Part of grappling with sexual assault from a folklorist’s perspective means taking into account how it impacts communities and their cultures, and wow are there some ethical considerations to be discussed.
In Part 1 of this post, I recapped many instances of how the #MeToo Take Two panel went at the American Folklore Society this year. Here, I’m going to give what is in some cases a more personal retrospective on the topic, as well as providing some broader ethical considerations.
One of the recurring topics to come up in the panel was the additional emotional and cognitive load borne by (primarily) women in this academic field, based on the multitude of experiences we have of navigating spaces where we can expect (primarily) men to prey on us. In short, it’s exhausting.
I’ve had some experiences with this, not in my capacity as an academic folklorist but more in my capacity as a sexuality studies scholar and community organizer, and that’s what I plan to talk about here. Content note for brief mentions of gaslighting and general abuse.
I’m not going to talk about experiences of assault at conferences, mostly because I’ve been lucky enough to not have many (though this is sadly not true for everyone). Instead, I’m going to talk about my experiences as a community leader, and tie those experiences in to some of the points raised at the AFS #MeToo Take Two panel, plus some general concerns of folklorists.
At the panel, there was some discussion of community norms, and whisper networks, and gossip, and all the things that are folkloric in nature that relate to patterns and discussions of sexual assault. I haven’t seen much, though, on the specific topic of community leaders who take up the mantle of gatekeeper in order to keep out known abusers and thus try to protect the other members of the community from said abusers (maybe I just haven’t seen any scholarship that exists – please feel free to point me to it). This seems like a very folkloric topic at its heart: I’m talking about informally organized communities, and leaders who are not elected but rather emerge to take a strong hand in steering the community and enforcing its norms.
So what happens when an abuser becomes known to one of these informally-led communities, whether through someone’s personal narrative or through that leader’s personal experience? Again, we’re not in the realm of institutional culture, where one might have to go through some formal reporting process (for all the good it might do). Decisions of what to do in these situations are often handled through community members meeting and discussing, without any official punitive consequences for the aggressor other than, perhaps, saying “please don’t come back.” No one’s going to jail or getting fired from their jobs, they’re just being informally barred from a given folk group, whether a hobby group or a discussion group or whatever.
In these instances, I have noticed a lot of what Kate Manne has called “himpathy”: an excessive amount of sympathy for a man’s position and a willingness to rationalize and tiptoe around his mistakes. Plus, in America, naming abusers publicly opens one to things like libel lawsuits, and we have all seen – as in the Kavanaugh hearings – how poorly it goes for a survivor to come forward to testify about the abuse they experienced.
I’m not getting into the details for a variety of reasons, but here are two scenarios I’ve experienced that I’d like to compare:
- In Group A, which I help lead, it became known that someone I believe to have abused me was planning to attend one of our meetings (most likely along with someone I believe to have gaslit me about said abuse). A co-leader asked me if I wanted her to ask them not to attend, and I said yes, and that was that.
- In Group B, which I helped lead, a very similar scenario went down very differently. I was told I had to advocate for myself to not end up face-to-face with the person I believe to have abused me. I am no longer involved with Group B.
Without explicitly naming these situations, I basically summarized the negative experiences from these types of encounters in a tweet from the AFS #MeToo Take Two panel:
Really good points all around from audience members abt the cognitive & emotional load borne by women beyond any potential trauma; just having to manage exposure to potential predators is exhausting, y’all. It’s a dumb waste of our time & it’s unfair.
It’s a special above-and-beyond load that community organizers carry, and this load is magnified when the organizers must advocate to exclude abusers, especially when they’ve had traumatic experiences with said abusers. I worry that, due to existing patterns of abuse, this load is disproportionately borne by women, and moreover, that like much of women’s emotional labor, it goes unrecognized and unacknowledged, and can thus contribute to burn-out.
However, a major point to be made here, based on my experience, is that already, through cleverness or coercion, the aggressor has gotten through the victim/survivor’s defenses. Why on earth would we put them in a position to do so again, even if the outcome is not physical assault but rather an emotional attack? What community is worth this additional potential to be re-traumatized, or at the very least have to marshal one’s emotional resources to prepare for what will likely be a very unpleasant encounter, even if the outcome is a good one for the community as a whole?
I don’t have any answers, except to lament that we’re still as a society not trauma-informed enough, and that we still expect women to do a lot of the care-taking and emotional management work when it comes to the well-being of others.
I also haven’t seen a lot of people talking about this, so I wanted to mention these experiences and these points in case it’s helpful for others (granted, I’ve witnessed some behind-closed-doors conversations about keeping predators out of conferences, conventions, and other gatherings, as well as some of the public fall-out of these events, but I think that I’m trying to make a somewhat different point about informally-organized folk groups vs. formal events/institutions that actually, like, have a budget and house rules and such).
Anyway, I think that’s all I have to say (publicly) about this topic, and I’m curious to hear from others on it.