Unpoisoning the Well: a few points on community

 

1.) I’m a mean, mean woman

About fifteen years ago I attended a party. A man I sort of knew approached and began the dance of the aggressive would-be molester, the push to see what my “fuck off” level was, exactly. I’m not talking about flirtation, but aggression demonstrated by someone making calculations based on how drunk I was (or could be), how bored, how unwilling to be assertive. You’re trying to get laid tonight with that outfit, I know you are, I can tell…no, you are…no, you are. I know I’m trying to get laid. Why are you moving away? Don’t be shy. What are you drinking?

It was uncomfortable, but I’d already learned that subtle clues don’t register with this special breed of asshole. I’d been to pagan festivals oozing with older folks looking for broken people to vampire, to clubs where shifty guys standing at the edges of the dance floor slip pills into unguarded drinks, to hippie-rich desert trip-out spaces where people try to accuse you of not being “free enough” if you articulate a boundary. There are people of all genders who will push and push and push and use silence as consent, simply because they don’t give a shit if you’re consenting or not. The objective is you giving in; not your enjoyment, not communication, not pleasure. The goal is the contents of your pants; this isn’t romantic. The lesson I learned from watching such people in action is to deliver a “no” with a hammer when a swat won’t suffice.

So rather than stand there and dodge unwanted affection (for hours) I made direct eye contact and said, “I’m not interested. At all. So stop.”

Then another man behind me said: “Aww, why are you being mean?”

This was just enough to encourage the aggressor to start up all over again. That was exactly what he did, and exactly why I left.

Overview: When you are clear, you are mean. If you let it happen, you’re being complacent; you should have been clear. If you express enthusiasm, you’re a slut; you should hold back. If you hold back, you’re a prude or a zealot; you should give in.

You will always choose wrong.

You have a thing that is desired. You are not whole; there is a specific thing separate from you that is prized. You? You are not prized. You are the keeper of the prize; she who keeps the prize is resented. It’s not fair that you get to be the gate and the key.

If my ascent to dark and clawed cousin of the manic pixie dream girl, the venom-injected sibling of the Sad Girl could be drilled to fit a singular event, this would be it. An army of Valkyries hatched inside my head and have since been busy harvesting and hunting. What I left behind was bullshit, things that have never been missed.

I left behind the parties that invite people like this. Adult-children, who perceive other people as an entitlement, a gate to break through. Actual adulthood is achieved through recognition that initial primitive impulse is not necessarily a call to action.

I will not be a gate that holds back animals. And I’m not willing to share company with those who think animals are simply adorable, and I am only there to feed them.

 

2.) Community as cloaking device

In any community, most people know who the liabilities are: the people who can fuck up any event, party, or family gathering through being lecherous, violent, or offensive for attention. Nevertheless, crafting clever disguises and escape hatches for unsavory sorts is something that often happens, from the Catholic Church to the NFL. This also exists in so-called alternative zones, and it’s time to stop pretending that it doesn’t.

Recent headlines draw attention to this, from the alt-lit community that supports predators, to Canadian television stations where pop celebrities are quietly discussed as someone to avoid if you’re female, to the Burning Man community that knows what to do to create an instant wired city for 60,000 but not what to do for rape victims.

Since long before Burroughs writers have noted their sexual proclivities and have absorbed a fair share of scorn for the less mainstream varieties, but only in recent days have these individuals continued to enjoy mainstream support, even after numerous victims come forward to reveal a pattern of violent, dangerous behavior. Tao Lin used a relationship with an ex as the basis of a book, including verbatim pages of correspondence; in this book he detailed a pattern of abuse, and then further abused his partner by publishing it without permission. It was only after his behaviors were detailed on Twitter that he felt inspired to offer this ex any future royalties on the book in question. And in case you’re wondering, stealing words to pen a heavily autobiographical account of manipulation and rape isn’t enough to compromise a book deal.

In the mainstream writing world, Lena Dunham has increasingly come under fire for using her sister as a human shield against accusations of homophobia, for violating her trust and using her stories to bolster her own, and for detailing what many would categorize as sexual abuse in her memoir. Dunham’s response to these accusations is demanding that people take it back, calling the accusations (not her actions) “not ok”, and completely failing to note that readers are simply drawing their own conclusions based on information she freely submitted. She seems to feel these accusations are misplaced simply because she’s Lena Dunham – and those who rally around her seem to agree. Not that the Hollywood set has ever been particularly inclined to heap scorn upon someone accused (or even convicted) of a sex crime; the difference is that Lena Dunham appears to be someone who would consider what she did a crime if someone else had done the deeds.

Back in my day of creative nonfiction workshops, there was much discussion of the lines we draw for ourselves in memoir, and places where the story isn’t our to tell, and what sacrifices we make for story. Dunham’s words would have been revelatory if they included acknowledgement of her own capacity for villainy and insight as to what she’s learned about consent in the years that follow; instead, it underscores her sense of exceptionalism and narcissism. Those who aggressively defend her perpetuate this delusion. Shelter and cloak.

Comprehension of feminist rhetoric, the ability to piece together a zine, or a preference for clothing ideas inspired by sci fi films or 80s sitcoms doesn’t exempt individuals from reprehensible behaviors. Whether Brooklyn-based man-boys or Marion Zimmer Bradley, sheltering of those who respond to no as if it were a suggestion results in entire communities that reek of fear and insecurity, where talent hovers on the margins of excess and is usually neglected out of fear of being supplanted.

There is no glory in taking advantage of a situation – or other people – simply because you can. An inability through disability of will to say no does not equal yes. Fear does not equal consent; it equals fear, and invites an enabling, cowardly community of insecure individuals who cannot achieve their heart’s desire without exploitation to be created, on the face of what could have been revolutionary. The destruction of such communities might not happen overnight, but it will happen eventually, and it is loud and ugly and public and awful.

 

3.) A cure?

The wolf blood in me demands an unambiguous morality and loyalty with rigidly defined lines that cannot be crossed. And yet I have remained friends with individuals who have crossed boundaries because I have chosen to call them out in blunt terms (“mean”) and have refused to indulge it or diaper it. This has involved targeted statements such as “you are fucking creepy” and “you don’t respect boundaries” and “you are being willfully negligent of the desires of people around you so you can get what you want” and “you are a self-serving douchebag taking advantage of naive young people and abusing your position of power.” When this doesn’t work, making them leave (instead of leaving yourself) could be the solution.

Real friends and loving family members occasionally call you out in a way that reduces you to a blubbering mess. I’ve done it, and it’s happened to me in instances where I was damaging people around me, simply because I could. The notion that people don’t change is bullshit, the sort of thing articulated by someone too lazy and self-serving to change.

Those who respond to accusations with, “you’re right, but stop making me feel bad” (as was the case with the alt-lit meltdown) are desperate to remain the only living person in the discussion. Acknowledging the real pain of the individuals on the receiving end would allow them to fully exist beyond immediate convenience or supporting narrative prop. Feeling “bad” is the result of the actual adult that operates beyond primitive impulse attempting to claw to the surface; maybe feeling bad is what’s for dinner.

Others will not register a “bad” feeling, but will instead seize the opportunity to argue better. The accuser is not a rational person; the accuser is overly emotional, and therefore not to be trusted; the accuser did not firmly articulate lack of consent with a notarized “no,” and is therefore not to be taken seriously; the accusers have a personal vendetta against me (all of them), and I was fired for the activities of my private life, not because I’m a serial woman abuser who has been protected by my community for years. Does a better argument eliminate the accusation? If an IQ exceeds expectations is consent implied?

Why does the number have to grow (and grow and grow) to be taken seriously? How many accusations are enough to suggest action? Why is it suggested that accusations come from scorn, but it isn’t suggested that the original actions came from an even uglier place? And why is the desire for this to not happen again not discussed so much as the desire for no one to be accused again? Why does it so rarely lead to discussions about cloaking and enabling in community?

Communities are strengthened when standards are established, and creativity and collaboration are the anchors. Where idea exchange and common interests inform a shared desire to see what can be developed when people support each other. Victimhood is not a culture, but the inevitable outcome of a world of aggressors ill prepared for interacting with others. The way to get people to “stop being victims” is to stop the people who create victims through actions.

Violent people holding court while terrified sad people quietly whisper about the reasons to avoid them solves nothing; encouraging the people who come forward to remain quiet for the sake of the community poisons the well. Call them out, and if behavior doesn’t change, kick them out. It’s only then that other ideas and real innovation can bloom, instead of fighting for sun around weeds.

And even as I write this, I wonder how my ideas about community and (for that matter, parties) would be different if I had chosen to stay, and he had been made to leave.

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