More than once in my life, I’ve suggested that people handle a situation based on the way that I would handle it. I think that’s a human reflex, to make suggestions based on our own lived experiences. I often preach the platinum rule: treat others the way THEY wish to be treated. Flipping that same mindset, it’s important to consider the lived experience of others when they are faced with challenges that we might handle differently. I want to share two brief stories of how I’ve experienced sexual harassment backstage and how I’ve handled them. Stay with me, there’s a point to this. Please note that if reading such stories could potentially upset you, this is a warning.
1.) After leaving the stage, I was winded and disoriented. I removed my merkin and was bent over my suitcase, frantically searching for my “regular draws” so that I wouldn’t be just butt ass naked backstage. As I was naked and bent over, the intoxicated producer appeared inches close behind me. She began to laugh and gesture for others to look in my direction and she asked “What are you doing?” I explained that I was looking for my draws and I asked why she was standing so close over me. She kept laughing. I grabbed my things and made a loud proclamation about “GOING TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROOM!” I tried to be loud because it didn’t seem like anyone was going to step in and help. I was pissed! I knew that I’d never work with this person again. The next day, I sent her a message. I explained in clear terms that what she did was wrong and made me uncomfortable around her. It was sexual harassment (she never touched me). She apologized, made it clear that she understood why her behavior was wrong, and I felt the matter was settled.
2.) I teach a workshop on burlesque stage confidence and the whole idea behind my curriculum is to connect with our physiological response to external stimuli so that we can understand how to name those reactions and still be our best on stage. During one of the exercises, we cover how to name our physical response to being touched (with consent). I’ve received non-consensual touch backstage before performing. It’s not a good feeling. At a different show, the stage manager was too friendly with his hands. He gave uninvited touches to my elbows and shoulders. My immediate thought was, “This is what that feels like, gross!” I began to notice that my backstage warmup dancing was thrown way off. Like, I lost my rhythm and was genuinely bothered. So, before I made my way to the stage I checked in with my body. I shook off the feeling of being touched without consent. Then I went to that stage manager and told him, “Don’t ever touch me!” He didn’t come near me for the rest of the show and I felt the matter was settled.
I handled both of those situations because of how my lived experience has shaped me. Growing up as a Black man in Detroit, being direct has always been the only option for me. Not everyone was raised that way. Existing in a cisgender heterosexual masculine-presenting body allows me a great deal of privilege in this patriarchal society. There are times when those specific privileges tend to be a blindspot for me.
I’m grateful to my actual friends who are willing to have tough conversations with me and point out those blind spots. I recognize how much emotional labor it takes to have tough conversations. So, to all who have taken on that emotional labor to speak with (instead of post about) me, I see you and appreciate you.
Not everyone has those same CisHet male privileges to lean on when it comes time to address a point of concern. Many people may feel powerless in a situation and reluctant to approach what could turn into a shouting match or worse. Come to think of it, how many times have I avoided telling the Bro in the gym to stop dropping his weights because I knew it would turn into an argument? (I’ve avoided that plenty of times.) I haven’t read every response posted after I wrote this post. From what I have read, I’ve learned a few things about how I’m perceived by others.
I fucked up in 2015, no two ways about it. I want to address those to whom I’ve not been able to apologize. Any sexual act that is witnessed by another without their consent to witness said act is a form of sexual harassment. This is especially true since it happened in the workplace. The sexual act that my lover and I shared backstage that was visible to the entire cast and crew was just wrong. While we had engaged in a sober consent talk before hand, I never stopped to think about those bearing witness. One cast member I spoke with told me they were the person who mentioned my actions to the producer. They mentioned that they chose that route because they knew this particular producer would handle it directly (and they did, we spoke about it and I apologized). They also made the great point that they weren’t going to come to me about that sort of thing because that would be akin to them telling me what to (or not to) do backstage. With that being said, it makes sense that no other cast/crew member from that night in 2015 has approached me. The part of the story I left out was that when we came out of the bathroom, no one was around. So, it never crossed my mind to seek out specific people and apologize to them. That doesn’t matter today. What does matter is that my actions backstage that night caused harm, the extent of which I may never know. So, if you were backstage that evening and my actions caused you any harm or offense. I apologize. If you give me a chance, I’ll apologize to you with eye contact. I’m not writing this in hopes of forgiveness. I’m not writing this because I feel “owed” your time and energy so that I may apologize. (No one owes me anything, I’m just asking.) I just want it to be known that I’m aware that I caused harm that night. I also want it to be known that I’ve made efforts to do better since then. I’ve attended workshops on how these sort of actions can affect people. I’ve taught workshops on consent, specific to sexually charged spaces (e.g. play parties). I’ve lead caucuses on what it means to be masculine in the world of burlesque where the agenda focused on the role of men in dismantling rape culture. I’m not sharing all of this with you to claim that “I’m a nice guy.” Being “nice” is just the bare minimum of being a human being. I’m sharing this to highlight that I’ve learned and grown since 2015. I’m aware that many affected by that night may feel these words are too little, too late. That’s fair. Your feelings are valid. I’m here to listen if you’d like to address the matter further. If that’s not something that works for you, I do hope that you’ll be open to working with me in the future so that you can meet the man I’ve become.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do to make a second first impression. I’ve missed that opportunity. I’m ever evolving and making efforts to be a better person. Here’s what I’m doing to create a gentle entry point for future conversations. Some of you may be familiar with an Accountability Pod [AP]. For those who aren’t, here’s a breakdown. The short version is that a group of 2-3 people would hold me accountable for any ways that I’ve harmed others. Having an AP would mean that anyone who wished to address a grievance would have a way to do so anonymously. Circling back to my blind spot, I often fail to understand why anyone would fear approaching me. That’s my CisHet blind spot, my privilege speaking. I keep thinking about how I know that there is no reason to fear me. I keep thinking about how I know there is no reason to fear retaliation for speaking your truth to me (not at me). Sure, I know that. However, others don’t/can’t know that because they are driven by their own lived experience. To put it another way, your experience with the last three CisHet men you’ve met might keep you from approaching me. I understand.
Let’s look at that stage manager situation that I experienced through the lens of anyone else. Would others handle it the same, in the moment? Would others say, “Don’t ever touch me!” Maybe not. Some may brush it off as not a big deal and then realize they never stopped thinking of it, years later. What’s to be done about it then, are the feelings any less valid because time has passed? No. How can people move forward if some people don’t want conflict resolution? I don’t have that answer. I have learned that some people don’t want to resolve conflict. Those feelings are also valid. Everyone is coming from a different lived experience.
What happens meow? While an AP is not something that can be built overnight, I would like to open the door for conversation that is not anonymous. How does one resolve a conflict without conversation? I don’t have that answer either. I want to open the door to anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable around me. Have I said something inappropriate? Have I done something in poor taste in front of you? Has my mere presence, in a vulnerable space (backstage), caused you to feel uneasy in any way? Do you turn and go the other way when you see me at a show? Have you ever thought to yourself that you would never work with me? If so, I’m inviting you to reach out to me. I’ve deactivated my FB account because no one was talking to me, only posting about me. Many of the people commenting didn’t know me or the circumstances. So, let’s leave the entirety of social media out of this and have a conversation. That is of course, if that’s how YOU want to be treated in this moment. If the conversation or resolution is something that you want or need from me, I’m here to listen. I want to be clear that I am here to listen. I’m not here to argue with you, I’m here to listen. I just want to listen so that I can do better.