Sunday, October 14, 2012

On language, dialogue and trust By Joanna Hoffman

On language, dialogue and trust
By Joanna Hoffman

Change, when it comes, cracks everything open.
 Dorothy Allison

I write this as a flawed human being. I’ve studied feminism and queer theory. I’ve worked on rape crisis hotlines and at domestic violence shelters. I’ve survived assault and I’ve loved survivors. I’ve also called a woman a bitch. I’ve been grossly ignorant about my race, gender identity, and class privileges. I’ve hesitated to speak up when I should have.

I don’t believe there is such a thing as an expert in anything involving human interactions. People are infinitely complicated. We will never know the thousands of experiences, beliefs and unconscious dogmas that have shaped each other’s lives. The word home means something different to everyone. Same with the words lovesurvivor, andsafety.

I’m a linguistic nerd. I’m fascinated by how language has been used to attempt to codify complex concepts for shared understanding. But I’m also aware of how often those attempts have failed us. We often don’t ask each other what words mean to us and what has shaped those definitions. One person’s safety can be another person’sdanger.

When another human being tells us that they felt unsafe, they’re speaking from their own personal definition of safety. Sometimes, the situation is very clear—person 1 followed person 2 home, uninvited; person 1 held person 2 down; person 2 said no and person 1 didn’t listen. Often, it’s murky and complicated. Maybe there was no violence, but there was discomfort. Maybe drugs or alcohol were involved and memories are fuzzy. Maybe allegiances made the act of speaking out feel impossible.

Despite what my resume might claim, I am not an expert in anything except my own deepest intuitions and perspectives. I’m not an expert in community-building, or poetry, or LGBTQ advocacy, even though I am in invested in and care deeply about all of these things. I’m an expert in my own perception of trust. Over the past four years that I’ve lived in New York City, I’ve developed a few close, long-lasting friendships. I trust these people, and I believe their stories.

Years of my own understanding of silencing have taught me that, more often that not, people who speak out do so because their safety, or that of someone they love, has pushed them to that point. Speaking out is a not a fun or easy process. Yes, falsified claims happen. But personally, I’d rather risk that happening then refuse to help someone who feels they may be in danger.

I’ve thought a lot this week about a man I used to be close friends with back in high school, and who later exhibited sexually predatory behavior towards me. Above all else, I was furious at myself for not seeing him as he was and for taking so long to finally walk away from my friendship with him. I know now that I couldn’t have been an expert in him or his character. I trusted him until I couldn’t. And then I needed to redefine what trust meant to me. Now, I’m a lot stricter about who I do trust. When I do trust someone, it means a lot more than it did when I was younger. Life is all about editing and re-editing our own dictionaries.

I say all this to say, it’s okay to admit that sometimes we just don’t know.  It’s okay to ask questions, to have dialogue, and most importantly, to listen. Finding solutions isn’t just about asking the right questions, or even speaking the same language. It’s about hearing each other’s stories, and allowing those stories the space and the volume they deserve. It’s about understanding that some things will always be lost in translation, but that’s never a reason to stop listening. One way or another, we’ll get the message.

Joanna Hoffman

Thursday, July 26, 2012

North American Poetry Slam Community adresses Safe Space

It's tough times for rapists these days in the poetry slam community. People are speaking up all over North America and PSI (Poetry Slam Inc) is beginning to create a safe space structure which all registered slams will have to adhere to.

It's not a simply process and no one really has any answers but people are talking, getting together and saying this is important. It's exciting. The power of just speaking the truth and being heard is having its day.

The scene here is still working on safety. We still have meetings and create awareness and it's paying off. I have had more than one regular at our events say they enjoy it more now. Our shows have been sold out for months and diversity is slowly increasing in both our audience and performer base. In short, it's been worth it. Sleepless nights and long phone calls to lawyers can all be out weighed by the knowing that people want to help, they care.

When the official stance from PSI comes out I will link to it here, I will also share updates of other slams who are addressing this issue.

You're time is coming Rapists, we're onto you.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Problem with Creepers - by Nadine Thornhill

Recently I was browsing the comment section of one of my favourite blogs. The original post was indictment of men who use creepy creeper tactics in an attempt to pick up women. Being anti-creepy creeper, I was all up on this perspective and I wanted to see what my fellow readers had to say about the matter. The majority of comments were spirited “here here”s from creeper haters, with a the occasional objection from a creeper apologist.  But in all of this one comment in particular struck me. It wasn’t posted on my blog so I won’t copy-paste it directly, but the gist of it was this:

Telling dudes that respect is all they need to do is “have respect” when approaching women can be frustrating. Because it doesn’t always work. Sometimes dudes have sincere respect and women still see them as creepers. It’s not fair!

Now bear in mind that “I’m not creepy” is the official creeper motto. In my experience, creepers have little to no awareness of how creepy they are. Also bear in mind that being respectful is never a guarantee. You can be the most sincere person in the world, but that doesn’t mean that everyone you approach will be attracted to you or want your attention. There’s still got to be some chemistry, which is all about random luck of the draw. You can do everything “right” wooing-wise and the object of your affection may not accept your advances. Sometimes they just aren’t that into us.

But I can believe that cool awesome dudes are sometimes misunderstood and mislabeled as creepy. Because that’s the thing about creepers. They ruin it for everyone. It’s like the time in second grade when three stupid-jerk faces decided to  say the F-word during math and NONE of us got to on a class picnic. That shit is fucking unjust!  So I hear what you’re saying, respectful guys. And I’m sorry. That must sting.

It’s likely small consolation, but if you’re a good guy who’s been unfairly judged as a creeper, it’s not you. And it’s probably not her either. It’s those dang bad apples, spoiling it for the rest of us. Here’s a thing that happened to me.

Many, many years ago when I was new to Ottawa, I wanted a way to make friends and crack into the local theatre scene, so I joined an acting class. As you would expect, most people in the class were fairly outgoing but there was one guy who seemed interesting but quite shy. (For the sake of this otherwise true tale, I will pseudo-name him ‘John’). One evening the instructor assigned John to be my scene partner. After working together for a couple of hours, he began to open up a little and I realized he was actually a very nice person, albeit socially awkward.

From that point on we became friends. John was still fairly shy around the other members of our class, but he would talk and sometimes share a snack at break. Like I said, he was nice. Only a few years earlier, I had been a shy and painfully awkward teenager. I knew how difficult it could be, always hovering on the periphery of the social group, unsure of how to get yourself in. I knew how lonely it could be.

I’d given John my phone number, because that’s what friends do. One day he called me and we chatted. I noted at the time that he seemed uncharacteristically talkative and a little needy but it didn’t really bother me. He phoned me again the next day. Given the exhaustive nature of the previous day’s conversation, I didn’t expect to talk long but again it was a long chat. When he called for a third day in a row, a red flag went up. I’d like to say I was large, in charge and I shut that shit down immediately. But I didn’t. Because I didn’t know exactly what was wrong, just that I was uncomfortable. So I spent about 15 minutes trying to navigate the conversation while simultaneously trying to parse my own feelings.

And then John said something sexually explicit to me. Feelings parsed. I explained to him that he couldn’t say those things and I got off the phone.

Thankfully there was no phone call the next day. Or the next. But the following day, John called again. He immediately apologized. I let him. He began explaining himself, but again I got that icky feeling. Something was off in his voice and  the cadence of his speech. I realized he was masturbating while speaking to me. I promptly hung up.

I felt super-gross. The thought of going back to class and seeing John made my skin crawl. I told The Man of Mans and a couple of other classmates what happened. They were amazing and supportive, collectively making sure that I was never alone and that John couldn’t get near me.  One of my classmates urged me to tell our instructor, which I did.  She was also amazing. Once she heard my story, she immediately expelled John from the class. She suggested that I report the incident to campus police. I was reluctant, but ultimately decided that yes, I would do that, because I was no punk and that’s what the police were for – to protect me and my fellow citizens.

Sadly, I was wrong. When I went to campus police and I told them my story, the first question I got was “Why did you give him your phone number,” followed by a long lecture about how I couldn’t just trust guys like that. “You have to be a lot more careful in the future. You’re lucky this didn’t turn out a lot worse,” the officer told me.

I received the message loud and clear. It was my fault. It was my fault for being nice. It  was my fault for giving him my phone number. It was my fault because I didn’t assume he was a creeper until he did something creepy.  I still felt super-gross and now I had a heaping serving of guilt, shame and stupidity to go with it.

I no longer think what happened was my fault. But I do believe that if I’m ever unlucky enough to be harrassed or assaulted again, I will be held responsible. I think I’m reasonably open to friendship and even mild flirtation with men with whom I feel comfortable. But the moment I perceive anything odd in a man’s behaviour there is a little “proceed with caution” sign that pops up in my brain. Even though my rational mind knows it’s more likely nerves, shyness or some other normal human response I go to the creeper place first, because if I don’t and if I get hurt I will totally get the blame for it.

So, I’m not saying that every woman is afraid of every man. I’m not saying that every woman will reject you or that every woman you approach thinks you’re a weirdo. What I am saying is that if you’re a legitimately cool guy, who approaches women straight up, stay the course – even if you’re occasionally  mislabeled with the creeper title.  We live in a society that teaches women to be eternally vigilant or risk being seen as complicit in their own victimization. And I know that sucks for you.  But it really, really sucks for us.

I’m pretty sure that most people are decent and cool. But sometimes it only take a few creepers to ruin our damn picnic.

p.s. I feel like this post is pretty hetero-focused but since it draws fairly heavily on my own experience, I couldn’t think of another way to frame it.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Some thoughts from Rachel McKibbens

Fact: Poets get banned from venues. Not often, but it DOES happen, and it's something no one is really sure how to address.


Venues have the choice to air their "banned" list or not, and most decide not to. And that's fine. We can't force them to pass information they don't want to make public. There are many important reasons why a venue/committee shouldn't have to go into specifics, but I also believe it is important for our community to be aware that there are people who have dangerous habits; people who are risks to our community. Second-hand information should be doled out just as cautiously and considerately as first-hand information.

Oh, before I go on: Not every offender is a sex addict and not every sex addict is an offender. Let's just get that out of the way once and for all. There is always a chance for recovery, unless there isn't. And a sexual assault isn’t the only reason for a person to be banned from a venue or scene. I can spend another twelve paragraphs discussing when recovery is possible and when it is unlikely, but ultimately it comes down to: does the person show remorse? Do they accept responsibility or do they always have an excuse for everything? Do they complain about how they are constantly and unfairly being misunderstood? Do they give you so many unnecessary details about a situation that you are confused and/or fatigued and no longer want to deal with the topic you confronted them with? (Man, the “Overtell” is SUCH an interesting device!)

I've only come across three people in ten years who have had an excuse for everything, and each of those times, the people have proven to be serial offenders. There isn't much I can do about it besides warn friends because, unfortunately, the only truly ethical way to thwart a sociopath is by exposure. Arrogance and delusions of grandeur allow them to underestimate the intelligence of those around them. They count on their friends to NOT dig too hard. To trust their flimsy excuse(s). Your weapon against this line of thinking is HOLDING THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE ACCOUNTABLE. Even the most talented people. The people you look(ed) up to. The people you admire and hope to be like. Guess what?! In the end, THEY ARE ONLY PEOPLE. Some tastier than others. Several poets in our community have been put on blast lately, and let me tell you something: IT IS NOT A BAD THING. To them, it feels horrendous. Obviously. To some of us, it feels icky and confusing and we’re still sore about it.

Shit, no one on this planet likes to get exposed for their wrongdoings, and no one likes to feel that they’ve somehow been an enabler to their friends’ shitty behaviour, but guess what? Whether they choose to take it or not, they are now one step closer to becoming better people! Chances are, the recent bans that have taken place have humbled them down to a manageable size. Chances are, our community will benefit from this down-sizing. Chances are you and you and even YOU, all quiet in the corner, have been a part of this massive tidal wave of enlightenment that is helping wash away the bad shit that our scene has assumed was someone else’s problem! Yippee!

Slammers/slammasters/poetry fans, etc. if you have questions or concerns, contact someone you trust in this community. If you have a story that you cannot keep buried any longer, contact someone you trust in this community. If you don’t trust anyone in this community, create a new Gmail account and send an anonymous email to the person you distrust the least in this community. More importantly, TRUST YOUR GUT. If someone made you feel weird or uncomfortable, believe in that feeling. File it away and be mindful of it. Give it a grade. Or a score. Was this person's douchebaggery a 4.5 or a full-blown 9? Even better, WRITE THE INCIDENT DOWN. Include the date and time. That way, if you hear a similar story told by someone else, you are now aware that this was not an isolated incident but a glimpse into patterned behaviour.

There is nothing wrong with asking questions. You are not betraying anyone, you are not spreading rumors, and you are not ruining someone’s life. You are practicing self-preservation. Or maybe even a little bit of activism. You are ensuring that the local high school won’t get their poetry program shut down because you unknowingly allowed a predator onto their campus for an extra-50-bucks-for-gas workshop. You are ensuring that a woman new to this scene won’t open her couch up to another woman who doesn’t understand the meaning of NO.

And for heaven’s sake, be practical. Knowing someone’s poem by heart does not mean you know what they are capable/incapable of. You don’t have to host every person who comes to town. You don’t have to book anyone just because Important Big Name Venues are in their inflated bio. If you’re a slammaster or host, your only job is to be sure the mic works, the money agreed to is the money you pay and that the seats of your venue are filled. Picking people up from the airport or bus terminal, feeding them, making out with them, taking them to Waffle House, knitting them a catsuit, all of that is BONUS SHIT. It should never be expected. Only appreciated.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Dear all:

Attached please find the minutes from this month's VanSlam Family meeting, including the first steps towards implementation of Safe-Space policy.  Thank you.

Kyle Mallinson

Monday, April 30, 2012

On geek social fallacies, and the reason that they make it hard to call out inappropriate behavior at the poetry slam - by Lisa Slater

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.

On confronting people who demonstrate problematic behavior - by Lisa Slater

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.