Editor’s note: In April, Double Scoop announced that we would not be commenting on the assault case in the Generator community, given Editor Kris Vagner’s close connections to the Generator. (Her partner, Jerry Snyder, is the board president of the organization which, seven weeks ago, asked for and received Aric Shapiro’s resignation as development director following a rape allegation). Now that arts community leaders are discussing sexual assault in general and policies in particular, we believe we have a responsibility to report on these discussions. For the sake of transparency, the author has disclosed all of her connections to relevant parties in this article. Kris was not involved in the reporting of this story.
An additional note of disclosure: As a community-supported news outlet, Double Scoop accepts financial support from anyone who would like to donate. On occasion, we report on people who are also donors, patrons or volunteers. Our list of supporters is public, and we do not base decisions about who or what to cover on whether a person is a donor, patron, supporter, friend or acquaintance. Aric Shapiro is one of our monthly patrons, Holland Project is an event partner, and Jerry Snyder is among our volunteers.
—Kris Vagner and Josie Glassberg
Kelsey Sweet orders a golden tea at the Hub on Riverside. She is visibly more relaxed now than she was last week at “Sex in the Art Scene,” the forum she co-organized to address sexual assault concerns in the art community. She and I are meeting to go over a few topics that weren’t covered during the panel.
I order an iced tea, and we spend five minutes picking out a table that doesn’t sit directly under a speaker. Eventually, we find one outside and start chatting about our kids and long days. Sweet and I know each other in the way you know a person who orbits the same art shows, healing spaces, and psychic fairs that you do. That is to say, we’re not friends, but we’re friendly.
I’m also (Facebook) friendly with Jaimie Crush and Aric Shapiro—the two people at the center of the recent rape allegation that gave rise to the SITAS panel in the first place.
Sweet and I drink our drinks as we talk about the rape allegations without talking about the rape allegations.
“When you organized the panel, what was your intention for the talk?”
“More education and healing. We didn’t want to focus on the drama aspects of it because I feel like that is really easy to do. But looking at solutions, or how to create solutions.”
Instead of being a space to “share stories and hear stories,” the SITAS forum introduced audience members to subjects like victim support, understanding perpetrators, and how power dynamics and nonverbal communication play into consent. Sex education was bookended by guided meditation while volunteers from trauma-informed organizations stood by in case they were needed. Sound healing was attuned to the archetype of Chiron—the Wounded Healer in Greek mythology—and a bright pink, six-foot-tall steel-and-paper-mache unicorn stood perfectly still in the corner. At the end of the night, the floor was open for questions, two of which came in the form of men admitting to violations or accusations and seeking help.
It was touching and informative and flawed. Mostly, it went over well—though Sweet received some pushback for not having a licensed trauma therapist on the panel and for allowing accused individuals to attend the event. (Neither Shapiro or Crush were in attendance). These decisions, coupled with an unfortunate choice of name (the cutesy play on Sex in the City is a little tone deaf) has made the panel an easy target online.
Sweet pushes back on the criticism.
“We did our best to provide the emotional support and security measures to deal with any issues if they came up. It’s controversial inviting a perpetrator into the same space as a survivor but, I mean, if one in three women are affected [by sexual assault], then chances are you’ve talked to five perpetrators today. You’ve hugged or shaken hands with somebody that raped somebody, and you don’t even know.”
This is an uncomfortable thought. For Sweet, it’s more than that. Sweet’s personal history with unwanted sexual encounter spans two-thirds of her life, going back to age 10 and continuing well into her 20s. Like many other sexual assault survivors, she has not made any formal accusations against her perpetrators “for various reasons,” despite experiencing many levels of violence, including molestation and rape.
A history of violence
Sweet is not alone. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in three women and one in six men experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime. For women of color, bisexual women, and transgender individuals, this number jumps to nearly one in two.
These statistics are staggering, and most likely you’ve heard them before. Most likely you’ve heard the stories behind some of them as well, given the visibility of the #metoo movement in the past two years. But sexual violence is more than a trend.
Going back to ancient Greek and Roman times, bodies that didn’t fit into the very narrow category of who was historically sanctioned to hold power (male, European bodies) were viewed as property, and, as such, were often subjected to rape and other acts of control that demonstrate ownership and agency over another. It’s a concept that—while taboo in its most extreme form—still very much exists today in ways that are both obvious (human trafficking, anti-abortion policies) and subtle (sexual coercion, sex in advertising, applying unequal beauty standards across race and gender).
Practices and conditions like these are often collectively referred to as “rape culture.” This term can be particularly divisive to those who object to assigning language that emphasizes our worst, most extreme behavior. But because rape culture is so much more than rape, there has been a recent movement towards positively re-framing the discussion in terms of “consent culture,” naming the viewpoint we want to work towards rather than the one we have.
In a phone conversation following the SITAS forum, panelist and somatic sexuality educator, Anne More, points out just how early this conditioning begins.
“I think [consent culture] starts so much earlier than any sexual interaction,” More says. “It starts in the family particularly. There’s a lot of non-consensual education that we get when we’re little and we don’t have power. And there are parents who handle that well and there are parents who absolutely override their children’s privacy and boundaries all the time and teach them that that’s how things work.”
Non-consensual signaling can look like anything from forcing children to hug people they don’t want to hug, to tickling, to a lack of awareness about the way we treat other species (from manhandled classroom guinea pigs to factory farms). Most significantly, non-consensual behavior is considered pretty normal. It wasn’t until last month that Joe Biden’s personal-bubble-popping demeanor was allowed to be scrutinized as the unwanted touch it has always been. So things are shifting.
And because the problem comes from all over, the answer needs to, too.
In the Washoe County School District, the high school sex education curriculum (known as S.H.A.R.E.) is currently under review to incorporate consent, among other items. According to program director Rochelle Porter, the curriculum is long overdue for an update—something that has not happened since 2003. After undergoing an advisory process that involved a number of community health organizations, as well as high school health teachers and a student advisory council, the curriculum is complete.
Though consent is woven throughout the proposed lessons, an entire lesson is dedicated to the subject as well, with content that includes the viral Tea Consent video, the Pitch Perfect 2 trailer, and explainers for phrases like “clear and enthusiastic consent” and “coercion.”
Going forward, Porter expresses a need to “not wait another 15 years before something is addressed.” If the high school curriculum is adopted at the end of the month, she and her committee plan to revise both elementary and middle school curricula.
In the arts community, policy is on everyone’s minds. After Shapiro’s resignation from the Generator, Board President Jerry Snyder gathered local arts leaders together to begin the process of drafting an open source policy for local arts organizations.
“We are trying to develop something that allows flexibility and acknowledgment that every fact pattern will be a little different, but still provides guidance,” Snyder wrote in a recent email.
Christopher Daniels, executive director of Good Luck Macbeth Theatre (and also in attendance at the SITAS panel) is on board with a uniform, open source policy, but expresses a need for individual organizations to go further.
“I think it’s great to have everyone on the same page and I think policies are fine, but there’s more that needs to be implemented,” Daniels says. “I think we need staff and board training—how to recognize and how to have these consent conversations that are so difficult.”
Daniels is planning to reach out to Monica Jayne, one of the sex educators from the SITAS panel, to help his staff and board improve communication around consent and establishing boundaries. This past weekend, Daniels also attended a workshop in San Francisco called Consent in Improv to help navigate what “no” looks like in a “yes, and” environment.
While consent improv and an open source policy have yet to come down the pipeline, The Holland Project has already identified some best practices.
The nonprofit subscribes to the “Safer Spaces” policy, which aims to create an environment of “physical and mental safety” where consent, awareness of power dynamics, and personal accountability are prioritized. Last May, in part as a response to online pressure for the organization to publicly take sides on allegations, a support committee was formed to deal with conflict offline. Their main objective—as committee member and SASS (Sexual Assault Support Services) volunteer Maryann Ricciardi puts it—is “simply support.”
“We want to be a place where victims and survivors and people who have concerns or accusations can go to be heard and be validated,” says Ricciardi. “Do they need resources for therapy? Do they need resources to report a crime? Or do they just need to be heard and validated—which is such a huge part of people’s healing.”
This type of survivor-centered forum meets a lot of needs that the criminal justice system can’t, or won’t.
Given the abysmally low rates of reporting, conviction, and sentencing for sexual assault crimes, many survivors will never get the justice they seek. And even for those that do, there is little in the way of personal communication and accountability.
When it works, our criminal justice system is able to deliver retributive (or punishment-based) corrections, but is not set up to handle the relational violations that occur when sexual boundaries are crossed. Restorative justice, on the other hand, takes the perspective that more than laws are broken when these events take place, therefore, it takes more than law-based measures to come to a place of healing.
Typically, this involves either face-to-face dialogue between the survivor and the accused or a larger gathering of people who are affected by a violation. Based on Native American talking circles, restorative justice practices have been used to address deep pain from the genocide in Rwanda, South African apartheid, crimes against indigenous populations, as well as individual violent crimes.
Though restorative justice conversations take place with professionals who can be present to hold space and guide steps, the process is not the same as mediation, nor is it a space where forgiveness must take place.
To engage in a practice like this, personal responsibility comes first—survivors must be willing to face their perpetrators, and perpetrators must be willing to admit how they violated the survivor. And because of the nature of sexual harm, only survivors are allowed to initiate a restorative justice process. This holds true even in circumstances where the aggressor wants to make amends.
Gordon Gossage is one of these men. During the SITAS panel, Gossage posed a question about how he should handle connecting with the survivors that he violated in early adulthood. Now 64, Gossage is still grappling with his past actions. After the panel, Gossage spoke about his experience.
“You know I kind of just wish people would tell us what to do,” Gossage said. “I know that’s not the answer, but it’s very confusing. Because whenever we try to do something, it doesn’t work. You know what I was saying when I approached that woman I went to high school with and she said, ‘Oh don’t worry about it.?’ Well, that wasn’t the answer I was looking for. … I’m not sure what answer I was looking for.”
Though face-to-face restorative justice isn’t an option for Gossage—nor is reaching out to his other victim without giving her the option of making contact (as was advised per SITAS panelists)—engaging with a larger community can be a productive way to reintegrate.
In addition to using the #itwasme hashtag on social media—a confessional counter-response to #metoo—Gossage finds a measure of solidarity with public figures who are able to admit their wrongdoings and atone for their behavior. Gossage especially identifies with author Daniel Pinchbeck, whose sexually aggressive behavior within the psychedelic community prompted him to take responsibility and engage in restorative justice practices.
It’s good to have public examples of people who can make the transition from unconscious-perpetrator to conscious-perpetrator to conscious-remorseful-perpetrator to conscious-rehabilitated-individual. Other men who have taken this path include Community and Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon, and Reid Mihalko, the sex educator who started “cuddle parties” in San Francisco.
Last year on his podcast, Harmon’s detailed apology for sexually harassing former employee Megan Ganz made headlines in every major publication on the planet for conveying actual, genuine understanding of his accuser’s position. Following allegations of sexual coercion by adult film star Kelly Shibari, Mihalko chose to make his nine-month-long restorative justice process public and available to anyone via a dedicated blog on Medium. He now teaches about personal accountability for boundary-violators in addition to sex education.
Whether perpetrators end up engaging in a restorative justice process or not, More believes they can gain a lot from having some sort of community to attach to.
“The [perpetrators] I see who really can’t get out of that pattern are doing it on their own,” More said. “They’re not connected to the group. The group helps us to regulate and to see what works and what doesn’t and to hold us accountable. It’s the difference between shame and guilt. It’s the difference between saying that behavior is unacceptable—we need to change that, you need to figure out how, we’ll help you. Shame … says you’re a crappy person, you’re a perpetrator, we never want to see you again, you’re just bad.”
Back at the Hub, Sweet and I are almost done with our tea. She is shielding her eyes from the sun when I tell her that I spotted her over the weekend.
“I saw you pushing your unicorn.”
“Yeah, I gave people unicorn rides and … I just love taking it out because it brings joy to people’s faces. It’s unexpected.”
The unicorn in question is the same one that made an appearance at the SITAS panel. Large, pink, and with wheels for feet, Sweet calls it her “cosmic hero.” Five years ago, the unicorn was used as a prop for Open Jar, Sweet’s masters thesis/performance piece, which focused on “the individual and social impacts of sexual violence.” Over the course of seven shows, Sweet rode her unicorn between three scenes of intimate abuse that played out between herself and a masked male figure on stage.
Following the performances, city officials responded by issuing a proclamation to Sweet and declaring that Reno would be joining the national movement to recognize April as Sexual Assault Awareness month. Now, every year around Earth Day, Sweet walks her unicorn down the street, offering rides and sometimes explanations.
Making meaning out of trauma is something art can help with. In Sweet’s case, having this type of public validation for her experience provides a measure of just-ness, a condition where some things are made right, even in the absence of legal justice.
Healing happens privately, too. In her experience as an artist and art wellness practitioner (with a psychology background), Sweet is familiar with some of the more internal effects of making art.
“In some of my longer paintings or things that have taken a couple of months, in sitting with the same idea and the same concept for hours at a time, it gets you into a meditative state. You get an opportunity to disassociate from the body, and it becomes more of a playful, dreamlike experience where you can relive aspects of these experiences in a safe way, in a world that you can create and build.”
According to research from The Arts in Psychotherapy journal, this type of art-based fantasy can assist sexual harm survivors in regaining a sense of control at a safe psychological distance.
For both survivors and perpetrators, other benefits of art therapy include: uncovering traumatic material for further therapeutic examination, externalizing dissociated emotions, and providing a mode of expression for those unable to voice their experiences in words.
Discomfort in the community—confusion, division, and outrage—while certainly not as deeply felt as the wounds of survivors and perpetrators, are equally real and equally sensitive to art. As a creative community, this might be the most natural thing about building back up. Keep making and taking in art.