Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault, Depression, Self-Harm
This might be a little messy, in fact, part of me hopes it is. . . .
I have spent a lot of time traveling and performing my art in various communities. So last year when I moved to a new city, I was excited to find that there was a fresh art scene just starting to take hold. A scene that I could become a part of and contribute to. After just a few months organizing with them, I showed up to an event. I was distraught because my most recent foray into dating had ended essentially before it began. The piece I had prepared was about repetition. How after you hear something enough times it starts to lose it’s meaning, like the word zipper, or the phrase, “it’s not you it’s me.” I was annoyed and frustrated that over the years of traveling I had become more accustomed to saying goodbye to people I love than to actually holding onto those people before I left. A little bit after I shared my piece and feeling some closure someone else came up to the mic. They shared a poem about identity, being cast as the other, being asked where you’re from because of melanin and other’s lack thereof, and about indigenous roots. The poem struck me because of the content, but also because of the poet. They were mesmerizing. Gorgeous, enthralling, handsome, so fierce and passionate it almost scared me. After the event we spent hours talking and finding out we had more in common than is typically comfortable. That night we fell in love and, after a few months of convincing myself it was okay to be vulnerable and open up my heart to this person, started dating.
I still can’t believe that we have found such kindred spirits in each other. Whenever we spend time together it emboldens our connection more and more. But our relationship has been haunted. Haunted by a grotesque beast that has struck multiple times since we started dating. Dare I say, by repetition. Around January my partner was sexually assaulted by a mutual friend. Somebody that we both spent time with and trusted. The first time, my partner wasn’t yet my partner, but that in no way justifies what this person did. My partner clearly stated that they were not interested, didn’t consent to what had happened and that type of behavior was inappropriate. Even though we were only friends they still confided in me. They trusted me and I told them that I would do anything to support them. At that point they didn’t want to cause a stir and wanted to move forward. A wish that I respected.
About a month later we were basically dating, without any formal titles yet. We would spend long hours together talking, cooking, getting to know each other, sharing poems and holding space for each other. About a month later it happened again. They were sexually assaulted, by the same person. Again, my partner clearly stated that they were not interested and that type of behavior was inappropriate. They made it clear that they did not consent to sexual or intimate activities with them. Again, they told me what happened. They told me in detail. They let me know exactly how it felt losing their autonomy, their sense of self-determination, and having to relive surviving rape in their teens. Something this mutual friend knew about. My partner didn’t have to tell me much for me to know how it felt, because I have had my own experience with it. I was sexually assaulted by a close, trusted friend twice. Once staying the night at their house, and another staying the night at their parents house. So when my partner described the feeling of wanting more than anything to be able to scream and to fight I knew exactly what they were talking about. I knew the paralysis that can set in. Bearing witness to what happens to your body, but unable to protect it because of built in protection mechanisms. It brought all of this and more back for me as I sat and listened and provided a safe space for my partner to be vulnerable and process some of what happened.
In March we officially started dating. We still don’t know the exact date so we picked our favorite number, because time is just a construct anyways. We moved forward. My partner started feeling somewhat comfortable again. They were comfortable enough to attend another artist collective event with their assaulter and even altruistically offered them a ride home because they had a little to drink. When they were nearly home, once again, this person sexually assaulted my partner.
My partner came over after. They were visibly shaken. Something had happened and I could tell. After a little bit it came out. I was furious. I wanted to go over to this person’s house and let them know those actions were never allowed in our community. Nobody should ever jeopardize another’s autonomy and self-determination. Consent culture isn’t just a passing fad. It is a cornerstone of the culture that actively works to dismantle structures of oppression. Disrespecting this foundation is something that is unacceptable, especially in communities that purport to be aware, conscious, woke, (insert other colloquialism that implies being respectful of other folks safety and boundaries), etc. But I couldn’t leave, because being present for my partner was much more important.
I reiterated to my partner that I would respect their decision of how to move forward. At first they needed time to process what had happened. They needed to cope with everything it brought up. And, as someone that lives with major depressive disorder, they had to survive the onslaught of triggers, associations, and episodes that these assaults led to. That was our first and most important priority. After reaching a point that we could talk about it, we had to deal with the anger and frustration. Together we worked through a lot. In the middle of January, nearly a year since the first assault, we still are working through a lot.
After a little while, my partner told some trusted people within our community. Some of the core people within the scene that play some pivotal roles in organizing and events. After talking about this with various people my partner found out that at least two other people had been assaulted by this same person. They had similar stories. Most all of them included the assaulter utilizing some amount of drugs (including alcohol). Eventually, my partner reached out to the perpetrator. They said that they would like to have a discussion about what was going on so that we could all be on the same page and move forward. My partner, myself, and other people within the community agreed that to banish this person from our scene wouldn’t solve the problem, it would only transpose it onto another group and other victims who were unfamiliar with this person’s history. We decided that to work with this person to heal from whatever it was convincing them that their actions were appropriate was the best way for all people involved to use this as an opportunity to grow, and that would obviously include close supervision of this individual at events, not being allowed to be alone with anyone in our spaces until clear guidelines had been established and respected in group settings, a discontinuation of use of all drugs, etc. We had a lot of ideas of how to move forward, and to truly heal as individuals and a group from this.
Initially, this person had withdrawn from the community. We didn’t see them for months. The first time we saw them again my partner was so triggered, it led to a major resurgence of their depression, resulting in nights of lost sleep, loss of appetite, trips to the local mental health support center and ultimately their self-harming for the first time in five years. The individual treated my partner almost like nothing happened. Casually talking to them at parties and other events. One of the first things this person said to my partner since the last assault was “you look fly tonight.” They maintained a casual demeanor around my partner in public, but for some reason actively avoided any contact with me. Otherwise their actions seemed to be unhindered and the same as before. When my partner reached out to discuss the issue, they were met with silence. Even though this person was starting to share space with us again, they were unwilling to respond to my partner’s desire to have even a simple conversation about what had happened. Eventually, I found myself unable to bear the sight of this person and told organizers within the community that I will no longer attend events, formal or informal, unless it is explicitly told to me that this individual will not be present.
At first, I thought the response of people involved in the community was respectable. They all told my partner similar things as myself, that they were prepared to act based on what my partner deemed a proper way to approach the situation. I felt like this was really cool, and aware, and conscious and shit. It was a way to directly insert control and determination into the hands of the individual who it was taken from. But what I don’t think they, or myself at first, realized was that by not taking a clear and concise stance against any type of assault within community spaces–and not making a concerted effort to make their spaces truly safe spaces–they were allowing and ultimately condoning the behavior, because the perpetrator has been allowed to feel safe without facing any direct consequences from their actions while my partner and myself have felt less and less safe in those spaces as time went on. Ultimately leading to a point where we don’t feel comfortable attending the monthly event that is originally what brought us together.
This was brought to my attention recently when my partner told another close friend about what had happened. The close friend is involved with another artist collective in the city that was hosting an art show over the following weekend, which my partner didn’t want to attend partially due to the fact their assaulter said they would be attending. When this friend found out, they got clear information about who the individual was, told the other collective members, and within less than a day there was a public announcement that they are a safe space and that any misogyny, unwanted attention, unwanted touching, and homophobia will not be tolerated. They continued to say that if anyone partakes in activity that puts another at risk emotionally or physically they will be removed from the event and banned from any future event the collective hosts. The description of the individual was circulated among the collective members and other trusted folks who were prepared to intervene if this individual acted out of line in anyway, and the person was confronted upon arriving at the show, being told that it was known that they had a history of sexual assault and that they would be removed immediately if there were any issues.
My partner now knows that they are safe in spaces created by that collective. What they also know is that they still do not feel safe in the original community they became a part of in this city. That is the difference between taking direct action based on clear morals and trying not to rustle too many feathers by bringing this kind of stuff up openly, immediately once it occurs.
There are multiple reasons I have written this anonymously. First and foremost is because my partner does not need to relive their experiences any more than they already have. The other main reason I wished to share this without a face or features attached to it, is because I hope to give voice to those that have been quiet within their communities. Those who have been busy surviving, busy coping, busy supporting. Those who have lost the community they loved, with safe spaces turned dangerous. It’s really difficult to have these conversations when you are not directly involved with what happened, or if you wish to not cause too much of a fuss; however I hate to say this but it’s those who weren’t directly involved that often have the strongest voice in the matter. The voice of those that are hurt are stained with blood and tears and with that desire to feel normal and okay. And that voice was already marginalized by the abuser, by the assaulter, by the rapist, the racist, the otherwise fucked up person that feels okay harming another human. So why put the responsibility to declare how to treat problematic behavior in the hands of the individual(s) that are most effected by it in the first place? To me that is an easy way to avoid the issue and to continue feeling safe, continue feeling comfortable.
If this sounds like you, someone you know, someone you support. If it sounds like an art scene you are a part of, or have been a part of. If it resonates with you at all because you know there are a lot of conversations that need to happen in order for you or people you know to actually feel safe in community spaces, feel free to use this as a catalyst. As a jumping off point for those conversations. Share this with people you think will support you. Share this with problematic people who need to know that their actions are not allowed.
Share this when things aren’t black and white, when they don’t exist in a binary of yes or no, because that’s where this all started, in the grey area. Share this so we can actually talk about how to support our loved ones that are hurt.
And if you think you know who I am feel free to reach out, because I haven’t heard from any of you in a while.
How have you dealt with unresolved, problematic behavior in your community? What does safe space actually mean?
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