Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Forking the Project: Open-Source Body Positivity

This started as a reply to Sunflower's comment in my earlier post, but it's sufficiently lengthy that I'm going to make it its own post.

Admittedly, I'm less familiar with cons than a lot of the participants in this discussion. The only one I've attended was a heavily commercialized experience, and when I think of "hallway" in that context my mental image is one of the spaces outside of an event room where people are waiting to go in. In other words, a public space, and an already-purposed one.

By "semi-private space," I'm thinking more of something like a hotel room or set of rooms, which Joe and Jane Congoer can access but where (a) it's safe to assume everyone is there by specific intent, (b) that specific intent is for the touching and not something else that's unrelated, and (c) it's possible to exclude people if necessary. (It should be pointed out that (a) and (b) are rebuttable presumptions; if I accompany a friend to the area it doesn't mean I can't say no to participating, and I shouldn't be pressured to.)

As for the "ass contest" Sunflower described in her comment, that's actually a good concrete example to help me figure this out because I'm trying to look at it from as many perspectives as possible. Not exactly a role reversal, because there's all sorts of surrounding issues of socialization, perceived safety, etc., but more immediate than "what if I were a woman at that con?"

When I think about it from the perspective of the person being asked for permission to touch, three questions come up: (1) How do I feel? (2) What do I want? (3) How do I respond? One of the things I find problematic about the whole situation is that the answers to these questions are often very unrelated. For instance, I may be flattered by the attention, but not actually want to be touched, or I may actually not mind the touch but be put off by the way I'm propositioned. And I may agree to be touched even if I don't want to, because I see it as the price of admission to the party, or because I don't want to hurt the asker's feelings, or because I don't distinguish between wanting to be asked and wanting to be touched. Or, conversely, I may want to be touched, but something about the situation triggers a shyness response.

I've been giving some thought to how to create a positive version of this event (it is "Open Source," after all). In addition to the ideas that have already been thrown out, there are a few other changes that could radically shift the tone:

Insist on respect.
This means actual respect, not just going through the motions and saying "please" so you don't get slapped. It also means that you don't give somebody a pass on bad behavior because they're a Big Name, or because they're your friend, or because they're in the less-represented gender and you're finding it difficult to keep the ratio from becoming too lopsided.

Police the space.
If people are transgressing the boundaries of the interaction, then they need to be removed from the space. This goes even for "positive" forms of interaction; if some people decide they're okay with fewer boundaries (i.e., they want to make out, or be naked, or whatever), they should probably do that elsewhere to avoid shifting the focus of the space and making others feel uncomfortable or pressured.

Make the fundamental unit of interaction the compliment, not the touch.
If it's about being body-positive, that seems like it should go without saying.

Don't gender the interaction.
Making this primarily about breasts means that those interactions involving men are always going to be unidirectional. Being about body in general doesn't make it totally egalitarian (this is still a patriarchy, after all), but it's a start.

Change the dynamic of touch interactions from request/consent to offer/acceptance.
From what I read in the original post, offer/acceptance was how the whole thing started, and it was only when people wanted to expand the scope that they started asking other women if they were okay with being touched. While offer/acceptance doesn't by itself totally negate the peer pressure aspect, I think it's a lot easier to say nothing than have to actively turn someone down, and it separates the compliment element and the physical element. (This was suggested in the comments to theferrett's post, but was rejected by him as being "too passive," which comes across as "but then I wouldn't get to feel as many boobs!")

What it comes down to in the end, I think, is that this idea relies on "trusted strangers" (among friends, it's a very different dynamic), and that's hard to achieve. (I think it's possible to at least conditionally trust them, if there are enough safeguards in the environment, but everyone's mileage varies in that regard - yet another reason to get a room.) For some folks, the fact that the other person is at a con is a sufficient basis for that trust; it seemed that one of the problems theferrett had was that he assumed that that basis was sufficient for everyone.


SunflowerP said...

You may be experientially less familiar with cons, but you're conceptually in that headspace. "Trusted stranger" is absolutely relevant to the context - conditionally, as you note (fen are not intrinsically "more evolved" or anything, and at any con there'll be some people who are convirgins and don't yet know the culture), but part of the foundation on which the success of fan-run cons rests.

A few folks, among those I've read (I haven't read anywhere near everything being said; there's so much), have discussed this in terms of "it could have been done better if...;" you're the only one I'm aware of who's really examining whether the idea can be adapted into something that does function positively. I love what you're coming up with, though I don't yet have more detailed feedback; I'll need to let it simmer in my brain, and reread your post again later. I'm not spotting any "broken code" yet, though.

This is a refreshing change from people leaping into this without getting at least a general idea how events unfolded - I've seen several people bitching about what they'd do if they'd been there and someone touched their breasts without asking, and several more who appear to be completely unaware that it took place in a subculture context at all (among other things - "text-literate but not content-literate" seems to be rampant in this discourse).


jfpbookworm said...

Well, to be fair, a lot of people haven't talked about adapting the idea because they have no interest in doing so, but they do have an interest in not being propositioned in public spaces, and that's a completely legitimate perspective. Others might think a reformed touchfest could be a positive for them, but decide that at this point in time it's more important in being unequivocal about the version that was proposed. (That's one of the reasons I didn't talk about this as much in my earlier post, when it still wasn't clear how universally this was regarded as a Bad Idea.)

As for the "code," I think it's incomplete at best. I've no idea, for example, what to do about the issue that some people would likely get a *lot* more attention than others. And I mentioned that simply removing the focus on breasts doesn't negate the fact that we're in a patriarchy (albeit a subculture thereof), and that the connotations surrounding men touching women, women touching men, men touching men and women touching women are all different.