Safety is Harder than I thought

Last Month, a former convention chair of Arisia


that she would not be attending the convention, because her rapist

was president of the organization yet again. Crystal showed amazing

courage and vulnerability as she told her story.

This was hard for me because I know the people involved. I

am reasonably sure that I've been introduced to Crystal a number of

times. I worked on a project with Noel a few years ago. I have been at

parties hosted by some of the Arisia board members who were involved in

the incident. That makes the event more viscerally real for me. Arisia

is not my primary community: I have gone in the past

sometimes, but I’ve never been on a panel or staff. However, I feel I

need to learn what I can to try to create a safer world and to try and

avoid these mistakes myself.

Because I know the people involved, I keep wondering whether I will end

up in one of these roles.

We need Safe Space

First, Arisia had been regarded as one of the better conventions for

handling incidents and consent issues. I have been in multiple

conversations where people suggested that parts of the kink community

struggling with consent could learn in positive ways from Arisia. The

training staff received in incident handling was held up as a

particularly good thing about Arisia’s approach.

We must treat people better than Crystal is treated in order to create

safe space. I am disappointed, because I thought Arisia was a relatively

bright spot in the bleak landscape of our rape. It’s just that much harder to hope that we will find a way to

create truly safe spaces for intimacy and vulnerability.

Will I wake up a Rapist?

As consent has become something we talk more about, I'm aware of

ever more situations where people I know are accused of violating

consent. Where I have information on the specifics, it supports the

claim that there is a consent problem. Yet most of these people are

people I would have trusted. In at least one case I learned a lot about

consent from a member of my community who was later excluded because of

consent violations.

I keep coming back to this because I don’t understand how this abuse

happens. Because I only know about the problems after the fact, it

seems like people I know and trust are suddenly turning abusive. So I

worry that I’ll somehow snap and start hurting people.

I've concluded that at least as far as snapping and becoming a rapist

the fear is irrational. For example, I cannot see myself making the

mistakes Noel made. I cannot see myself disregarding a written

agreement on boundaries, especially on barrier protection. If I did

somehow disregard that, I cannot see myself blowing past a response of

“what the fuck!” No matter what, I would not stalk someone who had

ended a relationship. So, no, no series of mistakes that I could see

myself actually making would lead me to hurt someone this way.

Yet because I don’t understand how abuse happens, it is harder to

convince myself that I am different. For me, I think this is the root

of hearing about a situation and wondering whether there’s some

misunderstanding at play even when the facts point to clear abuse.

Sadly, I have been the Arisia Board

This brings back memories of the first time I was asked to deal with an

incident. It was late in the academic year in 1998 or 1999, and I was

on the executive committee of a student organization. An issue about

safety and consent came up. None of us had any training, and we were

entirely out of our depth. We sought help from the school. The advice

might have been good. The delivery lacked any empathy for our position;

we were unable to hear it.

We asked all the wrong questions. “Why do we have to decide this? If

you have a problem go to the campus police or press charges.” We

quibbled over the nature of the alleged violation. The person had made

contributions; we did not want to drive them away.

The world conversation on consent has advanced since 1998. I regretted

our behavior at the time: people were clearly getting hurt. I regret it

now. I wished we had done more to create a safe community.

At one level I can empathize with the Arisia board. As I discussed, the

abusers are members of our community who make positive contributions.

Until we learn of the abuse, we have no reason to think anything is

wrong. We want to give people the benefit of the doubt. We want to

find compromise. We want to solve the problem. My empathy does not

make their behavior (or my behavior at MIT) acceptable.

At another level, I can also empathize with the expressions of harm from

victims facing these processes. The one time

I reported an incident, I was ignored and then later told that I had

contacted the wrong person.

I am growing increasingly disheartened when I think about consent

incidents. It seems like no matter how much we read, even if we go to

training, we are unprepared to handle these incidents until we gain

significant experience ourselves. I guess that’s not surprising: most

things work that way. We need to find a better way: real people are

getting hurt as we gain that experience. I suspect several members of

the Arisia board will be better prepared for the next big consent

problem. The price for them to learn is too high.

Even now, I don’t think I’m prepared to handle a significant consent

incident. That’s not a requirement for my roles in the events I

attend. Yet all of us could face a problem like this if we host parties

in our homes. Thinking about this issue, I realize I need to learn


I will Wake up and hurt Someone

My irrational fear of being someone’s rapist is not my only fear about

hurting someone. I know that I have hurt people I cared about, and I

suspect I will again. Crystal’s incident is one where the consent

violation is clear. That’s not always the case. Sometimes boundaries

are unclear. Sometimes we realize our boundaries are more restrictive

than we thought. That’s one of the many ways we hurt each other as we

approach intimacy.

Some of the work I do is explicitly about pushing limits. You will get

hurt some of the time doing that work.

Often when we hurt each other, we can work through the pain and become

stronger. Sometimes that doesn’t work. I hope this never rises to the

level of a reported incident, but I realize that’s a real possibility.

I’ve certainly been uncomfortable around people I used to work with;

they have been uncomfortable around me.

If communities are bad at the clear-cut cases, I have no reason to

believe they are good at the cases that are actually complex.

I want to be in communities that will help me be safe if I am hurt. I

want to be in communities that will respect my contributions over the

years. I expect to be held accountable for my actions. However, I also

expect to be valued and not tossed aside at the first sign something

might be wrong without any real consideration of the circumstances.

That’s a tall order and I know we’re not there. It’s frightening to

choose to be vulnerable and to pursue intimacy work realizing that when

I need it most, support might not be available.

No Real Solution

Finally, back to Crystal’s post. After her post, Noel resigned as

president and the Arisia board permanently banned him from the


Great, I guess. We now know that under public pressure, Arisia will act

to save their community. Sadly, only future actions will tell us

whether Arisia genuinely learned it had made a mistake or whether Arisia

is blown by the whim of public opinion.

At least in the immediate term, my trust in Arisia is actually decreased

by the prompt action. That’s irrational too. They had the information

to decide their code of conduct was violated all along. It shouldn’t

decrease my trust that they finally acted. Yet if the motivation is

really to do the right thing not to pacify an angry public and

presenters, why take so long to act? Not rational, but it is what it



We have a hard battle ahead of us to create safe spaces and safe

communities. I admire Crystal for her openness and for sharing her

story. Stories both of successes and failures are essential to us

improving. I will honor her story by learning what I can and working to

be prepared if I’m ever called to handle an incident.

It’s not even clear we know what a good answer would look like yet.

Let’s go find out.