I think it’s widely known that I was sexually assaulted by one of my peers in my graduate program chaired by a prominent feminist artist, and when I reported it, my academic institution did very little, probably because men shedding tears over being friend zoned is a socially accepted thing, and they did not want to lose a Fulbright Scholar. Case in point: they welcomed another Fulbright Scholar the next year.
The thing with sexual harassment and assault as a femme bodied artist is that this is not my first rodeo, guys. I’ve been followed on the train. I’ve had strangers attempt to kiss me and look up my skirt. I’ve had a board member of a very prominent arts funding organization try to sleep with me. I’ve had a community member try to touch me with his erect penis and call me multiple times in the middle of the night asking to come to my house. And I’ve had an artist download my phone number without my permission and then manically text me about my whereabouts. Sexual harassment: the phenomenon that transcends age, race, and class boundaries.
People always ask, “Why don’t you report that shit?” (cue all the victim blaming during my graduate school incident), but if the case with my graduate program is any indication, I could have cured some disease with the time and energy spent (fruitlessly) dealing with sexual harassment. So for the most part I take a deep breath, spend some time with an imaginary punching bag, and move on. However, I think it’s worthwhile to take this moment and impart some feminist analysis to social practice discourse when it comes to sexual harassment, in the hopes that we can shift the ways in which we understand gendered labor in the field.
It’s pretty obvious from my scenarios that sexual harassment is a real thing in #life, but when it comes to social practice and community engaged art, I think there is a causal relationship to be unpacked between the inherent emotional and public labor expected from a social practice artist, and sexual harassment.
Social practice is a form of emotional and public labor. When you are working interpersonally and collaboratively, you are probably making an effort to not be a bitch to the other person. When you’re working on issues of neighborhood and community, you are probably making an effort to get to know your neighbors, stakeholders, and potential collaborators. Once again, probably requires not being a bitch. Kindness, care, listening, and consideration are part of the social practice toolkit, and in general, just part of the toolkit of being a good person.
However, we live in a society where cishet men are socialized to think that any small sliver of interest is enough to be considered as consent. We also live in a society where men are socialized to equate kindness, care, listening, and consideration with sexual interest, not with the mere practice of being a good person. Often I find myself at the following crossroads as an emotional and public laborer: I can either choose to work with men, and brace myself for the eventual harassment; or I can not work with men at all.
(For those of you who are like, “Why don’t you just set some boundaries up front?”, I can send you some very ineffective screencaps of me saying “stay out of my DMs”.)
(For the older women who have told me, “You’re lucky you’re still young and attractive enough to be harassed.”, please stop using ageism to justify violence against other femme bodies.)
For me it’s not a constructive solution to never work with men. Especially on the neighborhood or community level, men make up one half of that community and should be engaged in issues of justice and neighborhood health as well. When you are confronting and navigating male-dominated power structures, it is impossible to not encounter men, usually of the sleazebag variety. But it is a disheartening solution to need to put my body in the line of fire to do my work. And then I think about how this phenomenon trickles upwards in terms of the way that we build a field through practice and discourse.
For example, if social practice is premised on emotional and public labor, why are some of the most prominent and lauded social practitioners men? Why are some of the most referred to texts also written by men? Why are there conveniently no chapters on sexual harassment in those texts? I love Rick Lowe to death, but maybe his success is partially due to his ability to rally entire communities without having to endure sexualized touching.
I’m sure this doesn’t only apply to femme bodies, but queer bodies, disabled bodies, racialized bodies, and trans bodies as well in terms of our struggles to balance our personal safety with community organizing and community health. I want this acknowledged and I want our discursive support structures – the people who we uplift in the social practice field, the metrics that we use to evaluate success, the methodologies that we promote – to support the real live breathing bodies of those of us doing this work. Maybe it’s time to abandon narratives of communities – whether they be neighborhoods, cities, or theoretical/academic communities – as bound together through camaraderie, and instead look at the very real violences that run through and demarcate communities, and how these violences are structurally distributed. Only then does the dismantling begin.