I’ve struggled a bit with whether and how to post this, but after reading Mona Darling’s post on her reactions to the keynote address at last weekend’s fantabulous CatalystCon (and make no mistake, CatalystCon 2014 WAS fantabulous – quite possibly the best conference I’ve ever attended, and I’ve been attending conferences for more than a decade now), I felt I had to share my reactions as well.
Let me first start by saying, again, that this year’s CatalystCon East was a great conference. From its organizer – Dee Dennis – to the speakers, to workshop presentations, to the swag bag (huzzah for the Aneros lanyards and StockRoom goodies) to the give-aways (free wevibes for nearly everyone! Best conference EVAR!) to the attendees (the real stars of the conference, in my humble opinion), CatalystCon was simply amazing.
But all of that? That I’m saving for another post. This post is really about what happened at the very end of CatalystCon during the closing keynote between two legends in the sexuality world – Carol Queen and Betty Dodson.
The session opened to an enraptured audience – how could we not be, when faced with two such amazing women? The interview, of sorts, started out wonderfully: a witty repartee that had the packed room laughing uproariously, applauding, and gasping, in turns.
Things started to take a turn for the worse when Betty talked about her experiences in the 1960s:
At that point, the temperature change in the room was palpable. A few attendees even got up and left.
And Twitter was abuzz with commentary.
Others who have written about the keynote have seemed to hint that this is the point that those of use who were left feeling disturbed by the last hour or so of the talk are most upset by. Though many were upset by this discussion, that’s not the focus of this post. It was not the discussion of bestiality that had me (and several others) the most upset during the keynote. It was the way in which the idea of consent was trivialized.
Towards the end of the keynote, both Carol Queen and Betty Dodson stood together on the podium, and Carol quipped that Betty was grabbing her ass. A statement was then made to the effect that, “She [Betty] will probably grab your ass, too. If she does, just tell her to stop.”
At this point, I think a few of us in the room began tweeting questioning comments about consent. Because, no, that’s now how consent works. No one should get to touch my body unless I tell them to. Isn’t that what we’ve been fighting against? The idea that silence equals consent? Isn’t what we’ve been fighting for all along ENTHUSIASTIC consent, meaning NO ONE gets to touch my body unless (and UNTIL) I say yes?
What came next was even more problematic. Betty Dodson then piped up with something along the lines of, “If they don’t want me to grab their ass, they should just stay seated.”
NO. Just no. Again, that’s not how consent works. Ever. And at least one twitter user pointed that out:
At this point, I know I was feeling a little uneasy about the conversation, and I know several others were, as well. I think it was also at this point that my tweeting frequency drastically slowed.
What came next, however, was even worse. At the very end of the keynote, Carol Queen stood once again to reassure all of us that Betty Dodson really DID understand consent. And had she stopped there, somehow I think this could have all been forgotten as a simple slip of the tongue, as a joke between two old friends. It’s what came next that had me doing triage care in the lounge for someone who was panicking after being triggered by the discussion of nonconsensual touching. Carol Queen stood on stage and scolded the audience for being upset at the flippant comments about consent by lecturing us about Betty Dodson being a trailblazer, about her being in this river before any of us, insinuating that her history with the movement excused her comments about consent, that they gave her a free pass. This was a flagrant abuse of the power dynamics between the older, more experienced generation in the movement and those newer to the movement, something that I had hoped someone who had just given a workshop on consent earlier in the day would have recognized.
It was that, dear readers, that had me holding a fellow CatalystCon attendee as they shook with tears. They had felt they were in a safe space, and that safe space had just been torn apart by those words.
I know some of the responses on twitter and in blogs don’t want to acknowledge that people were hurt by the dismissive (and sometimes hostile) discussion of nonconsensual touching, but please know that people were. I know they were, because I was there helping them. I know that they were because I was one of those people.
I’ve had people tell me since Catalyst that we can’t put our heroes on a pedestal, hinting that we should accept them unconditionally, faults and all. And they’re right – we shouldn’t place our heroes on pedestals. And that’s precisely why it’s appropriate for us to expect the same from our heroes as we would from any of us. I can (and do) respect Betty Dodson and Carol Queen for the absolutely amazing work they have done (and continue to do) for this movement. But that doesn’t mean that they should be given a free pass. When our heroes do or say something that is wrong, we should hold them accountable for their words and actions the same as we would hold anyone else accountable.
And I do feel as if Carol Queen and Betty Dodson need to be held accountable for their comments about nonconsensual touching during the closing keynote. The best way for this to happen would have been through a robust Q&A dialogue immediately following the session where those who were uncomfortable with the statements could have raised our concerns and hopefully a resolution could have been reached with everyone in attendance.
Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. Whether it was due to time constraints, or people being unwilling / unable to raise their concerns (for whatever reason) in public at the plenary,* or because people had left the plenary early due to their response to other comments, negative reactions were not raised during the brief Q&A session. Instead, a few people took to Twitter, a few to blog posts, and many more to private conversations to discuss their discomfort with what had happened. What had started as a fantastic closing keynote to a fantastic conference ended on a very sour note for many.
Barring a more robust Q&A at the conference, I still think that dialogue needs to happen. Because while I have a billion and one great memories from CatalystCon, this is going to stick in my mind as an unresolved issue that will, sadly, mar the event for me. And I think it will for others. Fortunately, the fantastic Dee Dennis has shared that she has audio of the keynote that she plans to make available soon as a means to open up a robust conversation about reactions to what was said. And I’m hopeful that out of that conversation will come a greater discussion about consent, power dynamics, and possibly even about ways to make people who feel deeply troubled by something that occurs at CatalystCon (especially at the very end) feel safe in sharing their concerns on site with the person(s) involved, instead of just on Twitter, or blogs, or in private conversations with others.
Until then, I guess I’m going to try to push that last hour to the back of my mind, and focus instead on the utterly amazing other 71 hours of CatalystCon East.
Till next time,
*I know that I personally didn’t feel comfortable raising my concerns (1) as a first-time attendee at the conference, (2) because I have fairly severe anxiety disorders, and (3) because I found myself slightly triggered by the comments.