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Smut Slams and narrative perspective and hosting when the floor drops through

I'm gonna find a way through this wall...

I'm gonna find a way through this wall...

So, it's a little over a week since the first-ever Atlanta Smut Slam (a big shout-out to Write Club ATL for helping make it so awesome) and a little less than a week before the first-ever DC Smut Slam (link to FB event page). I am taking this narrow little window—less a window and more an arrow slit—as a good time to refresh my attention to the ethics of hosting this show.

Ethics and dirty stories. Those are not words that maybe go together, but they have to, for me, because even though the Atlanta show smashed box-office records for the Slam, it was stellar, the Fuckbucket was full... for all that, one story caught me by surprise, and now I'm examining entire chunks of Smut Slam protocol to accommodate it.

Honestly, I feel fortunate to still be in a space where I can be surprised, surprise being one of those awesome but usually awkward moments for learning. Two years ago I would have gladly dispensed with more learning moments; two years ago I was still writhing from a public protocol fuck-up; hell, I hadn't even healed from that properly until this year. Even now I feel like, oh god, learning to host, especially for an open-mic event, is the PITS, because you're not just fumbling or falling and then getting off the stage, you are anchoring the stage for other people and your fuck-up has the potential to destabilize everybody else, including the audience.

Nowadays I feel pretty good about hosting. I've gotten positive feedback from various sources, audiences and tellers and judges alike, and was starting to feel comfortable in it. Not phoning it in, just maybe I was getting a little too sure? Everyone was on the same page, we all understood what was going on, we understood the rules, and the bit about consensuality, especially that bit, that was just obvious, right?

It sure seemed like it. Since the first Smut Slam in February 2011, we've never had anything told from a Smut Slam stage that veered very close to consent issues at all. Okay, there have been a few tales of drunk/blackout sex over the years, told from the point of view of the person blacking out, but that's it. (Maybe that, too, is a little grey? I know I sure get uncomfortable hearing tales of blackout sex, no matter from whose point of view.) So, all the fine print about consent was moot. Everyone got it. Except that wasn't true last week, when someone told a story that was about their first sexual experience as a very under-aged minor, and how they pursued an adult to get that experience.

<sigh> Even when I write this, I am reminded of other rules of Smut Slam: "what is told at Smut Slam, stays at Smut Slam" and "if it's not your story, it's not your story to tell." I will not tell the story in question, but I had to give at least the general outlines, for you to understand why I am even getting worked up about this.

Current US law says that consent is absolutely not possible at that age, but the teller clearly saw herself as consenting. We certainly can discuss that, how the perspective makes all the difference. If someone had gotten up and told the story from the point of view of the adult man in this scenario, my path would have clearer—interrupt the goddamn story and try to recover the show—though no less challenging to implement. Her story was from the other side, and childhood expressions of sexuality are tricky, tricky beasts.

This is the discussion that I steeled myself to unfold, immediately after the slam and in the days since. I hashed it out a little with the Atlanta judges panel; they mostly came down on the side of, "well, that's the risk of an open mic. Audiences need to take care of themselves." Still feeling uncertain, I checked in with my friend and colleague Dave Pickering (of the awesome storytelling series Stand-Up Tragedy). Dave said more clarity on the rules might help, and then if I felt I should, I could cut short the story with a burst of music or something. "I think if you spell out the rules and someone breaks them you are absolutely allowed to interrupt," he said. But he notes, "It's tricky as that's her experience. And it's kind of not for us to deny it. Clearly the dude involved was acting heinously but her experience and desire shouldn't be invalidated."

I was grateful to hear from Dave and other hosting friends about their struggles with this sort of thing, but in the end, it all comes down to the lines that I decide to draw around this, which may (almost certainly will) change again. For now, I'm going to figure out a way to tell audiences that subject matter might come up that is challenging, and try to say it in a way that doesn't drag the energy down. I'm going to write the rules out a little more clearly, with regard to what consent actually means for Smut Slam (no stories involving sexual contact with animals or minors, unless it's consensual between two minors). I'm going to get these clarified rules out everywhere, and emphasize them at the point when people put their names in the bucket. I will even have a piece of music ready in the horrible horrible event that I decide I need to "pull the plug."

Most importantly, I'm going to prepare myself to provide audience aftercare. I do it for Phone Whore all the time, in the form of a post-show Q&A; surely there is some way to do it here, to bring up problematic spots after the fact, in a way that doesn't drag down the energy. I need to be ready for anything with the Smut Slam, because it is an open mic, and that will always be the challenge with open mics: People bring what they bring. It is not all cut and dried, black and white.

Sometimes there is grey.

*****

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