Monday, October 16, 2017

Sexual Assault and Toxic Masculinity

In just browsing Facebook in the last week, I've been reminded of the magnitude of the problem that sexual assault is in our culture. It's not that I didn't know it existed, but the huge, pervasive reminder that people I love and care about are showing me as I scrolled through my feed reaffirms to me that it's a real thing that really happens to real people. And I needed to see that.

I've mentioned before that one of the things that makes burlesque a tight-knit community is the fact that we're doing a vulnerable form of art. We take ownership in doing a type of performance with our bodies that can be perceived in a dangerous and possessive way to others. Because of that, there's a level of trust that is required among performers and the people we work with. Backstage, you absolutely need to trust the people you're collaborating with in order to not feel unsafe. Because of that, we're all held to high standards, and that trust can be so easily taken advantage of.

In the last week alone, I've been made aware of two separate acts of sexual assault that were perpetrated by male members of the burlesque community. While neither of them are my story to tell, I did want to acknowledge that this is the kind of thing that happens all too often, and very close to home. This is why it is crucially important for me to believe the people who tell me about these violations of personal boundaries, and why I need to factor that information into my decisions about who I work with and hire for my own productions.

What's terrifying to me is that men in our culture are in so many ways raised to feel entitled to sex. Not only does our media corroborate this by showing movies, television shows, comics and video games with male protagonists being "awarded" the beautiful woman for saving the day, but we're thrust into conversations about masculinity that are predicated on men taking what they want from women who are unwilling, non-consenting, or uninterested.

These tropes are sneaky, and they often work themselves into burlesque acts. As a straight male who does burlesque, I confess that it's very easy to use striptease as the theatrical leverage that makes a female character on stage do a thing. In creating a scene where a male protagonist will remove clothing or make a comically lewd joke in order to change how another character (or audience member, as the case may be) views him, we're subtly reinforcing a harmful perspective that being sexually aggressive can net you positive results.

I wanted to acknowledge that my own perspective on this is just one side of the issue. Women, fem, non-binary, and people with different sexual orientations all have varying narratives on how our culture treats the issue of sexual assault, and it's equally important that we're all involved in this dialogue.

One person I know posted something to Facebook that brought me backwards in time to my own involvement in perpetrating toxic masculine culture. I asked him if I could share his post, and I copied it in its entirety below;

All of this "me too" is really moving me. However, I don't see a lot of men admitting to their part of it, so I'm breaking my "don't actually write anything real on the internet" rule. Here goes:
In my boozy single days, I can remember occasions in which I was too aggressive or persistent and made women uncomfortable. I knew I wasn't a threat to anyone's safety, so I never even considered that my approach could be perceived as threatening in any way. Looking back, I was completely wrong about this. I regret not recognizing the power inherent in my maleness. I should have behaved in a less selfish, more compassionate way. I am deeply sorry for this. I am still learning and trying to get better.
Fellas - there's not a bunch of faceless mystery men that are making women feel unsafe. It's us. Let's do better.

Of course, as I read this, I went back through my own timeline and tried to figure out how I might also have been that guy. I don't pretend that I'm without blame, or that I don't have similar flashbacks to memories of being too aggressive or persistent with someone because I thought that was what you did to win someone's interest. I thought back to memories of my high school football locker room, which I assure you is not just a cliche, but a real place where other men brag about their sexual conquests. I remember being silent in situations where I watched other men making women uncomfortable and unsafe, and being too frightened of whatever silly, insignificant thing to say anything. I also recall listening to female and fem people in my life, and a younger me offering to help solve their problem with violence instead of listening and acknowledging, and understanding that one form of toxic masculinity doesn't require the deployment of another.

In terms of the steps I need to take now, I will strive to be compassionate and sincere in how I treat other people. I will watch my speech to ensure that I don't speak about subjects that normalize sexual assault in any form. I will also make sure I'm listening and not speaking when other people are sharing their experiences and believe others when they share their own narratives. I will speak up when I am watching men saying or doing things that are making women feel unsafe. I have, and will continue to not work with people who I have learned are dangerous, or who do not espouse these beliefs.

In relation to the men who have committed sexual assault in the burlesque community, it's important that we don't continue to provide them opportunities to perform. Even though asking someone to leave your production is 100% of the time going to be an unpleasant conversation, my policy is that if someone tells you they feel unsafe, I can assure you that that conversation will absolutely take place.

I am not perfect, and I acknowledge that I have a long way to go. I am learning and trying to get better, with the acknowledgement that I play a role in how we handle sexual assault in our culture. I can only hope that doing the right thing and being respectful stops being the paradigm and starts becoming the minimum accepted standard for how we treat each other.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Wanting to be a part of everything

Since a couple years ago I've had a pretty steady amount of offers to be in many different kinds of burlesque and variety shows. This is normally an awesome thing, as it means I have to hustle less to get myself booked. I appreciate and am grateful that enough show producers can find a place for me in their plan for an entertaining evening.

I had a moment recently where I found myself hesitating while writing a response email. A response in which I was declining a gig.


I had a really hard time writing this one email, and was worried about how what I was saying might come off. Typical anxiety notwithstanding (this producer will hate me/never book me again, I'll miss out on a chance to do something fun, if I don't do this it'll look bad, etc), this is an activity I find more stressful than all of the preparation that comes with an acceptance. Though I've written these types of responses before, I think the reason why I'm having so much trouble this year is for two main reasons;

1 - Due to recent life circumstances, I have the capacity to take on fewer commitments than ever before.

2 - Having done festivals and shows in a wide mess of new places, I now know EXACTLY what I'm saying "no" to.

Saying no to things that are too much for you to handle is a healthy practice. With that said, I've -NEVER- been good at it. Despite Lucifer Christmas's recent blog post assuring me that "there will always be another gig," I know that in my own little mind, there will be some degree of omnipresent regret for saying no. It's awful, and I don't know how to make that go away and shut up with the noises.

As I watch my friends head off to other cities (and countries) to go to festivals, I do feel a little bit of FOMO. I always make a short list in my head every year of all the festivals I want to do, and make a casual attempt to remember when and where they are each year.

Further compounding this is the mathematical fact that I only have a finite amount of years left to try to follow up on some of these dreams before I retire from burlesque or die.

A few more shots to the head like this, and that day may be right around the corner.
Photo by Rob Starobin, NYC Nerdlesque Festival.

On the other hand, I am writing the majority of this after having just finished a 2 hour nap in the middle of a relaxing getaway in New Hampshire. Between a demanding 9-5 weekday job, regular circus and strength training, and an average of 10-15 various gigs per month, I forgot how completely satisfying an afternoon nap can feel.

Granted, this last week was a grind--six shows, three of which involved acrobatic and physically painful stage combat (thank you for that, Holy Shitsnacks, An Archer Burlesque). The show turned out amazingly, and the cast was completely on their A-game. And speaking of which, look at this amazing cast intro video;

Video by Adriano Moraes, all cast credits contained within.

Some people have the ability to grind it out and make this whole burlesque thing their living, but I know that I don't have the energy to do that. Frankly, I'm looking forward to being able to rest up a bit and take the biggest swing I can at the next thing I'm able to go 110% on. To me, that seems like the best way to get back in, and I know that I'll be less stressed (and tired) if I'm able to choose what that next thing is.

There's a lot of questions spinning around in the blender here for me. What kind of fulfillment do I get from packing my schedule full of things that scare me? Why do I have such ennui about declining things that my Meyers-Briggs test results tell me I should hate? Why do I find satisfaction doing something that makes my father uncomfortable?

Maybe it's because of that time I threatened to cut off another man's muttonchops.
Photo by Roger Gordy, Old School Game Show

What is it exactly that I'm afraid to give up? I guess the best answer I can come up with is....that I enjoy being other people. Is that escapism?

As burlesque performers, we all want to entertain--that much is universally true. I look at entertaining others as a side benefit, since I feel like there's a bigger thrill to be had by exploring the lives of people and characters with other perspectives. Each time I get to perform on stage is an opportunity to move, speak, look, act, and briefly live like someone else. I even treat my professional life that way; I get a truly embarrassing kick out of being the regular human coworker at the water cooler that also likes sports.


Maybe a part of that is the rush that I experience from fooling people around me into thinking I'm "good enough" to keep a job, have social skills, or fulfilling emotional relationships. Maybe it's the counterweight that the edginess of burlesque offers to an otherwise perfectly normal life. Maybe I'm just scared of having to experience and sort through the feelings and experiences that come with each day on my own.

Whoa man. That went right into the abyss.


Anyway, I think there's an intangible value in feeling like you're in demand. If people want you to do things, it would be selfish to deny them what they want, right? But I'm feeling lately like taking some time to be a regular life person should be a way for me to get re-centered, re-prioritize everything in my life, and remind myself why I love performing. Regaining some perspective might help me get back there.