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.