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Safe(r) performance spaces: how and for whom?

As I’m gearing up for more Smut Slams in Europe (get in touch if you want one in your city), I’m thinking again about the Smut Slam Code of Conduct and the idea of safe(r) space in performance contexts.

Specifically I’m thinking about what safer space looks like in my context and why I do it the way that I do, and why I’m really glad that I decided to do it that way because holy SHITBALLS things can get weird otherwise!

All Smut Slams have the Code of Conduct read out loud, a statement of community standards and beliefs that has gotten hashed out and elaborated over time (I think another review is coming soon, in fact). I wish I had kept records of what the Code of Conduct used to be at the beginning of Smut Slam; oh god, I learned fast on that one!

Behind every rule there is a story, they say, and this is especially true with the Smut Slam Code of Conduct. In this living, revise-able document, every specific type of “friendliness” that is explicitly stated, or line of text in the “what not to say” paragraph, every element included in the bit about consent, it is all there because someone told a story that skirted the spirit of the code, or got through some unspelled-out exception or loophole, and we are trying our best to lay it out as clearly as possible.

If we have any sort of “community standards,” then it is on us as creators, hosts, and producers to articulate those standards. I was in a performance room once where the host said specifically that it was a “safe space,” but that was all. Maybe they thought it would be obvious. In any case, one of the performers went on to do a racist bit that had some audience members looking at each other and shaking their heads and muttering. Even the host looked completely taken aback—they clearly knew it was a problem—but nothing in the their statement about “safe space” included any mention of racism, so in the moment the host didn’t seem to know how to even talk about it.

We have to articulate these things, but even more importantly, we have to put down a process for how to deal with those things when they happen. Because they will happen. Shit still gets weird.

Smut Slam is an open mic and it takes place in drinking environments mostly, and people arrive late and don’t hear the host reading the Code of Conduct out loud AND people have radically different and variable ideas about what constitutes consent, for example, and racism and sex-worker friendliness (“I want to tell you about all the wild hookers I met in Thailand” = probably not going to go well).

I can tell you, those are some of my least favorite moments about running a Smut Slam, when I can see the car crash about to happen, when I can practically smell the smoke coming off the opening lines of a story and I know a dumpster fire is headed for my stage.

But the great thing is, Smut Slam has community standards spelled out and they include our process for responding to violations and close calls (“educational moment from the mic” after the story is concluded).

Before we included that component into the Code of Conduct, we had a really clear vision of what we did want and what we didn’t, but we had no way of enforcing it. Smut Slam hosts would have to step in the breach on their own, which is intimidating as fuck. I know I was pretty chickenshit for, like, the first four years of slamming.

But since then, Smut Slam has the institutional response built in. We know, as an event, as hosts, and as a community of sorts, how we deal. We know that stories may occasionally still slip through and go against our code, but we also know what will happen if they do.

(At some point I will write something about how those educational moments are actually a good thing. As someone pointed to me, that is actually where education takes place, if a storyteller isn’t clear about consent or why their specific behavior in an anecdote is misogynistic, for example, or involves nonconsensual objectification.)

For now, though, I will leave my readers with this: it’s not enough to set boundaries. You have to know, ahead of time, what you’re going to do if someone crosses them. Without the follow-through, “safe space” is only safe for the offender, not anyone else.

*****

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