What #MeToo Can Mean for Female Artists & Athletes

Photo by Todd Collins Photography

Photo by Todd Collins Photography

#MeToo. Admittedly, this trending conversation is something I have only partially paid mind to--due to the fact that I didn’t fully understand it or think it truly applied to me. In my mind, up until recently, #MeToo solely referred to cases of blatant rape, but the scope of topics this powerful message ecompasses is actually so much larger--as I am now realizing. I’m also one that believes that people are innocent until proven guilty and therefore have never been a fan of the social lynch-mobbing effect that can occur, when fueled by #MeToo stories and the like. And so to avoid situations like these, I have never been one to call others out, even if they are in the wrong. I have lacked the ability to draw clear boundaries or assert myself. I also have the tendency to set myself on fire to keep others warm. Any or all of these traits could arguably be common ground shared by those with #MeToo stories.

On November 8, 2018, aerialist @cerclecheung shared a post on her instagram page, accounting the sexual assault she endured during a photoshoot with a well-known photographer @cbtrn (Cristian Buitron). When I opened up my Instagram and read the first sentence of her post, I already knew what I was about to read. I thankfully never had the same experience with Cristian myself, however, in 2015 after I competed at the U.S. Aerial Championships (where he was the hired event photographer) he reached out to me about traveling to Utah to do a photoshoot with me. The fact that he was being hired by professional events that lead the pole and aerial industry made him more legitimate or so it seemed.  As I read Yuanhao’s story, I felt a certain familiarity in the manipulation tactics he was using. For example: he used well-respected pole and aerial names to plant the seed that he was well-known and well-liked by those artists, legitimizing him to some degree. When having a discussion with me, he shared a sad and depressing story about a current situation in his life in an effort to make me feel sorry for him. Even saying that shooting with me would make a “sweeter year” for him. I rejected his offer for a photoshoot and blamed it on the fact that I couldn’t afford to bring him out/hire him (even though he lowered his rates in desperation) but really it’s because I did not have a good feeling about him or his intentions. Reading Yuanhao’s story just confirms my intuition and intital gut-feelings.

I want to thank Yuanhao (@cerclecheung) for speaking up with bravery about her experience. She has inspired an important conversation within the pole and aerial community and has held space for other aerialists to come forward about sharing their same experiences, either with @cbtrn or other prolific figures in the industry. Her story is what inspired me to write this post.

My reason for writing this blog post is not only to focus on Cristian and his actions, but to share with you another story and offer an entirely new perspective on the #MeToo conversation. This story hasn’t been told to very many people.

It is my own.

I have buried it for over a decade--in fact, I only just recently shared it with my husband.

#MeToo can take on many forms. It can look like rape, emotional or physical abuse, sexual assault, manipulation and in my experience, it can also look like sexual grooming. Before I go on, let me first explain what this means if you are unfamiliar with this term.

What Is Sexual Grooming?

The article “What Is Sexual Grooming? 7 Things to Know About This Abuse Tactic” by EMMA SARRAN WEBSTER, published by Allure describes it perfectly. I have included a few relevant excerpts in italics below to help explain this method of abuse. (read the full article here):

It often starts with friendship.

“Grooming is the slow, methodical, and intentional process of manipulating a person to a point where they can be victimized,”...“After [the perpetrators] find their targets, they then gain trust and move in from there.”

No one is immune to grooming, though some are more susceptible than others — including minors, "because of their naiveté,”...“[Grooming] can occur at any age, and it has a great deal to do with gullibility, insecurity, religion, and culture. [...] It starts by targeting a vulnerable person, then building trust.”

Perpetrators use favors and promises to build trust.

Initial friendliness typically encourages the victim to let down their guard and think of the perpetrator as a mentor, benefactor, romantic interest, or friend. And then, “once [the victim's] guard is down, the [perpetrator] will do them a favor,”...“They’ll do something for [the victim] so that the person feels indebted to them to a certain extent.”

Sexual grooming is (and especially in my circumstance) a betrayal of trust. It can be extremely difficult to discern from a romantic relationship. It can also make the “victim” feel as though they are in some type of romantic relationship, therefore, if they were to come forward and report the situation, they would ultimately be betraying the perpetrator.

The whole idea of the grooming is it’s a slow process and that’s why, psychologically, [it] can be so damaging — especially if the [victim] is young because they don’t always know what they’re falling into.”


#MeToo

My story begins when I was 17. He was 24 and one of my high school swim coaches. He was an adult male, who preyed on a female high school athlete. He betrayed my trust and his position of authority over me. It’s been so many years now, it’s sometimes hard to remember how it all began. I remember it being fairly innocent in the beginning. There was definitely a friendship that grew first, initiated by him and in the shadows of course. I remember that he paid a lot of attention to me. As a young woman, when your mentor pays attention to you, praises you and tells you things *you think* he’s saying to help you (as a mentor should), then you believe him. Especially at 17, with no reason to believe the behavior is otherwise malicious, premeditated or perverted.

After a few months word got out and the high school administration took action, firing him immediately and prohibiting him from ever coaching high school swimming again. For a long time I wanted to defend him and the relationship that occured, well because, shame. I denied that there was anything wrong happening and tried to brush it off, even after he was fired. Mostly because I was embarrassed and wanted to brush it under the rug and forget it ever happened. And so brush it off I did, for 13 years.

When I myself became the Head Coach of a youth swim team a few years after graduating high school, I was able to “put myself in his shoes” so-to-speak and I was utterly disgusted. There I was, 24, the same age my coach was. I looked at my young athletes and was appalled at the thought of one of them being taken advantage of by one of their leaders. Their maturity and the age gap alone is enough to deter any morally sound person, not to mention the fact that as a coach you are a mentor and therefore, someone who is admired and trusted. I couldn’t believe that anyone could ever abuse that power and respect and with a minor no less.

I know I wasn’t the first high school athlete to be groomed and abused by a coach, and unfortunately, I’m sure I won’t be the last.

My story does not end there. When I was in college, this happened yet again, by a well-respected artist and one of my mentors/professors. His work was exhibited all over the world and sold for thousands of dollars. He was even the director of a popular contemporary art gallery in Salt Lake City. He used his position of authority as my professor and my respect for him as a fellow artist to get close to me. First, he established trust with me as my friend and mentor. He then promised me things like “I’ll make you a famous painter,” and constantly complimented my work and my mind. He would tell me how special I was and made me feel like a VIP at art events and openings. As I eventually found out, I wasn’t all that special. He had similar relationships with countless female students over a number of years. He actually had quite a reputation for it, I discovered after the fact. Many of his former students referring to him as a “pig” and a “misogynist.”  A colleague of mine even confided in me once, describing to me the exact same experience that I had (unknowing that I had gone through the same thing--I did not want to tell her my story and still haven’t to this day, unless she reads this post). A few years after I graduated, I became an employee at the University. Now instead of working alongside him as his student, I was one of his peers. The few, brief encounters I had with him during this time were uncomfortable. I felt conflicted about sharing my story with anyone at the point, feeling like it was too late. I also felt like as a staff member I should have come forward to protect his now unsuspecting students, that quite possibly were in the grooming process right before my eyes. There was a moment during a sexual harassment training that I almost came forward about my experience, but I still didn’t. Fear of the repercussions kept me in the dark, with my mouth shut. Not even the obligation I felt to the students I was now employed to serve could convince me to open up about the truth. I was afraid it would affect my job or that my boss or colleagues would treat me differently—they were all friends of his for a number of years. This is common in many #MeToo stories and often the reason you don’t hear about them until long after the incident. He was eventually fired from the University, years after I graduated, after one student finally spoke up to the University authorities. Even though he was finally removed from his position of power, I feel he was let off easy--almost like all he received was a slap on the hand and everything was kept hush hush, considering he had friends in high places. I felt shame for never coming forward. I didn’t think people would believe I was manipulated or groomed into this situation because I was an adult and in college. I had free will and was responsible for my own decisions, therefore it couldn’t have been a case of sexual grooming, right? He used his authority and the respect I had for him as one of my mentors to get something from me. As soon as I ended the relationship (shortly after it began) he disappeared from my world altogether. It was like it never happened and like I never existed. I felt completely used and again, shame for what had happened. Undoubtedly, this is more than likely the reason I stopped painting altogether.

What #MeToo Can Mean For Female Artists and Athletes

I believe that female artists and athletes are a particularly vulnerable group to this kind of predatorial behavior, specifically to sexual grooming. As a person who fits into both of these categories, here is my personal list of reasons why I believe this is so:

1. Mentors Are The Common Denominator

Creatives and athletes have something in common: ambition. They are passionate about their craft, whether it’s performing in the circus, swimming in the Olympics or become a world-renowned painter...they have high expectations and most likely have set the bar high for themselves. Mentors and coaches are the common denominator in the world of artistry and athleticism. To progress, most, if not all of us typically seek out a coach or a leader to show us the way. This single handedly opens the door to vulnerability. By nature, we inherently trust people that we look up to.

2. Low Self-Worth

Many artists and creatives can resonate with the idea that self worth (and self promotion) is an uphill battle. As an artist you constantly fight to prove your worth, because you are probably one of millions in your craft or specialty. Many artists suffer from “imposter syndrome” which is a another issue in itself. This complex is essentially born from comparison, competitiveness and the need to succeed/be the best in their field. I believe that this chemistry lends itself to making artists more susceptible to unhealthy relationships. I’m not speaking with any scientific data to back any of this up--this is purely my own personal opinion, derived from my own experience.

3. Unless You’re A Famous Artist or Athlete, You Don’t Have A Leg To Stand On

Many women messaged me after I initially shared Yuanhao’s story on my own Instagram page, thanking me for standing up for her. They explained to me that they felt they couldn’t speak up about their similar experiences with @cbtrn because they were “a nobody” in our industry and so they were glad that I did.

I want you to read that again.

THESE WOMEN FELT THEY COULD NOT SPEAK UP ABOUT THEIR EXPERIENCE BECAUSE THEY WERE NOT FAMOUS POLE / AERIAL DANCERS.

This was so disheartening to hear, but also one of the main reasons I decided to write this blog post. There is something seriously dysfunctional about our society if women believe this and THIS is something that needs to change. Ladies-regardless of how many instagram followers you have or how many people “know your name”--YOU ARE VALUABLE AND YOU DESERVE BETTER. This echos the sentiment that I felt I couldn’t come forward about my professor. Who was I to call out a veteran artist and instructor, especially to those who considered him a friend? Who would believe me?

A Call To Action & Awareness

It has been reiterated by so many that we absolutely need to keep sharing stories like these. We need to share and make it known who the perpetrators are in our communities and to shed light on the many ways that #MeToo can take form. We can call the predators out and hold them legally accountable for their actions if we choose to, but--I believe that’s only doing half the work. The other half of the work must also start from us as women.

1. Know Your Worth

As unfortunate as it is, predators can pick out the vulnerable individuals from a crowd, making them an easy target. It’s like they can sniff you out from a mile away. Maybe you are just vulnerable that particular day, or maybe you have been struggling with something for a year or more. Either way, all it takes is once for them to see your weakness and act on it. If they think at all that you have the tiniest bit of self-doubt or low self-worth, they will seize the opportunity and act on it.

2. It’s Ok To Say “No”

Even if it is saying no to a well-respected photographer or your coach/mentor. For centuries women have been taught to obey male authority figures and so this will feel like a struggle for most. It is okay to turn down opportunities, assert yourself and listen to your gut when it doesn’t feel right. Again, I don’t believe the problem is completely one-sided. I don’t blame victims, but I also think this is a larger piece of the picture that we are overlooking in society as a whole. I don’t think we are teaching women well enough how powerful they really are.

3. Understand That Accomplishments Do Not Equal Value

I feel like this particularly is the root of all evil in the art / dance world. Women try so hard to prove themselves every single day in our industry. We fight to gain recognition because we think that popularity/fame/recognition will equal happiness, opportunity and so-on. WOMEN: you must understand this. What you do and what you accomplish DOES NOT equal your worth. You do NOT have to take every opportunity that presents itself to you just because you think it will help you get ahead of your competitors. You are strong and capable in your own right and do not need other people to succeed in your career and/or your dreams.

4. Establish Boundaries & Do Not Waver

Draw a line in the sand. Know what you are willing to do for your career / dreams / goals and what you are not. Exotic/erotica and promiscuity is trending, especially in the pole and aerial world. Not comfortable with taking your top off in a performance? Then don’t. Just because everyone around you is hooting and hollering for things that make you uncomfortable doesn’t mean you have to do the same. Small decisions every day that you make as an individual artist and as a woman will go a long way. It’s difficult when you are in the heat of a situation to understand if what is happening is inappropriate or not--especially if it’s with someone that you trust. Establishing boundaries will make it easier to determine more clearly when someone is crossing a line you aren’t comfortable with. In the moment, the lines can blur and things may not seem so black and white. Empower yourself and the women around you to know what you stand for.

5. Do Your Own Vetting / Don’t Take Anyone’s Word For It

Just because you ask questions or demand things be a certain way doesn’t make you a prude or a diva. Just because someone presents themselves to you as a professional, does not always make them so. Even if they are approaching you as a friend first, proceed with caution. Do not meet up with new people, photographers, teachers, etc. in your industry alone, at least without doing some digging first. 99% of the time, people have innocent intentions in the professional world of art, dance, performance, etc. It’s the 1% that you need to be cautious about because not every person you meet is looking out for you or your best interest.

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We need to do better. We need to teach our daughters better and prepare them for situations like these. The world will never be rid of predators (No, this is not an excuse for them--it is a simple fact). When women are empowered and know their value, they are better equipped to handle sexual grooming situations that may be presented to them. If we understand how common this type of abuse is and what it looks like, we can better guard ourselves against it. If women understood that they weren’t “being a bitch” for telling a man he is behaving inappropriately, I feel we would be hearing fewer of these stories.

I don’t want my daughter(s) to ever experience what I have. I will teach them how to stand tall and assert their boundaries, regardless of who the perpetrator is to them in their life. I will teach them how to recognize predators and how they might use their innocence and naiveté against them.

I don’t share these #MeToo stories to gain sympathy from anyone. I don’t need “positive” or “healing” vibes because I am already healed. It has taken me over 10 years to understand that I am not a victim and that I don’t have to have shame for what these two men did to me. Inspired by Yuanhao, I feel obligated to share these stories, so that others can understand what #MeToo is and what it could look like. I have thousands of followers from around the world, the majority of them being young women in their early 20’s, and feel it is my duty with the platform that I have to shed some light on this issue. I share these things to empower fellow female artists to stand up for themselves and to have a better understanding of how to recognize this form of abuse through a very important open and ongoing conversation.

Please share this story with the young women and men in your life. Especially women. I believe this form of sexual abuse is rarely talked about and/or misunderstood. Knowledge is power.

If you do find yourself at the hands of a groomer, you can get out.  It starts with recognizing that something isn’t right. When you have that feeling, find a third party to talk to, ideally a professional who doesn’t know you or the perpetrator. You can call a hotline like the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233) or the Victim Connect Resource Center (855-484-2846).