Stuck in the middle--or am I?
December 5, 2017 4:11 AM   Subscribe

How do you navigate a potentially fraught situation, when it doesn't directly involve you, but you find yourself in the middle nonetheless?

A few months ago I started a long-term creative project with a friend, A. Things were going well, and I enjoyed creating with A.

Several weeks into the project, however, it came to my attention that friend B had a previously bad experience with A, to the point that B did not wish to be in the same room with A (we are all part of the same expansive social circle). This bad experience involved A ignoring boundaries, coming on too strong, and then apologizing, but after the apology, A continued ignoring boundaries for a while before ultimately stopping.

This shook me a bit, since I consider A to be a friend, and had never personally experienced any behavior like this from them. I also didn't think B was lying or exaggerating.

Last week, friend C told me that they too had a bad experience with A. C said their friend D, who is not my friend, also had a bad experience with A. As with B, these experiences involved A's coming on too strong and ignoring C's and D's boundaries/disinterest.

When I heard of B's issue, I felt torn between my two friends, and wasn't sure how to move forward. I enjoyed the creative project, and working with A on it, but I also didn't want to ignore B's concerns. Now, after hearing about C and D, I'm fearing there is a pattern of negative behavior with A that led to my tentatively distancing myself from the creative project, and I'm wondering if that was the right thing to do. A part of me believes that A is maybe more awkward/oblivious than harmful/aggressive, but honestly, I don't know. I have never seen that kind of behavior from them, and was shocked to hear it, but I also believe B and C, and in light of everything that has been coming forth in the media (nationally), I don't want to seem as though I am apologizing for A/brushing things under the rug.

Ultimately, my question is, what, if anything, should I do now? Should I talk to A about the incidents with B,C, and D? Should I let A know that's why I ended the project? Is any of this even my business, since, as I said, I never experienced it personally? I've spoken to my partner, who is/was friends with A as well, about this issue, and we are both at a loss for what the proper response/course of action is.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
By "coming on too strong" do you mean sexually/romantically or just socially? What does "ignoring boundaries" mean in this context?

I ask because I've noticed a couple of instances in lefty circles where people just didn't like someone (in both cases, someone with a marginalized identity) and used language about "ignoring boundaries", "being needy", etc to pathologize and exclude them for screwed up and fraudulent reasons. I observed the whole thing in both cases and it was very clear.

However, in neither case was the situation "this person was sexually/romantically creepy and ignored boundaries about that". In that case, I would drop A. If A asked, I would tell them why.

Another however: if A comes from a radically different background or is significantly younger than C and D, and if by "ignoring boundaries" people mean "asked them on a date once more but then stopped totally when asked" or the equivalent, I might continue to work with A, since norms around "asking me out or complimenting me when I don't want you to is creepy and aggressive even if it's done with sincere intent" have shifted a lot in some social circles and not in others. Again, I have seen people excluded in a way that was clearly class- and race- marked over non-aggressive, non-stalkery dating behavior.

If B and C have given you the impression that A's behavior is unappealing and annoying rather than creepy/dangerous, you could also talk to them and say that you prioritize your relationship with them, asking them how they feel about your continued work with A. I've done this over maintaining social ties to a couple of social circles where some jerky (but not rapey) individuals participate. I do not do this where the bad behavior is sexual harassment, stalking, racism, etc - in those cases, I drop the person/circle. But there are things that are unpleasant and bothersome that do not rise to that level.
posted by Frowner at 5:11 AM on December 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

Yeah, this depends a lot on whether the transgressions were more like sexual harassment or more like being a needy puppy.
posted by metasarah at 5:17 AM on December 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I think this is a trust but verify situation. I've been watching a poc trans kid be run through the shunning wringer by people who say he makes them uncomfortable because he is a direct communicator and doesn't have a resting friendly facial expression (he's on the spectrum). This kid spent the last month and a half being tarred as an "abuser" while all of his relationship partners, hookups, and people he'd asked out within a poly scene (including those who turned him down) came forward to say that he had never abused or harassed or harmed them. But a bunch of people who'd seen him act what they perceived as either too hot or too cold in nonsexual social situations "came forward" stating that he made them uncomfortable, and shouldn't be allowed in community spaces. A lot of the initial rumors about his supposed abusive behavior came from a popular DJ from that scene who he had literally pulled off of an ex they were punching at a dance event. Meanwhile, actual abusers within these radical spaces, like that DJ, are still untouched, for the exact same reasons they always have been-- everyone knows who they are and what they've done but are too scared to go up against them because they know that coming out with the truth won't actually be a match for the social capital these people have managed to accrue.

I don't want to seem like I'm skeptical of victims coming forward or of the actual IRL #metoo movement, especially in professional spaces, or to say that these women are not telling the truth. But if it's something happening in a smaller social circle, I would check things out before uncritically ditching your friend. Leftist trashing and scapegoating can be really ugly. If this guy really is a creep, yes, distance yourself and support the people he's hurt, but as much as I hate to say it, you might want to dig a little deeper to make sure that's what is really going on.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 6:16 AM on December 5, 2017 [14 favorites]

Why are you talking about A behind her back when you have no direct experience of any inappropriate behaviour from her? What is the point of eliciting gossip from B, C and D?
posted by Kwadeng at 6:35 AM on December 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

Nearly every time I feel "stuck in the middle" it's because I am failing to support or enforce my own boundaries and letting the feelings of other people dictate what I am doing. You made a choice to end things with A. You are not in the middle. That was your choice. You can decide whether to talk to them about this or not--and I am with other people, if this is a sexual harassment thing I might mention it, if it's a clueless/jerk thing I probably wouldn't--but unless you want to get into re=-litigating your friends' experiences, you have to frame this as your choice and your decision.
posted by jessamyn at 7:15 AM on December 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think it would be helpful to understand the motivations behind what the other have said. Are these people trying to warn you to be careful for your own safety, or are they trying to let you know that you shouldn't invite this person to events because various people are uncomfortable with them? I get the anonymity and the generalizing of details, but unfortunately they are a little too general now.

If sexual harassment is the issue, I am starting to try to internalize that meme "what if we just believe her (them)", and not do the whole trust but verify thing, because I feel like that really dishonors the courage and trust it took for the person to speak out.

If you think it's more of a social misunderstanding, you might ask the others to elaborate on what they want to see happen, in a non- confrontational way. It's okay to admit that you are struggling with the best way to handle the situation. Even if you don't know the others very well, it's better to have an awkward conversation than to have a whole awkward social circle where no one is communicating.

If the creative process is part of the larger community, and if you feel it would be best to walk away from A, perhaps these other people can help you find a way to mitigate your creative needs as well.
posted by vignettist at 7:23 AM on December 5, 2017

I feel obligated to put up this video by Amy Schumer. It shows exactly the kind of gossiping people describe above.
posted by rada at 8:21 AM on December 5, 2017

You aren't specific here, but I believe my women friends when they tell me a man is a creep.
posted by kapers at 8:37 AM on December 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

As for how to address it with A, use the real terms. "I stopped working with you because multiple women told me you harassed them." (if that's the case.)
posted by kapers at 8:39 AM on December 5, 2017

Hey, addendum to that response, after reading your question again-- the trashing I was talking about happened in a citywide facebook community dedicated to callouts, and you can imagine the kind of toxicity and power of screen distance that kind of forum enables. That being said, several people I know banned the kid I was talking about from their homes because friends of theirs who did not know him personally heard that he was an abuser through the facebook enabled social grapevine. It changes things to know that these were friends of yours who came to you in person, and I don't want to cast doubt on them. You know your social circle best.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 8:41 AM on December 5, 2017

kapers has it, but I gotta say that I watched that Amy Schumer clip and your explanation is so vague I wonder if that's not in play here?

I think it is significant that despite working closely with this person you have had zero evidence of A being a creep. I'm old, but IMHE, folks who do that usually don't hide it well or for long.

The real problem here is social politics and how B, D, and E will now gossip about you if you continue with A.

You can stay friends with A if they are occasionally socially inept. You can use your words if A is socially inept with you unexpectedly at some point in the future. Groping/grabing/invasion of personal space can be a hard NO.

I'm not sure how to deal with the gossiping.
posted by jbenben at 8:50 AM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just today I read this essay on Medium talking about how the history of white supremacy complicates our desire to believe the victims of sexual harassment or assault. (It's substantially about the murder of Emmett Till, so very graphic and distressing.)

I think that if you're in a situation where there is a narrative about ambiguous behavior where the intent of A is unclear, and if the people describing the behavior are white and A is not, or if the people describing the behavior are cis and A is a trans woman, or if there is a very sharp class/regional difference between A and B and C, you should definitely look into this more.

In my extended social circle, I have observed that unusual or ambiguous behavior by trans women of all races and by men of color is read as sexual when it is not or threatening when it is not, and that this behavior is viewed as more dangerous and harmful than similar behavior by white and cis people. I'm not saying that trans women and men of color can never harass or assault people, but I have noticed that both groups are always-already read as sexually inappropriate/dangerous by white and cis people and that this complicates matters.

Hot Allostatic Load by Porpentine almost exactly described a situation I saw play out in my social circle - a small group of cis people basically exploited and emotionally abused a vulnerable trans woman while describing her to our community as emotionally abusive, manipulative, etc. If I had not seen the whole thing play out, I would have believed them and dropped the woman in question instead of dropping them.

Since then I have decided that if two things are true, I will ask for more detail before dropping someone - If the claims are about ambiguous behavior (like unspecified "not respecting boundaries", "using disrespectful tones of voice", "being manipulative", etc) rather than "this person sexually harassed me/stalked me/kept asking me on dates after I clearly told them to stop" and if there is a substantial power difference - even a power difference that is solely in-community rather than reflecting larger world dynamics, eg between masculine AFAB person and a trans woman - between the people involved, I need to know more.

I have seen marginalized people excluded and harmed under various right-on rubrics a number of times in my now twenty-five years of activism. I wish this were not true because it does not sit easily with "believe the victim", but I have seen it multiple times in many different groups, and it is a testimony to the power of racism and bigotry to seize even what are intended as radical tools.
posted by Frowner at 9:06 AM on December 5, 2017 [8 favorites]

I think it is significant that despite working closely with this person you have had zero evidence of A being a creep. I'm old, but IMHE, folks who do that usually don't hide it well or for long.

Just to chime in on this -- NO. Creeps hide being creepy and surround themselves with respectability to hide their transgressions. I have first hand knowledge of this phenomenon.

If these other people have trusted you with their confidence about this person, and you think that they are credible, then you drop this person and tell them, if it is safe for you to do so, that you are doing so because of multiple people have expressed discomfort with his personal conduct. Example: "Several women told me that you were a dick when they declined to go on a date with you and that you in fact continued to press them after they declined. That is a hard no for me; I do not knowingly work with people who treat women poorly."

If, and only if, you truly think this person can be "saved" then you can try to talk to them about how their actions have landed them in this harasser category and help them figure out how to modify their behavior (threatening!) to match their intentions (presumably non-threatening).
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:28 AM on December 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Op has been careful not to mention the gender of any of the parties involved, nor been specific about the behaviour that is supposedly cause for concern. Why is everyone putting their own words (and prejudices) into Op's mouth? We don't know that A-male has sexually harassed B, C or D (all females). We just don't know.

This is precisely the sort of baseless accusation this very question is trying to address.
posted by Kwadeng at 10:12 AM on December 5, 2017 [9 favorites]

Sexual harassment or social awkwardness aside, this is all incredibly toxic and negative, regardless of what the details are. You feel like you're stuck in the middle because whether it's intentional or not, you're engaging with it. You became aware of information about A that was distressing, and you made a judgement call on the creative project. I think you're confusing making a judgement about *the person* with making a judgement about *the situation.* If you want to maintain a non-judgmental attitude and maintain a friendship with A, you have to treat these as two different things.

Assuming you want to maintain the friendship with A, I think it's possible to separate from the project and distance yourself without judging A, taking sides with B/C/D, or getting caught in the middle. You have no obligation to stick with a creative project and can stop at any point for any reason. You can distance yourself simply because A/B/C/D are involved in a toxic situation that you don't want any part of.

Personally, in gossip-y and toxic situations like this, I disengage from the toxicity by keeping the person or people in question at arm's length. It doesn't mean I'm not friends with them. It means I take care of myself, set boundaries, and take a break. Sometimes it blows over, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it takes months. Regardless of the time it takes, I keep myself busy with other friends. I spend time with family or spend time alone. I learn a new hobby. I consciously pick up a better habit. Bottom line is to find positive things to experience rather than making other people's problems your own. If you're not sucked into it already, it's only a matter of time before you are, whether you want to or not. That's it. You don't owe anyone an explanation.

If it's gossip and not harassment.... that's different to me. B/C/D's issues with A are not your business, no matter how much they want you to take sides. Rallying up the troops won't solve anything for them, and if they have issues they should take it up with A directly. In the meantime, it's not your job to play referee or validate them by taking sides.

If it IS harassment or abuse, I'd definitely distance myself from A, support B/C/D as much as I reasonably could and encourage them to find appropriate and professional help. Harassment is grounds for ending the friendship, IMHO.
posted by onecircleaday at 10:46 AM on December 5, 2017

OP, I'm not assuming you and your friends are women and A is a man. I'm saying that if that is the case, my advice is believe women and address it directly with the man if you're comfortable doing so. If it's another situation, I can't advise as I don't have experience. You haven't specified so I can only apply my own lens.

I think it's really unkind to characterize BCD coming forward as "gossip." I don't think sharing stuff like that is gossip. I think it's how friends protect each other from creeps.
posted by kapers at 1:24 PM on December 5, 2017

If you don't have BCD's permission to share what they've told you, you aren't in a position to bring them up with A specifically but you can address the general trend, citing "multiple people."
posted by kapers at 1:26 PM on December 5, 2017

Oh, it's gossip if they wouldn't say it to A's face. But I'm the type to stick my neck out if I know something to be true. Especially if it happened to me, personally. The danger is when it's OK to whisper behind people's backs.
posted by jbenben at 1:45 PM on December 5, 2017

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