Sundress Academy for the Arts Now Accepting Applications for Residency Fellowship in Long-form Journalism/Nonfiction

Sundress Academy for the Arts Now Accepting Applications
for Residency Fellowship in Long-form Journalism/Nonfiction

The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is excited to announce that they are accepting applications for a new fellowship in long-form journalism and/or nonfiction. The Fourth Estate Residency fellowship comes with a two-week residency during the spring or summer residency periods as well as a $500 stipend.

In the age of anti-journalism and “fake news,” we believe it is more important than ever to give journalists and writers time to research, write, and revise work that delves into the events and issues of our time. Our group of ten writers (Camille Dungy, Eliza Griswold, Patrick Hicks, Ilyse Kusnetz (in memoriam), Kathryn Miles, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Brian Turner, Sholeh Wolpe, Elliott Woods, and Sunil Yapa) have joined together to make this possible. Although several of us work in writing disciplines outside of journalism, we believe it is crucial to support the work of journalists—especially in a time when the entire profession is under threat.


This fellowship is intended to give writers space and time to continue to do this important and necessary work. Applicants may work in any journalistic medium—writing (traditional journalism or literary nonfiction), podcasting, vlogging, etc.

The SAFTA farmhouse is located on a working farm that rests on a 45-acre wooded plot in a Tennessee “holler” perfect for hiking, camping, and nature walks. Located less than a half-hour from downtown Knoxville, an exciting and creative city of 200,000 in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, SAFTA is an ideal location for those looking for a rural get-away with access to urban amenities.

The residency bedrooms are 130 sq. ft. with queen-size platform bed, closet, dresser, and desk. There is also a communal kitchen supplied with stove, refrigerator, and microwave plus plenty of cook- and dining-ware. The office and library have two working computers—one Mac, one PC—with access to the Adobe Creative Cloud. The library contains over 800 books with a particularly large contemporary poetry section and, thanks to the Wardrobe, many recent titles by women and nonbinary writers. The facility also includes a full-size working 19th century full-size letterpress with type, woodworking tools, and a 1930’s drafting table.


SAFTA is currently accepting applications for our spring/summer residency period, which runs from December 31st to August 11th, 2019. The deadline for The Fourth Estate Residency fellowship applications is September 1st, 2018.

To apply for the Sundress Academy for the Arts residency, you will need the following:

  • Application form (including artist’s statement and contact information for two references)
  • CV or artist’s resume (optional)
  • Artist sample (see website for more details on genre specifications)
  • Application fee of $15 or $10 for current students (with student email) payable online*

Please also let us know if you would like to be considered for a residency even if you are not awarded this particular fellowship. For the spring, we also have fellowships for LGBTQIA writers; for the summer, we offer fellowships for writers and artists of color.

For more information, visit our website:

*Application fee will be waived for those applying who demonstrate financial need. Please state this in your application under the financial need section.

Sundress Academy for the Arts Seeks Readers for Award-Winning Sundress Reading Series

safta logoSundress Academy for the Arts Seeks Readers
for Award-Winning Sundress Reading Series

The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) would like to invite writers to read as part of their 2018 – 2019 reading series. Since 2013, SAFTA has hosted poets and prose writers as part of their award-winning Sundress Reading Series in the heart of Knoxville, TN, just miles from the Great Smoky Mountains. An extension of Sundress Publications and the Sundress Academy for the Arts, the Sundress Reading Series features nationally recognized writers in all genres from around the US while also supporting local and regional nonprofits. The deadline to apply is June 15, 2018.

We are currently curating our fall and spring reading series schedule. Our readings take place monthly on Sundays at 2PM at Hexagon Brewing Company. To apply to be a reader, please send 6-8 pages of poetry or 8-15 pages of prose, a 100-word bio, and CV in the body of an email to Erin Elizabeth Smith at

We will make every effort possible to contact those chosen by July 15, 2018. While we are currently unable to pay our readers, authors are given a discount on future SAFTA residencies and are encouraged to sell their own books and merchandise at the event.

Find our more or to view some of our past readers and schedules, visit us at

Submissions Now Open for 2018 Chapbook Competition


Sundress Publications is pleased to announce its fourth annual chapbook contest. Authors of all genres are invited to submit qualifying manuscripts during our reading period of January 15th to April 15th, 2018.

We are looking for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or any combination thereof. Manuscripts must be between twelve to twenty-six (12-26) pages in length, with a page break between individual pieces. Individual pieces may have been previously published in anthologies, print journals, online journals, etc., but cannot have appeared in any full-length collection, including self-published collections. Both single-author and collaborative dual-author manuscripts will be considered. Manuscripts must be primarily in English; translations are not eligible.

The entry fee is $10 per manuscript, though the fee will be waived for entrants who purchase or pre-order any Sundress title. We will also accept nominations for entrants, provided the nominating person either pays the reading fee or makes a qualifying purchase. Authors may submit and/or nominate as many chapbook manuscripts as they would like, so long as each is accompanied by a separate reading fee or purchase/pre-order. Entrants and nominators can place book orders or pay submission fees at our store.

The winner will receive a $200 prize, plus publication as a beautiful full-color PDF available exclusively online for free. Runners-up will also be considered for publication.

This year’s judge will be Wren Hanks. Hanks is a trans writer from Texas and the author Wren_Headshotof Prophet Fever (Hyacinth Girl Press) and Ghost Skin (Porkbelly Press). A 2016 Lambda Emerging Writers Fellow, his recent work appears in Best New Poets 2016, Gigantic Sequins, Jellyfish Magazine, The Wanderer, and elsewhere. His third chapbook, gar child, is forthcoming from Tree Light Books in 2018. He currently lives in Brooklyn.

All manuscripts should include a cover page (with only the title of the manuscript), table of contents, dedication (if applicable), and acknowledgments for previous publications. These pages will not be included in the total page count. Identifying information should not appear in any part of the manuscript. Authors with a significant relationship to the judge (friends, relatives, colleagues, past or present students, etc.) are discouraged from entering.

To submit, attach your manuscript as a DOCX or PDF file along with your order number for either a Sundress title or the entry fee to

Simultaneous submission to other presses is acceptable, but please notify Sundress immediately if the manuscript has been accepted elsewhere. Multiple submissions are allowed, but a separate entry fee must accompany each entry. No revisions will be allowed during the contest judging period. Winners will be announced in Summer 2018.


Sundress Academy for the Arts Announces Writing Retreat for Survival and Healing

Sundress Academy for the Arts is excited to announce its first annual generative writing retreat celebrating survival and healing on June 24th and 25th. This two-day retreat for sexual assault survivors at SAFTA’s Firefly Farms will be a safe space for creativity, generative writing exercises, discussions on ways to write trauma, advice on publishing, and more. Come join us in mutual support for a weekend of writing time for healing, safety, and comfort.

A weekend pass includes one-on-one and group instruction, writing supplies, food, drinks, and all on-site amenities for $75.  Tents, sleeping bags, and other camping equipment are available to rent.

The event will be open to writers of all backgrounds and provide an opportunity to work with many talented, published fiction writers and poets from around the country, including Beth Couture, Heather Knox, Krista, Cox, and Jennie Frost.

Beth Couture is the author of Women Born with Fur (Jaded Ibis Press). She received her Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Center Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. She currently lives in Philadelphia and is completing a Master’s degree in Social Work at Bryn Mawr College.

Krista Cox is a poet, paralegal, and single mother of two living in Northern Indiana. She edits for Stirring: A Literary Collection and Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and she runs Lit Literary Collective, a nonprofit that celebrates and elevates the literary arts in her local community.  Her work has been or will be published in Columbia Journal, Rappahannock Review, and the Indianola Review, among other places in print and online.

Jennie Frost is a queer poet from Maryville, TN. She is currently the Writer-in-Residence and Literary Arts Director at Sundress Academy for the Arts where she works closely with visiting writers and a herd of sheep. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Border Crossing, Kudzu, Glass Mountain, Indicia, Stirring, and more. She is a dedicated member of the LGBTQ+ community and created the first Sexual Assault Prevention program at her alma mater, Tusculum College, where she studied Title IX closely and presented her Honors Thesis, “Sexual Assault Prevention: Research, Implementation, and Re-Creation in Small, Liberal Arts Colleges.”

Heather Knox is the author of the poetry collection Dowry Meat (Words Dance Publishing) and the forthcoming YA fiction series Vampire Wars (EPIC Escape). Her poetry has appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, [PANK], decomP magazinE, Word Riot, Thrush Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Heather currently teaches online for The Poetry Barn and Southern New Hampshire University and serves as Managing Editor for The Wardrobe.

We have two full scholarships available for the retreat as well as limited 20% scholarships for those with financial need. To apply for a scholarship, send a packet of no more than (8) pages of creative writing along with a brief statement on why you would like to attend this workshop to Erin Elizabeth Smith at no later than April 30th, 2017. Scholarship recipients will be announced in May.

Space at this workshop is limited to 16 writers, so reserve your place today.

For more information, find Sundress Academy for the Arts on our websiteFacebook, or Twitter.


Now Accepting Applications for Fall Artist Residencies

Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is excited to announce that they are now accepting applications for short-term artists’ residencies in creative writing, visual art, film/theater, music, and more. Each residency includes a room of one’s own, access to a communal kitchen, bathroom, office, and living space, plus wireless internet.

The length of a residency can run from one to three weeks. SAFTA is currently accepting applications for our fall residency period, which runs from August 21st to December 31st, 2017.   The deadline for fall residency applications is May 7th, 2016.

screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-2-00-27-pmFor the fall residency period, SAFTA will be pairing with VIDA to offer two fellowships (one full fellowship and one 50% fellowship) for a week-long residency to two women writers of
any genre. VIDA’s mission as a research-driven organization is to increase critical attention to contemporary women’s writing as well as further transparency around gender equality issues in contemporary literary culture. Fellowships will be chosen by guest judge, Idra Novey.

Idra Novey is the author of the novel Ways to Disappear, winner of the 2016 Brooklyn Eagles Prize and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. Her most recent poetry collection  Exit, Civilian

Idra Novey

was selected by Patri­cia Smith for the 2011 National Poetry Series. Her fiction and poetry have been translated into ten languages and she’s written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Paris Review. She is the recipient of awards from the National Endow­ment for the Arts, Poets & Writ­ers Mag­a­zine, the PEN Trans­la­tion Fund, the Poetry Foundation, and the Poetry Society of America. She’s also translated the work of several prominent Brazilian writers, most recently Clarice Lispector’s novel The Pas­sion Accord­ing to G.H.

The SAFTA farmhouse is located on a working farm that rests on a 45-acre wooded plot in a Tennessee “holler” perfect for hiking, camping, and nature walks. Located less than a half-hour from downtown Knoxville, an exciting and creative city of 200,000 in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, SAFTA is an ideal location for those looking for a rural get-away with access to urban amenities.

The residency bedrooms are 130 sq. ft. with queen-size platform bed, closet, dresser, and desk. There is also a communal kitchen supplied with stove, refrigerator, and microwave plus plenty of cook- and dining-ware.  The facility also includes a full-size working 19th century full-size letterpress with type, woodworking tools, a 1930’s drafting table, and an extensive library of contemporary literature.

To apply for the Sundress Academy for the Arts residency, you will need the following:

  • Application form (including artist’s statement and contact information for two references)
  • CV or artist’s resume (optional)
  • Artist sample (see website for more details on genre specifications)
  • Application fee of $25 or $15 for current students (with student email) payable online*

For more information and application material, visit our website or find us on Facebook or on Twitter.

*Application fee will be waived for those applying for the VIDA scholarship who demonstrate financial need. Please state this in your application under the financial need section.

2015 Best of the Net Anthology Released


Sundress Publications is pleased to announce the release of the 10th anniversary edition of the Best of the Net Anthology! This year’s anthology includes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction published in 27 different journals and features work by Claudia Emerson, Chen Chen, Jennifer Givhan, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Sandra Meek, Eric Tran, Harmony Neal, Jesse Goolsby, Kimi Traube, and many more!

This year’s judges included Bruce Bond, Brian Oliu, and Kate Schmitt.

Bruce Bond is the author of fourteen books including five forthcoming: Immanent Distance: Poetry and the Metaphysics of the Near at Hand (University of Michigan Press), For the Lost Cathedral (LSU Press), Black Anthem (Tampa Review Prize, University of Tampa Press), Sacrum (Four Way Books), and The Other Sky (Etruscan Press). Presently he is Regents Professor at University of North Texas.

Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently teaches at the University of Alabama. He is the author of three full-length collections, So You Know It’s Me (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2011), a series of Craigslist Missed Connections, Leave Luck to Heaven (Uncanny Valley Press, 2014), an ode to 8-bit video games, & Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping (Cobalt Press, 2015). essays on NBA Jam. i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms), a memoir in the form of a computer virus, is forthcoming in 2015. His works in progress deal with professional wrestling and long distance running (not at once).

Kate Schmitt‘s Singing Bones won the 2013 Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award. A writer and visual artist, Kate Schmitt has an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. Her work has been published in a number of anthologies, including Earth Shattering Poems (Holt, 1998), Light Gathering Poems (Holt, 2000), I Just Hope It’s Lethal (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), and The Weight of Addition (Mutabilis Press, 2007), as well as the literary journals Paradigm, Birmingham Poetry Review, Southern Poetry Review, and Louisiana Literature. She was a nonfiction editor of Gulf Coast and served on the journal’s Board of Directors in 2008-2009. She has also edited and written for the companion website to a pilot television series created by Shelley Duvall, a wind energy company, and most recently for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Her courses include nonfiction and poetry workshops, 20th-century literature, young adult literature, and Chinese literature in translation.

You can read the newest edition of the anthology online.

OUTSpoken Seeks Submissions from LGBTQ Writers


OUTSpoken is an exciting new program from the Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) that aims to amplify the experiences of the LGBTQ community of Knoxville, TN. By creating a platform for sex- and gender-diverse individuals in the South where they can share and perform their experiences, the program is able bring understanding into the entire community and unite them with art.

LGBTQ writers from all over the country can submit a wide range of work to OUTSpoken, including poetry, nonfiction, spoken word, and video submissions of a monologue, dramatic piece, or film.  Writers can submit up to three poems, 1,200 words of prose, or five minutes worth of performance or film clips. Winners will receive publication in Stirring: A Literary Collection and free admission to the June, 2016 OUTSpoken performance in Knoxville. All submissions should be sent with third-person bio to by March 31, 2016.

The OUTSpoken performance will also include creative work developed as part of our three-month workshop series, which began in January and continues through March. These workshop participants have the opportunity to participate in the staged reading in June, showcasing their work personal work.

As LGBTQ issues gain greater visibility, it is crucial that we explore the complexities of sex and gender diversity respectfully. In order to create a meaningful dialogue, we must acknowledge and listen to the stories, experiences, grievances, arguments, and counterarguments of all sex- and gender-diverse persons.It is our sincerest hope that this project will illuminate the struggles of Southern LGBTQ persons and celebrate sex and gender diversity in East Tennessee and beyond.

For more information, visit Sundress Publications.

Sundress Publications Opens Submissions for 2016 E-Chapbook Competition


Sundress Publications is pleased to announce its fourth annual chapbook contest. Authors of all genres are invited to submit qualifying manuscripts during our reading period of February 1st to March 31st, 2016.

We are looking for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or any combination thereof. Manuscripts must be between twelve to twenty-six (12-26) pages in length, with one piece per page. Individual pieces may have been previously published in anthologies, print journals, online journals, etc., but cannot have appeared in any full-length collection, including self-published collections. Only single-author and collaborative dual-author manuscripts will be considered. A unifying element is encouraged but not required. Manuscripts must be primarily in English; translations are not eligible.

The entry fee is $10 per manuscript, though the fee will be waived for entrants who purchase or pre-order any Sundress title from our store.

The winner will receive a $200 prize, plus publication as a beautiful full-color PDF available exclusively online. Runners-up will also be considered for publication.

This year’s judge will be Staci R. Schoenfeld. Schoenfeld is a recipient of an NEA Fellowship, grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and residencies from the Ragdale Foundation and Albee Foundation. She is a PhD student at University of South Dakota, assistant editor for poetry at South Dakota Review, and an assistant editor at Sundress Publications. Her poems appear in Mid-American ReviewWashington Square, and Muzzle.

All manuscripts should include a cover page (with only the title of the manuscript), table of contents, dedication (if applicable), and acknowledgments for previous publications. These pages will not be included in the total page count. Identifying information should not appear in any part of the manuscript. Authors with a significant relationship to the judge (friends, relatives, colleagues, past or present students, etc.) are discouraged from entering. We are dedicated to a fair judging process that emphasizes the quality of the writing, not the résumé of authors.

Simultaneous submissions to other presses are acceptable, but please notify Sundress immediately if the manuscript has been accepted elsewhere. Multiple submissions are allowed, but a separate entry fee must accompany each entry. No revisions will be allowed during the contest judging period. Winners will be announced in Summer 2016.

Submit your manuscript to Be certain to include “CHAPBOOK CONTEST ENTRY” in the title. Please also include either a screenshot of the payment or the order number with your submission.

Submit today at!

2016 AWP Roundtable 3: A Place at the Table: The Art of Creating Writing Communities


Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.


How do you move from being a writer in the corner to a writer at the table? Writing may happen in solitude, but careers are built on community. This panel will explore how to create accessible writing communities—particularly among marginalized, underserved and non-traditional writers—where members provide feedback and share information about craft, publication, and more. Panelists will discuss existing resources for developing platforms and cultivating support in real and virtual communities.

How do writers find communities for peer support, mentorship, and inspiration, especially if they face geographical, social, or cultural barriers? This panel will provide vital information about how to build such connections through virtual learning, social movements, local writing groups, and online platforms. Panelists include prose writers, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters who have made it their mission to build communities that are inclusive, dynamic, and responsive to their members.


Tell me briefly how you came to writing.

Shaula Evans: I was an early and voracious reader. I wrote plays that my neighbourhood friends performed on the stage my father built in our basement. My brother and I also made up horror stories and recorded them on a cassette player; we’d play them back in the dark and scare ourselves to death. I had a disheartening experience with a university creative writing class that turned me off creative writing for many years, but I came back to creative writing as the house writer for a theatre group and I’ve been writing in a range of forms and styles ever since. When I lived in Japan, I was editor-in-chief for three monthly journals (in English, Japanese, and Portuguese) and wrote non-fiction for a number of publications, which was my start in post-academic non-fiction writing and editing.

Ashley C. Ford: I’ve always loved storytelling, and for a long time I assumed I would go into acting. It wasn’t until my Sophomore year of college that I realized I could give this writing thing a shot. I was quite content once I changed my major to English, but when I took my first class for creative nonfiction, I fell in love.

Colette Sartor: I came to writing as an adult looking for a way out of an ill-chosen career as an entertainment lawyer. While I was still practicing law, I took classes at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and at USC’s MPW program. I finally realized that I wouldn’t take writing seriously until I left law altogether. Once I quit, I spent a year writing, taking classes, and applying to graduate school, and then spent two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop completing my MFA. It was only in graduate school, though, surrounded by a community of writers who took themselves seriously and who were as in love with the written word as I was, that I started calling myself a writer.

Leigh Stein: At 19, I moved to New York City to go to acting school, and instead of getting close to the other students in my program, I spent a lot of time alone in my dorm room posting stories and poems to my LiveJournal. I had my first short story published that year and realized that I could pursue this other thing I loved (writing).

Colette Sartor
Colette Sartor

Tell me about a specific community that has been critically important to you along the way.

Shaula Evans: I am deeply indebted to Francis Ford Coppola for the website he launched in 1998, which hosted a vibrant and dynamic community of screenwriters, poets, and short story and flash fiction writers. I was an active member in the early days of the site where I had the opportunity to learn from incredibly talented people. Those years were highly prolific for me, in no small part because of the stimulation and feeling of momentum that came from being around people passionate about writing.

Ashley C. Ford: The community of writers I’ve met and made online have been essential to any success I’ve had as a writer. I met my mentor, Roxane Gay, online in 2010. Since then, I’ve been building community as authentically as I can, and trying to be as supportive as they are to me.

Colette Sartor: Both UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and The Iowa Writers’ Workshop have been essential to my development as a writer. As a student at UCLA Extension, I worked with gifted teachers who encouraged me and supported my decision to attend grad school. I also met lifelong friends with whom I formed a writers’ group that still meets today.

It was at Iowa, though, where I started thinking of myself as a writer. The beauty of being in an MFA program is that you become part of a community where people live, breathe, and talk writing. We compared ass-in-the-chair time. We read each other’s work and argued passionately over whether our characters were believable enough, real enough, driven enough by desire. Plus, many of the people I met in grad school became lifelong friends, the way my UCLA Extension friends did.

And writer friends are an essential part of being a writer. The actual act of writing may be a solitary endeavor, but on every other level, writing can be a communal experience. I rely on my community of writers—whether from UCLA Extension, Iowa, my UCLA Extension writers’ group or my writers’ group formed by women who attended my college—for advice, support, honest criticism of my writing. I can bounce ideas off these friends, read them rough drafts and cover letters, and I know I will get honest yet supportive responses based both on the work on the page and my vision for what I want that work to become.

Leigh Stein: I found a really supportive community on LiveJournal in the early aughts, and some of the people I met there are still my close friends today. More broadly, the Internet has always been the place where I go to find community: from LiveJournal to Facebook (I administrate a private group of over 30,000 women writers) to Twitter. I’m a high school drop out without an MFA. I would not have been able to write three books without the community I’ve found on the Internet over the last 11 or 12 years I’ve been pursuing writing seriously.


The word community implies a symbiotic relationship; there is as much give as take. While you gained a lot from community as a writer, you’ve moved on to create opportunities for others to access support, mentorship, inspiration, and connection. Tell me about that.

Shaula Evans: I have run two workshops within the Zoetrope site (in the private office area): a creative writing workshop for writers in different media to discuss craft and play writing games (for over 10 years); and a comedy workshop that explores the theory and practice of writing comedy (for over 5 years). In 2012 I launched a public forum for film, TV, and comedy sketch writers called The Black Board which ran for two years. My current website,, offers support and inspiration to writers—I have plans to expand it to build on some of the features of my previous projects but for the moment I’m too busy with my own writing, a good kind of problem to have. The focus of all my community-building efforts is to create safe and inclusive creative spaces.

Ashley C. Ford: Sometimes I’m simply enthusiastically supportive of the work those in my community put out, sometimes when I have to turn down work I direct it their way, and sometimes it’s just late night gchats about what’s hard, what’s good, and what we hope for our futures. Most of being a good community-member is the same as being a good friend.

Colette Sartor: I’ve benefited so much from being part of numerous writing communities: UCLA Extension, Iowa, my private writing students, the various writing groups that I’ve sought out. I wouldn’t be able to write without my community. My writer friends give me honest, brilliant feedback that bolsters me and inspires me to work harder, write better. My writer friends and students alike inspire me with their brilliance and thoughtfulness and willingness to bare themselves for the sake of their work.

I try to give back as much as possible by meeting with students and friends to discuss their options in pursuing their writing dreams: Do they go to graduate school or stay in Los Angeles and build a community of writers here? How can they meet other writers? What writing communities exists here? I’m constantly emailing students about readings to attend, new magazines to check out, podcasts to listen to, books to read. I plaster my social media accounts with links to inspirational articles and essays about craft and literary life. I’ve created a Writers’ Resources page on my website where I list links to online writing communities as well as links to posts about craft, publication, and blogging. And I’m always willing to write recommendations for friends and students whose work I know well. I wouldn’t have gone to graduate school without the encouragement and recommendations of some very generous teachers and mentors. I want to do the same for other people who are looking to expand their own writing communities and advance their own craft.

Leigh Stein: In 2014, I was so inspired by the online community of women writers of which I was a member that I had the idea to organize a conference, so we could connect face-to-face. This idea became Out of the Binders, a 501c3 dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices in the media and literary arts, and BinderCon, our semiannual, bicoastal professional development conference. I co-direct the organization with Lux Alptraum, and we oversee a team of about 30 volunteers across the country. Organizing BinderCon has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.

Leigh Stein
Leigh Stein

What are some potential pitfalls or drawbacks of writing communities?

Shaula Evans: Some of the major pitfalls I’ve encountered include:

1. (Lack of) Moderation
Whether a writing community convenes on- or offline, it is imperative to establish a healthy culture where no one is bullied and writers feel safe to take creative risks. Good communities don’t happen by accident. It takes a great deal of work, conscious decision-making and social engineering to make a community feel welcoming—and most of that work should be invisible to the community at large.

2. Social Pressure
I’ve witnessed a number of workshop-oriented communities where there was social pressure to write in a certain way. Some specific examples:

– Pressuring writers who are not white, cis, het, male, etc., to write in a way that conforms to the expectations of members of the local dominant culture, rather than writing in their own voices and writing from their own experiences.
– Subtle encouragement or rewards for writing to please the subjective tastes of a workshop leader or workshop regulars—i.e. writing for short term peer popularity vs writing to grow or excel in one’s own voice.
– An unchecked herd instinct to mimic the style of a popular member.

The unifying theme is the problem of one or more people imposing their own writing views and preferences on other writers. Going back to #1 above, good hosting or moderation are one of the critical strategies for making sure this sort of problem doesn’t happen.

3. Gaming the (Formal) System
I have belonged to a number of writing communities that had formal review systems, where participants had to write a certain number of reviews before they could submit their work for revision. The problem with setting up formal systems is that they inherently incentivize certain behaviours; in the case of formal review systems, some writers will feel they come out “ahead” by writing the bare minimum review in order to earn their submission opportunity, which shortchanges both the reviewer and the writer whose work is being reviewed.

Good moderation can mitigate this problem, but my preferred solution is not to set up formal systems at all. (Avoiding formal review systems may run into problems of scalability for larger communities but can work well for small- and medium-sized groups.)

Ashley C. Ford: Every once in a while, there’s someone in the community who feels like competition is more satisfying than being empowering of their fellow community-members. Those are usually people who only know how to be motivated by competition, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t keep you from celebrating your community’s wins. If you can’t do that—bring yourself to be genuinely happy for someone else’s success—it’s hard to be a healthy member of that community.

Colette Sartor: There’s always the danger of conformity. I don’t believe that MFA programs necessarily encourage or even demand that students produce a generic kind of writing. That’s something of a myth people like to pull out when bashing degree programs. In fact, I found that my fellow grad school colleagues produced a glorious array of writing styles and stories, each with unique, identifiable voices that they maintain to this day. It’s the same with my students, both from UCLA and in my private classes: these students come in with a spark, a viewpoint that is uniquely theirs. It’s my job to nurture and encourage that individual voice, not to conform it to my vision of what fiction should be.

The danger of conformity that I’m thinking about is more individual in nature, one that I’ve encountered and succumbed to myself. When you immerse yourself in a community of writers, particularly in a writing group, you find yourself tempted to produce writing pleasing to that particular group of people, whose opinions you so value and whose praise you grow to crave. It’s human nature, to want to please those you’re close to; however, that need to please can encroach on your writerly vision, stilt your voice in an unnatural way. When I first started writing and didn’t have a great deal of confidence in my own voice or in my ability to tell stories worth reading, I found myself trying to write pretty, flowery metaphors and similes to please my first writers’ group, or to craft happier, more uplifting endings in a story that needed to be darker simply because I knew I’d get a more positive response from my group. My writing suffered for it.

The solution is to take care in building your writing community around you. Trust your writing only with those whose goal is to help everyone in your community realize each individual’s vision of the stories that person’s trying to tell. Even more important, trust yourself to know what’s best for your own work. Listen to criticism with an open yet inquisitive mind: does the person offering critique understand and appreciate your vision? Is that person’s criticism geared toward helping you advance that vision? If so, then listen away, knowing that it’s your job to take whatever criticism you find valuable and incorporate it into your work in a meaningful way that reflects your voice and style.

Leigh Stein: Money! I’m not paid a salary by the organization, but I spend about 20 hours a week administering the Facebook group, organizing events, strategizing marketing opportunities, writing our conference program, booking speakers, etc., etc. It’s obviously a project I’m passionate about, but it’s ironic that I donate so much of my time to helping other women writers advance their careers (and get paid). So much valuable, necessary work in the literary community is being done by collectives and nonprofits, and they need our financial support, not only our high-fives and gratitude. I’m thinking of VIDA, WAM!, the Belladonna poetry collective, and Brooklyn Poets, to name just a few.

Lisa Mecham
Lisa Mecham

What are your top five community resources, especially for writers who face geographical, social, or cultural barriers to access?

Shaula Evans:
1. Twitter — a great way to connect with other writers
2. The (Submission) Grinder — a free, searchable database of submission opportunities and submission tracker
3. — where literary agents and publishers share what kind of manuscripts they are looking for (in astounding detail)
4. Lit Rejections’ International Literary Agent Database — listing literary agents from around the world
5. OneLook Dictionary Search —   — one of my favourite writing tools, especially for poetry

Ashley C. Ford:
1. Twitter
2. Tumblr
3. Blogs of writers you enjoy (and the blogs THEY follow)
4. Online writing courses
5. The library

Colette Sartor: Building your own writing community can mean going to graduate school, but that isn’t your only option. You can build your own writing community wherever you live. To do so, you need to meet other writers, both in your own city and around the world. This task is made easier by the numerous online resources and communities for writers. Here are a few:

– Most cities, no matter how small, have a thriving writing culture, if you know where to look. I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, where there are several great reading series (e.g., at Skylight Books, Vroman’s, the Aloud series, the Hammer Museum series), as well as writing classes and seminars. The key is figuring out where the literary “hub” of your city exists. Ploughshares did a great series of articles a while back called Literary Boroughs, which highlighted literary culture in various communities. Also look at libraries and local bookstores for readings by published authors. Writers flock to readings, both for the joy of hearing beautiful work read aloud, and to meet and congregate with other writers.
– Writers’ conferences are a great way to meet other writers and to experiment with being part of a writing community. When I was first thinking about becoming a writer, I attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. At both conferences, I met writers and authors with whom I still stay in touch. Conferences can be pricey, but most of them offer some kind of financial assistance in the form of fellowships and/or work-study. Poets & Writers offers a great database of conferences and residencies to help you narrow down which conferences might be right for you.
PEN Center USA offers a wide variety of resources to writers, from onsite, affordable seminars with outstanding writers, to posts and interviews about craft, to programs like the PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellowship that provide new writers without access to writing communities various tools to help them launch writing careers—like mentorship by professional writers, seminars, public readings, classes, and a small stipend for eight months.
– There are vibrant writing schools/communities that have popped up all over the country such as Grub Street, Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and The Center for Fiction. Each of them offer classes taught by outstanding professional writers as well as other community components. Some also offer fellowships to facilitate writers in need.
– There are online literary communities like Figment and Fictionaut that offer writers the support of a literary community through discussions and chats, critiquing groups, etc. Many of them are free, or at least have free components. Take care, however, to explore the sites and make sure you’re comfortable with the tone of that particular community. Sometimes the anonymity afforded by online communities can result in negativity that is more easily controlled in onsite communities. And take care about posting work there. Many journals consider your work “published” if you’ve posted it online in a group that isn’t private.

Leigh Stein: The BinderCon scholarship program (we award up to 50 scholarships to each conference, and this fall we offered travel stipends to trans and GNC attendees, through a grant we received from the Esmond Harmsworth Foundation). Also, BinderCon NYC will be livestreamed (free!) for the first time ever, thanks to the Harnisch Foundation. Would also recommend checking out VONA writing workshops for writers of color, WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media) with chapters and events around the country, The OpEd Project seminars, and Hedgebrook (fee-free writing residencies in the Pacific Northwest for women writers).

Lisa Mecham (panel moderator) writes a little bit of everything and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Juked, and BOAAT, among other publications. She serves on the Advisory Board for Origins literary journal and as a Senior Editor for The Scofield. A Midwesterner at heart, Lisa lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters. Online at and @lmecham.

Shaula Evans (not pictured) is a writer, editor and translator. Born and raised in Canada, and educated in Montreal, France and Japan, she currently resides in New Mexico after spending 6 ½ years traveling around North America in a Mini Cooper. You can find her online at and on Twitter at @ShaulaEvans.

Ashley C. Ford (not pictured) is an essayist and editor currently living in Brooklyn via Fort Wayne, IN.

Colette Sartor‘s stories and essays have appeared or are upcoming in Kenyon Review Online, The Chicago Tribune, Colorado Review, Carve, Printers Row Journal, Hello Giggles, The Good Men Project, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program as well as privately. Find her or follow her on Twitter at @colettesartor.

Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan, a collection of poetry called Dispatch from the Future, and a memoir forthcoming from Blue Rider Press in 2016 called Land of Enchantment. She co-directs the literary nonprofit Out of the Binders.

Seven True Stories About Sexual Assault

by Trista Renard

*Note: Trigger Warnings for those who have suffered sexual assault.


When I was in my early twenties, I had been dating a guy for a year whose dad was a Protestant minister. We had a lot in common, and we liked a lot of things about each other. At one point, he told me that he “used to be gay” when he was younger, but had “outgrown” it. This outgrowing happened after one of his cousins came out as gay; his own parents sat him down and let him know that this was a sin. They would still love him if he were gay, they told him, but he would burn in hell and they wouldn’t be able to save him from that.

“But I don’t really think that’s something you can outgrow, though,” I said.

He started screaming at me; I let the subject drop. Who was I to define his sexuality? Maybe he was bisexual.

Two weeks later, I had my first and only experience with Bacardi 151. I passed out in my boyfriend’s bed (he was sober, the DD that night). I woke up to him violently assaulting me. I cried while he pulled my hair and hurt me. I threw up afterwards in the bathroom. He fell asleep before I made it back to the bed. I threw up for the next three days. I told my three closest friends and no one else. We broke up shortly thereafter, but I never put into words what he had done to me, nor did I find any other way to confront him about it.

I expected my friends to believe me. I would not have expected people who knew neither of us to immediately believe me, especially if I had publicly named him while withholding my own name and any details of the incident. I still feel this way today. It is not that I do not deserve to be believed; it is that I am asking too much of strangers by giving them a single piece of vaguely-worded information — this specific person hurt me, somehow, whoever I may be — without any context. And anyway, to be honest, I don’t give a shit if strangers believe me. And I don’t believe that the person who chose to hurt me to prove his hetero-male-ness to me is “my” rapist or “my” anything else.

And what he did to me does not define me. I am not “his” victim. I am not anyone’s victim. I am a human who was treated cruelly in a vulnerable moment by another human. But we are all that. And we are all, I would hope, more than that. I am more than that.

I would like a cultural conversation that reflects how much more than that we are.


In my late twenties, several of us were hanging out in a bar. One of my best friends had a recent ex-girlfriend who was hanging out in the same bar. We paid her no attention. She left at some point. Eventually, much later in the night, someone found her in the parking lot. She had crawled into my friend’s car and cut herself all over, had burned herself with cigarettes. She told the person that my friend had done this to her. Had assaulted her. My friend had been sitting next to me the entire night, so her false accusation was easily disproven. But what if he had gotten up and gone outside alone to smoke an extra cigarette? Or to take a phone call? What if he had decided to step outside to, god forbid, talk to her? What if he had been the one to find her in his car at the end of the night? What then?

I want a cultural conversation in which we can acknowledge that it wasn’t that long ago in our country that black men were lynched over false accusations of rape made by white women (and/or their white husbands). I want a cultural conversation in which we can admit that having two X chromosomes does not mean you never behave in a cruel or vicious way, nor that you never tell lies about another person. These things do happen.

It is evident to me that in our culture, women’s identities are forcibly bound up with their sexuality in a way that men’s identities are not. I can’t tell you how many men I’ve heard say some female actress is a poor thespian or unfunny, “but hot,” as though this redeems her value as an actress. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a dude acknowledge that Courtney Love is a brilliant performer and musician, “even though she’s ugly as sin,” as though her talent must somehow override the fact that they don’t find her physically attractive. When so much of our respective identities are pre-defined for us as sexual, our power and autonomy become conflated with our sexuality and our perceived desirability. It does not seem surprising to me that, in today’s world, a woman who wants to access agency in a situation she cannot control will sometimes resort to making allegations that push a narrative of her vulnerable-and-attractive sexuality to the forefront of the situation. This is the power many women have been trained (and trained, and trained) to understand their access to.

All of this doesn’t mean we should do anything other than listen to anyone who alleges assault. But it does cast this notion of default belief into rather harsh perspective. Shall we automatically presume every accused person a criminal via word-of-mouth? And if so, what then? Shall we publicly pillory them? Does this help reform them? Does this help their victims? Does it not re-traumatize many people who witness it and remember their own assaults (or, to use the term de rigueur, those who “are triggered” by witnessing this fallout) with no warning, no agency, no end in sight?

I would like a cultural conversation in which we are not the judge, jury, and executioner. And do not want to be. Because we realize it is not a productive approach.


I grew up with one particular priest very close to my family. My family was half-Catholic and with no extended family in a small, very Catholic town in a rural part of the country — the kind of town where everyone has lots of extended family. We attended the local Catholic school because my parents didn’t like the public school we lived near, didn’t have time to home school us, and when they tried to send me to the local “alternative” private school where there were essentially no rules, I gave them a “hell no” and made myself very difficult. My mother didn’t want to send me to boarding school. So we attended Catholic school with essentially five families of cousins. We did not identify as Catholic. We had no relatives in the area. My family was very liberal, and the community we existed in was deeply conservative and fairly xenophobic. It was not a kind time. More than once, I had rumors started about me that I worshipped the devil, because I was openly pro-choice and wore crystal jewelry (it was the 90s). On top of all this, my brother has special needs.

This priest was a teacher at our high school and was universally beloved — he was sarcastic, edgy, funny, cool, but also incredibly human. He was an advocate for gay rights (in a small, conservative, Catholic town, well before it was a fashionable political cause with which to ally oneself); he was outspoken against racism, sexism, and all forms of bigotry. He preached, and practiced, kindness. He helped my brother a great deal, and sheltered him from a ton of abuse from his peers.

I absolutely hated the Catholic high school I attended, but this priest was one of the few people I spoke of glowingly, without fail, over the years, because I knew him to be an absolutely wonderful human being. The sole reason he did not perform my wedding was due to logistical obstacles — my now-husband and I had relocated outside of our home state.

And then, about six months after we had moved, we learned that our beloved priest and dear friend had been arrested on several counts of possessing child pornography. His own diocese had turned him in to the authorities; he confessed, and was found guilty. There was no room for doubt. I feel sick whenever I think about him choosing to consume material that he knew was produced by torturing innocent children. I believe that pedophilia is mental illness, and yet after I learned for certain what he had done, I could not bring myself to speak to him (or, really, even about him).

And yet the evil he has done does not undo the good he has done at other points in his life. It does not make it not count.

Rape and abuse are never OK. Never. Obviously. But, while many an enlightened person has begun to grapple with the difficult idea that such abuses are committed by ‘our fathers, our brothers, our sons, and our friends,’ it seems that what we really mean is that cruelty is perpetrated by other people’s fathers, sons, brothers, and friends — people we recognize, but only from a safe distance. We cannot believe these things about our own people. And when we are forced to, a cognitive dissonance occurs. How can a person we know to be good and true and kind and genuine also do something so monstrous?

I am not certain whether doing something monstrous makes one a monster. I am uncertain of whether I can forgive such abuses, in terms of — I don’t want to be around anyone whom I know has committed such abuses. I can’t bear it.

And yet: this priest’s kindnesses to me, to my brother, to my family, and to countless others exist in the real world, and in my heart. Perhaps this makes me a hypocrite: I don’t know how to reconcile my love for what I knew of him versus my revulsion at what I later learned of him. But his earlier kindnesses continue to exist as much as his evil actions do. What is good about him will never not count toward who he is, or what lives he has shaped for the better. This seems to suggest that retaining, or recovering, his human identity is somehow a possibility. Which in turn seems to suggest that some sort of forgiveness is, on my part, a possibility. And yet I can’t quite find my way there in the map of my brain right now.


I had been living with my then-partner for over a year when I was diagnosed with female dyspareunia. It was hormone-based; I would eventually recover. At one point, very shortly after this diagnosis and before I had begun to recover, he started having sex with me when we were making up after a fight. I tried to go along with it at first, because I really wanted to make up, but eventually I started giving mild signs of resistance, which he ignored. Eventually, I started crying because it hurt so much. He still didn’t stop.

“You have to give me at least a little,” he said.

I kept crying. “I really want to stop,” I said.

“You owe me this,” he said.

“Please. It hurts too much,” I said.

“You have to give me this,” he said, and then he came.

I didn’t tell anyone about this because I am not sure what good it would do to publicly humiliate him. I don’t think I would gain anything from it. I don’t want him to lose his job. I don’t want him to be accosted via social media, or in a bar somewhere. Probably the one thing I want is for him to feel shame about that act, and become a person who won’t do that kind of thing again. I think the only way he would feel that is if his mother believed he had done something like this, and forced him to confront it. She is the only person whose reprimands I have ever seen elicit from him an honest sense of shame or regret for shameful or regrettable actions. I have only seen it happen once or twice. It usually has to do with hurting her feelings in some way.

Of course, the issue of belief is at stake here: I am very certain that his mother would never believe he could have done this. And, although I do not like her very much as a person, it’s hard for me to fault her, entirely, for the fact that she would refuse to ever believe her son could have behaved in this way. Her experiences with him and of him are very different than mine. Although as a teenager he did attack her once in a fit of rage, and would not stop hurting her until he was punched out by his father. She made excuses for him, then.

As I think about this, now, I realize that she actually makes excuses for him relatively frequently. She makes excuses for her other son, too. When my ex-partner and his brother were children, the brother urinated multiple consecutive times into a large container, and then drenched my ex-partner in his urine. She made excuses for the brother when he did that, and did not reprimand him at all. It became a family joke, the time one brother pranked the other while they were having a childish fight. She was still making excuses for the brother, about this same act, twenty years later. Her latter-day excuses stemmed from a sense of embarrassment when I was let in on this family joke: I am sure my face telegraphed my shock and discomfort at one child being allowed to treat another child this way.

I think this pattern of excuse-making is why I believe she would be unwilling to ever entertain the possibility that one of her sons has sexually violated someone. I suppose extreme excuse-making and outright denial are not exactly the same thing, but they feel rather closely related: they are ways of avoiding painful realizations about people we love, and they are ways of avoiding the discomfort of considering what our own responsibilities might be to resolve a situation in which someone we love has behaved abusively.

I believe that perhaps this is a common phenomenon. I believe that the angry women I encounter on the internet who insist on a system of default-belief regarding assault allegations are perhaps reacting to the proliferation of this sort of stonewalling reaction from mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends of men who have hurt other people. My own frustrations cause me to empathize with their stance on this issue. But I cannot bring myself to believe that it is valid or rational, or that it is effective in addressing/repairing/preventing harm. It is a stance that lacks nuance, and that lacks any acknowledgment of why and how nuance is necessary to navigate almost anything in this world, let alone such particular and complex situations in which at least one person has already been very hurt.

In the end, I suppose it’s moot whether my ex’s mother would believe me or not. Given the chance, I don’t suppose I’d tell her about it — even if I thought she would believe me. This is because I am not sure her reactions would be productive. I am not certain she would be able to have a measured interaction with her son if she allowed herself to believe this about him. I think perhaps it would destroy their relationship, and would also fail to change him in the necessary ways to prevent him from doing it again.

I do not think I am an abuse sympathizer or a rape apologist because I do not want anything particularly bad to happen to him. I think of this as grace. And because I do not experience this attitude all the time — even when sometimes I really wish I could summon it — I think of grace as a gift. I am not in the habit of rejecting valuable gifts.


Sometimes, on the internet, women will say things to me like, “I am not a survivor of sexual assault, but I know how important it is to believe victims.” They will say this as part of what my best self believes is a well-intentioned lecture about why I have to default-believe any woman who accuses any man of sexual assault. They assume, I suppose, that they have the right to speak to me this way because they assume that they know something I do not. They want to help me. To educate me. To fix me into their version of What A Feminist Looks Like. The women who have treated me this way are usually white and bourgeois. They usually have a certain educational background. They are frequently straight. They are nearly always cisgendered and able-bodied. They seem to think that they speak for a wide range of oppressed people. I suppose it’s not up to me to say whether they do or don’t. But I know how it feels to hear, “I’m not a survivor of sexual assault, yet I can tell you the one true way to respond to accusations and/or narratives of sexual assault.” It feels very wrong to me.

I don’t like it when women who haven’t suffered what I’ve suffered try to tell me what I have to think about anything — particularly this kind of suffering. To be fair, though, I don’t like it when even women who have suffered what I’ve suffered — or who may have suffered worse — try to tell me what I have to think about anything. I will listen to them discuss their own positions and ideas and beliefs, based upon their own experiences. I have an indelible respect for that sort of honest and genuine exchange. I can’t think of anything more human than learning from each other in this way. But I don’t like it when anyone makes the presumption of telling me what I have to think.

I have seen women tell other women, “You aren’t a feminist,” because they disagree about issues surrounding sexual assault and abuse. Sometimes, this is followed by ad-hominem attacks against the woman accused of not being a feminist (even if this woman strongly self-identifies as a feminist). I have seen such ad-hominem attacks involve verbal abuse, sexualized insults, and wishes for something bad to happen to the woman who has just been informed that she is not a feminist.

I believe that when one person attempts to obliterate another person’s self-identity and tries to replace it with their own, that is a very destructive situation. I believe that that is a very dangerous and objectionable action to take against another human being. I believe it is in large part what worse acts of abuse are predicated on: the feeling of entitlement to obliterate another person’s identity and self-determination — their volition over who and what they are — and replace it with your own definitions of who and what they are.

I have seen other people make excuses for this kind of behavior. I believe that this impulse — to make excuses for this particular strain of abusive behavior, as a third party — usually stems from a desire to be kind and empathetic. I have frequently heard people chalk up this particular strain of abusive behavior to any given perpetrator having PTSD. I have remained silent when I have heard this, because I do not want to make kind-hearted people uncomfortable. I do not want to quash or belittle or otherwise inadvertently demean their efforts towards empathy. But right now, it feels important to me to tell the truth about my own PTSD. I was diagnosed with it after leaving an abusive marriage.

When you have PTSD, sometimes it goes like this: something a normal person literally wouldn’t even notice will set off a visceral, unstoppable, blinding spasm of panic in your brain — a series of such spasms — and even though you are washing dishes alone at your sink, you are also living out another moment from your past, or many moments from your past all at once, and even though you are fine now you are still trying to survive. And defend yourself. And find your way out. Your hands will shake so badly that you’ll accidentally break the glass you’re washing, and the shards will cut through your cute-pink rubber gloves so cleanly that they’ll cut through your hands, too, before you can even react, and you’ll rush yourself to the ER to stop the bleeding. You may laugh sarcastically and inappropriately when the doctor says that you’re lucky because there won’t be any scars.

This is one episode from a life with PTSD. It is not an excuse to be cruel or abusive to other people. I lived those moments, and yet even then I expected better of myself than to be vicious towards others. I still expect better of myself. This does not mean that I never fuck up; but it does mean that it isn’t OK when I fuck up. It isn’t OK when I say something unkind to someone else, and I try to prevent myself from ever doing so. When I fail, if it is pointed out to me in a decently civil way, I will apologize immediately.

I find exactly nothing exceptional about this set of expectations. This is how many people close to me live their lives, despite their traumas and the things they continue to survive.

No one is entitled to take away my agency over my own mind, any more than any of the men who have violated me were entitled to take away my agency over my own body.

No one has the right to obliterate my self-identity (which is in part comprised of my reactions to things, the thoughts I develop, and the beliefs I hold) and replace it with their own definition of what my identity should be.

I do not deserve abuse for disagreeing with others.

I will not abdicate my right to think for myself.

I can say I don’t know if I goddamn well please.

I do not have to lie in order to come up with a more definitive answer in a situation I did not create.

I am not NOT believing victims if I say I don’t know what I think in this situation. I can listen to someone’s stories without immediately capitulating one way or another. I can empathize and show support and kindness and love to someone who says s/he has been abused, without immediately assuming anything about a third party (the accused).

I am not under any obligation to re-traumatize myself in order to satisfy anyone else’s needs or desires; I don’t have to listen to anything I choose not to listen to — that is also my right.

I would like a cultural conversation in which we are allowed to say I don’t know in response to a confusing, upsetting situation, without fear of reprisals from vicious-minded people who willfully and aggressively lack basic human kindness and try to call it victim advocacy or feminism. I would like a cultural conversation in which we can admit that sometimes the truth is difficult and messy and unclear.


When I was in my late teens, I studied abroad, doing archaeology field work for classroom credit. I attended through my then-boyfriend’s university, as an exchange student. One of the elder professors on the trip repeatedly invited me to his room during the siesta hour after our midday meal; I never went. He kept offering me things he knew I wanted, but had ‘forgotten’ in his room — protein shakes he’d had shipped to him from the States, a designer purse he’d seen me admire in a nearby boutique — and none of these gifts ever materialized outside of his room, but I was promised them if I would just come by during our siesta hour to pick them up. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being lured; I never went to his room because I was afraid. I was ashamed for feeling afraid, for suspecting what I suspected. I never told anyone about his invitations.

At several points on the trip, this same Professor groped me and some the other girls. Sometimes, it was physically gentle and visually subtle — Did he really just cup my rear end? I thought, more than once. Maybe I bumped him or something. But there were other times when it was really obvious. He cupped one girl’s breast openly in front of several people at the dig site. I think he figured he wouldn’t get in trouble because the Dean, who was on the trip with us, knew she was putting herself through college as a stripper, as well as an RA and a TA. All at once. She was tough. She had a lot of drive. She came from a very economically disadvantaged background. She was bound and determined to take care of herself and her mother. She was very smart.

Mostly, we made fun of this Professor. The girls, I mean. I know this isn’t the narrative that anyone wants, but that’s what we did. In all honesty, I thought at the time that I was probably more upset and squicked out by his behavior than the other girls. In retrospect, I’m not sure whether that was true — they may all have been as bothered as I was — but I was several years younger than they were and perhaps not yet as tough as they had become. I put on a good face, though.

One day, some local officials came to inspect our dig site. One of them made some comment about me being cute. The Professor made a joke about how I should only be allowed to come to the dig site dressed in kinky lingerie for him and the others in my work group (all of whom were male). All the male students laughed along with him — including my then-boyfriend. I was mortified. One of the officials chuckled uncomfortably, and the other looked awkward. No one actually said anything to me.

At breakfast the next morning, my friend who was putting herself through college as a stripper (and an RA and a TA, all at once), and who had already taken endless verbal abuse from the men in my group for working as a stripper, offered to sleep with him to “take the heat off” the rest of us. She laughed like she was joking, but she looked at me with concern when she said it.


The next semester, back home at my own university, I had a professor who referred, in a deliberately inflammatory way, to the few female students in his classroom room as “bitches.” I went to his office and told him how offensive I found it.

“You’re more privileged than about 90% of the world,” he said. “Are you really going to get that upset about a word?”

“Yes,” I said. “I am upset about it. Not because of the word, but because what it tells everyone in the room that you think that of me, and — since they look up to you — what they should think of me. And you know what? I actually really like you. I love your class. And I don’t actually think you think that of me. But I don’t think all those guys who were laughing know that you don’t really think that.”

“Do you really think anyone has the impression that I find you inferior in any way?” he asked.

“I do,” I said. “And this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened to me. And last time, I didn’t stand up for myself.”

And then I told him about my semester abroad.

He was absolutely horrified.

“I had no idea,” was one of the things he said.

“You could get someone fired for something like that. And I’ll vouch for you,” was another thing that he said.

“That’s absolutely unforgivable,” was another thing that he said.

“But I don’t want him to get fired, though,” I said. He regarded me for several moments without saying anything.

“I’m sorry,” he said, after the silence. And he meant it.

This man became my mentor. We developed a very intellectually intimate relationship. We wrote letters — most of them philosophical arguments, but the productive kind. I truly came to love him, and seldom have I received more respect or felt more esteem for an intellectual/academic colleague. He died very suddenly during my last semester of college, and I was devastated.

People do things wrong sometimes. People are cruel. Sometimes they learn from those mistakes. Sometimes they learn from others’ mistakes.

I don’t know whatever happened to that other professor. I remember him as a dirtbag, truth be told. But I know it’s possible that he, too, may have learned from his mistakes later in life.

But I don’t think seeing either of them publicly pilloried would have made me happy. It wouldn’t have helped me, and it wouldn’t have helped them learn any better.

I would like a cultural conversation that focuses on helping victims by educating people — and education happens in all different kinds of ways — so that our social system(s) ultimately produce fewer victims. Because we have fewer people behaving in ways that create victims.


There are countless other stories, even just from my own life (nevermind the myriad similar experiences others have had, and worse), that I could choose to share here. I don’t want to, at least not right now. I’m exhausted. And I think I’ve shared enough to help illustrate the points I felt I needed to make, in an attempt to contribute to the conversation at hand.

Based upon my own personal experiences and what I know to be true: the way we understand sexual assault and the way we respond to it have to change.

We can’t be productive if we can’t adapt.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, or a thing about which we should feel ashamed or regretful. This is not a sign that we have done something wrong, at least not exactly. Knowledge is imperfect. A lot of the evolving we do as humans is spiritual and cerebral. I think this is why art and social customs and literature and science all continue to evolve. They have to. Because we have to. We expect it of ourselves. And it is in our nature.

I think we also need to be patient with ourselves as we go abut the hard work of social, spiritual, and intellectual evolution. I find myself frustrated when conversations about this seem to boil down to a, “Well, so what should we do, then?” request for a bullet-pointed formula to follow, handed down from some sort of imaginary public HR office. It reminds me of students who would come into the composition classes I used to teach and, during the first couple weeks, would usurp classroom time to demand I tell them How To Get An A in This Course. This is how I handled that attitude, back then:

Student A: Professor, can you please tell us how to get an A in this course? Can you just tell us what we need to do on our papers to get an A on each paper?

Me: Well, as we’ve already discussed a little bit so far, displaying strong critical thinking skills and crafting a cogent argument will take you a really long way towards an A, but —

Student A: Right, I know, but can you just give us, like, a list? Of things the paper has to include.

Me: Are you asking for a surefire bullet-point list of procedures to follow for crafting an A paper?

Student A: ::nods::

Me: No. I’m sorry, because I know that’s probably a frustrating answer for you to hear right now. Let me try to explain a little better. Does anyone in this room speak a language other than English, as their second language?

::hands go up around the room::

Me: OK, you, there. Student B. What’s your second language?

Student B: French.

Me: Great! I speak German and Italian and and I can read French, but I can’t speak it. Not yet. But I really want to learn. So, can you please teach me right now how to speak French?

Student B: ::flustered and stammering, usually blushing a little::

Me: Come on, I want you to teach me French, right now. We’re ahead of the game, because I can already read it a little bit. So I want to go home today being straight-up fluent in French.

::students begin to all giggle self-consciously::

Student B: I can’t. I mean, I can teach you a few grammar rules, or some words right now, but . . .

Me: But you can’t make me fluent in French today?

Student B: No.

Me: Of course you can’t! Because learning a foreign language is a really complex, arduous process, right? Like, a lot goes into it? You can’t just absorb it and know everything all at once?

Student B (relieved and giggling): Yes.

Me: Good. Well, learning to write a really strong academic-style essay is kind of the same. Obviously, everyone in this particular class speaks English very well, so you aren’t literally learning a new language — but academic essays are a new way of thinking. It really is almost like learning a new language, because your brain has to learn to think in different patterns. It has to find knowledge and find techniques for acquiring and expressing knowledge that you don’t even have yet. That’s the whole point of our project this semester in this classroom. So if we’re all patient and work hard, there will be a lot of As. And I’m here to help you. But I can’t teach you in the last fifteen minutes of today’s class How to Write an A Paper.

I believe that our ways of understanding narratives of sexual assault and abuse need to evolve — in much the same way as learning a new language, because we need to learn to think in different patterns than those to which we have become accustomed. Right now, we all exist in a system that continues to create opportunities for abuse to occur. This is the system that we know. Most of our worst responses to this system are understandable and justifiable to some degree — we have a right to be angry, we have a right to express hurt and outrage, and we deserve justice and good treatment — but these responses are limited in how effectively they are allowing us to work together to solve really awful problems. They are very, very clearly not working. We need new ways of approaching our reality. Many of the operational binaries that our shared air is still thick with have largely outlived their respective uses: e.g., abuser or victim, aggressor or advocate, wrong-and-deserving-of-exile or right-and-deserving-of-a-monopoly-on-the-microphone. We need to learn to see ourselves as the conflicted, complex creatures of frequent vicissitude that we are. We need to stop wanting so badly to be Right that we trample over anyone whose difference of opinion feels like a threat that we could be wrong, or could be seen as wrong and thus lose some sort of hard-fought ground or cultural capital.

I say that we need new ways of addressing abuse because I believe that it is the only way that we can create a world in which human tendencies towards abuse and aggression and cruelty will all be curtailed as frequently and to the greatest extent and in as many different ways as possible. I do not believe there is a magic bullet to stop these tendencies entirely, but I believe we can do much better than we have done thus far. I believe the new ways of addressing abuse we will find — working together with respect and compassion and a willingness to resist just moving along with the loudest/easiest/most obvious social currents no matter what — will need to be more intelligent and better-intentioned (and, come to that, better-plotted) than treating the internet like a middle-school playground.