ever told. On the other hand, it presented a real conflict of interest in trying to be active and vocal about handling the situation. No matter my training and experience, my main role had to be supporting her.
So now that you have an idea of where I was coming from going into this, I'd like to unload some my thoughts and concerns in the process of confronting the situation as a community, which I am still struggling to assemble.
My first concern was that I was the person to initially suggest confronting this situation at a Van Slam Family meeting, which is more or less a public forum. I mention this not at all to take credit for what amounted to massive group effort but to reinforce that even with a fair amount of theory and practice around the issue of sexual assault, I was second-guessing myself and worried about doing more damage than good. I know better than to assume my inclination towards confrontation is always an appropriate instinct to act on.
My second concern was with the safety of myself, my partner, our housemates and our community at-large. Our house has a serious open-door policy, and to my knowledge the Foxy House hasn't been locked in many, many years. If the perpetrator or one of their defenders decided to retaliate against our speaking out, we'd be especially vulnerable. The perpetrator is also a very prominent member of not only the poetry scene, but the local community overall, which meant the potential for backlash was significant.
My third concern was the uncomfortable but real potential that I would enact physical violence upon the perpetrator. I am not proud to admit that I was an aggressive and physically violent young person. I like to believe that my intentions were always noble, but that does not matter. Especially in a case like this, if I were to attack the perpetrator it would make the situation about my violence rather than about the perpetrators violence. But the thought of this person continuing to brag about having (non-consensual) sex with my partner while I'm in the room… I've lost my shit for way worse reasons than that. I have to thank Tara Hardy and Rachel McKibbens for taking my calls immediately after Jessica disclosed to me and providing a vent for that energy.
My next concern almost seemed counter-intuitive to the previous one, but I strongly urged everyone involved to maintain genuine compassion for the offender- which, for better or worse, was met with resistance at first. One thing that really stuck with me from my training at BARCC was that the organization had taken an official stance against the death penalty for child rapists, specifically because it was proven to decrease rates of reporting. Most childhood survivors are abused by family or family friends, and people are less likely to expose a familiar perpetrator if it means that their uncle, for instance, is going to be murdered by the government.
In practical terms, this means that the less an offender is vilified and ostracized, the more community support the survivor is likely to experience. The focus should be identifying problematic behavior, not problematic people. Because even though in this case the offender has violated multiple people, the unbelievable prevalence of sexual assault is not just the result of the actions of a handful of people. The silence around the issue is what allows them to operate and in asking people to break that silence, compassion for the offender is a critical component of healing not only the survivor and the community, but the offender themselves. If you simply push a perpetrator out of one community, they'll just go somewhere else- and that's not really a solution.
As we were including more people in the preparation for The Meeting, I strongly urged a model of Restorative Justice. I originally heard of this practice from a woman named Strong Oak who worked with BARCC in her advocacy within the Native American populations of Massachusetts. That community simply cannot afford to exile their own and instead of seeking justice through government courts, they seek accountability and reconciliation from the offender while allowing the process to be driven by the survivor's need for security.
What this meant in our case is that instead of imposing a mandatory ban behind relatively closed doors, we would publicly ask the perpetrator to respect the community's concerns and abide a leave of absence while we worked out an accountability plan. We wanted to very firmly state that this person's behavior is unacceptable, while offering a path towards restoring trust among everyone involved.
Fortunately, the response of the community overall has exceeded even our most optimistic expectations. There was a palpable sense of relief not only among those of us that initiated the confrontation, but throughout the extended community of poetry and arts scenes locally and internationally.
The one final thought that I have in talking about confronting sexual assault in a community is the necessity of men actively participating. This is not simply a women's issue, it is a serious public health concern. Most perpetrators are men, but most men are not perpetrators and those good-hearted men are critical to combating sexual violence. It's upsetting to think about but everyone knows someone who has been assaulted- and everyone also probably knows a perpetrator. I urge all of us to give anyone who comes forward with these terrible experiences the benefit of the doubt, even if it's your friend on the other end of the allegation.