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When Your Meeting Becomes His Date

Equity in the Arts

Trigger Warning: Sexual Harassment

Headshot of Caitlin Saylor Stephens wearing a black sweatshirt that reads "CUNT"

In Adrienne Rich’s essay, Taking Women Students Seriously, she cites a phenomenon known as ‘rape of the mind.’ A #ROTM occurs when a female student receives sexual overtures from a male teacher. According to Rich, “female students experience a profound mixture of humiliation and intellectual self-doubt over seductive gestures by men who have the power to award grades, open doors to grants and graduate school, or extend special knowledge or training.” In the wake of such gestures, what often occurs is annihilation of the woman’s ego and/or self.   

I find Rich’s notion of mental rape highly translatable to the American Theater. To recontextualize it for our industry, a #ROTM occurs when a female theater artist receives sexual overtures from a male mentor, gatekeeper, artistic director, accomplished playwright/director/artist, agent, male peer, or anyone male-identifying with a penis who possesses power because of their penis-ness.

To be clear, the offense is not sexuality itself, it is the use of sexuality as a weapon to disempower or manipulate another person for one’s own benefit. I would also cite retaliatory discrimination that often occurs (i.e. withholding of opportunity because said male possesses sexual feelings towards a female artist) as an accompanying offense. So is the act of shunning or stonewalling someone because they have turned you down.

Given the frequency of my own personal experiences, I’d venture to say that for every seat in every house, from the shittiest black box theater in Midtown to the velveteen covered thrones on the Great White Way, a rape of the mind has occurred within our industry.

Mind-rape is not a solely gendered phenomenon by any means. However, I will be speaking explicitly about its genderedness in this article. I hope this piece might allow us to have a more complex dialogue about all of the different ways #ROTMs occur to humans in our industry.

For those adverse to the violent connotations of the word rape, I offer you an alternative title that is perhaps more tweetable, accessible, and recognizable to those of us who view the world in scenario. Let’s reframe this phenomenon by calling it
When Your Meeting Becomes His Date. I will also continue to call it mind-rape because that is what it is.

What is this phenomenon, really?

I will offer you a counter-example first, so that you know that I know what a rape of the mind is not.

My Meeting That Was Actually A Meeting

I recently had a meeting with a male gatekeeper at a major theatrical institution that was 100% professional. In the many meetings that I have had in the last decade+ with men in the American Theater, this was probably one of three that was devoid of mind-rape or being projected upon as a sexualized object.

The meeting was held in a glass office at the major theatrical institution in question. It was not held at a bar. This is the first important detail to note. The second important detail to note, was that the inciting incident of the meeting was that the person had read my work. And asked for more work to read. Then we shared an email communication to set up the meeting. He clearly articulated the intentions of our meeting and sent all messages from his work email, which included the name of the institution he worked for.

When we met, the person came down to the lobby, shook my hand and brought me up in the elevator. He held every door through the many staircases we climbed after that. If there is one thing I learned from my brief attempt to be an actress, it’s how to differentiate the
intention of men who hold doors because they are trying to sleep with me, versus men who hold doors because they respect me, versus men who will never hold a door for me. It was clear that this man was opening and holding all of those doors because he wanted me to succeed. That was his intention.

I was offered coffee, water, tea, etc. We then had our meeting in the glass office. I was supported, listened to, and notes were taken as I spoke. During the meeting I was never asked my age, told that I looked pretty, or asked if I had slept with anyone in the industry [1]. When our meeting was over, I was accompanied out of the building and respectfully hugged goodbye. The hug was physically initiated by me.

All follow-ups to this exchange were sent via email. Not text message. Not Facebook Messenger. Not subliminal Instagram likes or posts.

After the meeting, I cried on the train ride back to Brooklyn. Because I could not believe the shock of what it felt like to have a professional meeting where afterwards, I felt complete and whole. Like I still had my power.

[1]These are questions and comments that have been to me made during meetings and finalist interviews.

WTF Is A Meeting That Becomes His Date?

The first thing to note about these types of experiences, of which I’ve had many, is that boundaries are pretty skewed from the get-go. As playwrights, we have an understanding of scenarios that will maximize stakes and drama, versus ones that are not dramatic enough and will therefore require a shitload of rewrites or stuffing the play in a drawer. When the idea of a professional meeting forms, it’s your job to ensure that you direct it accordingly, by setting up the appropriate rules and boundaries to avoid melodrama or tragedy. Do not allow yourself to get dicknotized by the fact that the person you are meeting with might have more industry power than you, and therefore forfeit your standards because you want them to accept you.

I am not suggesting that it is your fault when your meeting becomes his date. You cannot control someone else’s misuse of power. I will give you an example: a pencil is not typically viewed as a weapon. However, if I were to take a pencil and stab it into someone’s jugular, the object would then become a weapon, even though its intended purpose is to write things. It would not be the person-I-stabbed’s fault that I chose to take a creative tool and use it for attempted murder. Do you see what I’m getting at?

There are a lot of variations of the scenario of
When Your Meeting Becomes His Date, but I will give you a cheap one for the purpose of providing an example.

A famous and/or powerful man in the industry hits u up on Facebook Messenger. Maybe you’ve met them IRL. Maybe u have not. Regardless, u are flattered and think, maybe they want to help u and ur career. U hit them back up and agree to meet @ a bar in their neighborhood. They never ask to read ur work beforehand.

You meet at the bar and drink alcohol because you’re really nervous to be in the presence of someone so successful, to the point that you feel you will probably never achieve a single one of their accolades. Passes are made. Things might get weird and sexual. More encounters happen. The person is never really interested in helping you or your career. Things get really confusing. You’ve now potentially done things that conflict with your personal value system. It affects your self-esteem.

There are endless alternative plot points that could be formed about such a scenario. The main thing to note here are objectives, intention, strategy, setting, climax, past history, and anticlimax. The anticlimax of this situation is that they keep their wonderful career and you feel even more invisible.

12 Simple Steps To Have A Meeting That Is Actually A Meeting

Now that we’ve explored the difference between a professional meeting and one that becomes his date, here are some easy steps you can take to protect yourself.

1. Start your dialogue with email.

Email is an easily-documentable, professional form of communication. Snapchat is not. If you are dealing with someone potentially sketchy, they will not start a communication with ‘Dear’ and end it with ‘Sincerely.’ The form in which your dialogue begins and ends is a telling sign of the kind of person you are about to interact with.

2. The inciting incident is them reading your play/s.

If someone has not read or seen my work before we have met, then they are not someone I want to work with. Reading plays is basic 101 for anyone participating in our industry. People who initiate an interaction and don’t read your work before meeting with you are not busy. They are either super green, narcissists, or trying to have sex with you. Just ask yourself this: Why does this person want to have a professional meeting with me if they have no idea what my work is?

3. Clarify your intentions.

Before you meet, make it clear to the person exactly why you are meeting. Here is a specific example from my inbox: “I would like to meet with you to discuss ways in which The Public Theater can support my work, given our last meeting and your rave review of my last play...” The meeting should be propelled by that intention; if it is not, then it is safe to assume that the person is either full of shit, or has some ulterior motive.

4. Do your homework.

Google the person before you meet with them. Know as much as you can about their career and personal life. There are men in this industry who have serial affairs with women. If you feel like you aren’t brushed up on your gossip, go ahead and contact three women in the industry and ask them about the man you are meeting with. If they are someone to worry about, it will usually be revealed in these conversations.

5. Consider your costume.

If I show up to a meeting in head-to-toe leather and a harness, then I’d be lying to myself if I thought I was not trying to angle how people perceive and nichify me. I personally think the theater needs more head-to-toe leather and harnesses, but right now, the theater is an incredibly conservative place, and I don’t have the word count to attempt to convert people to something more subversive. Costuming is important. I once wore my grandmother's gold jewelry, which has now been pawned off, to a meeting where I was asking someone for money. I got no money from that meeting. And now I know why. It’s just something to think about. It doesn’t mean that if you dress revealingly you deserve unwanted attention. It's just important to ask yourself what your presentation communicates about you professionally.

6. Set the scene in a professional location.

Offices. Artistic Institutions. Conference rooms. Maybe coffee shops. We all know what a professional setting is. If you plan on having a dialogue with someone about your career, don’t do it in a bar. Alcohol should never be a part of any professional equation unless you are toasting on opening night or have a longstanding relationship with the person in question. Even then, there are dudes in this industry that I have known for a very long time, who would be trouble if we went out drinking. Having a meeting with a straight man in a bar is a little like a gun in a Chekhov play. The gun will eventually go off and you will eventually be hit on.

7. Listen to your gut. It is your higher power.

When you have a meeting, check in with your gut frequently. Your gut is your barometer for weird vibes. Whenever I have ignored my gut, a feeling otherwise known as #SELFHATRED sets in. If you are not in dialogue with your gut, I suggest you check in with a licensed therapist to explore past trauma that might be hindering you from getting in touch with it. During your meeting ask your gut the following questions: Do I feel in danger? Is this person hitting on me and I do not want them to be hitting on me? Do I feel disrespected? Do I feel like I am actively manipulating a situation by using my sexuality and it will only haunt me later or make me feel powerless? Am I doing something that is against my personal values in an attempt to gain power? If the answer is yes to any of these questions then #GTFOOTM [2].  

8. Bring a notebook.

Taking notes is a great way to show someone you are invested in what they are saying and also mean business. I like to bring a notebook to important meetings to document the other person’s suggestions, notes, and behavior. In a culture and industry where I have been routinely ignored and gaslit, I have had to be my own detective at all times.

9. Follow-up with a professional email.

If the person you met with behaved professionally, send them a short thank you email to let them know you appreciate their time. This is also a good time to clarify next steps that you discussed during the meeting, i.e. I’m going to contact these agents to see if they are interested in representing you and helping you get famous. If the person you met with asked for more info or work, send it then or give them a sense of when they can expect it.

10. Recap the encounter with an industry friend.

Sometimes when you pass a violent motorcycle accident on a highway, it can be like, did I really just see what I think I saw? Don’t even give yourself the chance to self-gaslight after a meeting. The first thing I do after I’ve had an important meeting, is call a friend and tell her everything that happened. That way, if it feels like anything got weird, we can address it and either take action or let it go.

11. Make a fearless and searching personal artistic inventory.

This list should include your supporters and people who’ve tried to fuck you. Avoid or engage them accordingly. Clarify your goals and values. Then ask yourself what you really want and what you’re okay with doing to get what you want. I understand the impulse to use sexuality as a form of female empowerment. While it may work as a tool for some, it does not work for me. In the past, I have attempted to subvert the very thing that has made me feel powerless and learned that the rules are not the same for men and women. Using sexuality to obtain power has only left me feeling powerless. It has taken making a personal inventory and many failed scenarios to discover this. I believe it is false to convince oneself that when we use sex as a currency, men and women trade at an equal value. When we invest in it as though it were a system of true empowerment, we are only contributing to our own depreciation.

12. Make amends. Then join the sisterhood.

Don’t blame yourself if you slip-up and feed the evil monster by not establishing boundaries or insisting that your boundaries be met. It takes a lot of time to navigate an industry with so few rules, where the only currency is career power. Make amends with yourself and look around. You’ll probably meet a constellation of amazing women in your near orbit who share similar experiences. Lift each other up. Be sisters. Do not make it your job to ruin each others lives and careers and self-esteem over some asshole playwright making TV money.

[2] Get the fuck outta the meeting.

What To Do If You Are Cool With A Meeting Becoming A Date

Part of the sexiness of this industry is the sexiness of the people surrounding us. If I were to be completely honest, I’d say that I've had a few meetings and/or professional situations that turned into dates and it was mutually consensual. One of them turned into a meaningful relationship. One of them I fell deeply in love with. One of them at first I was like, I really want to collaborate with this person, and then a few hours later I found myself sitting on his face and really enjoying it. (FYI, Act I of said meeting took place in a bar. Act II was in his apartment). I think the most important thing is to be aware of what you want out of an exchange and to act on that rather than letting the mind-fuck of a power dynamic control you. Exchanges are processes and desire can change throughout. Be aware of your objective and listen to the cues and words the other person is giving you. Make your intention crystal clear, even if it changes. If it changes, make it crystal clear again.

The Future Is Not Giving Away Your Power

I have learned that attempting to change the behavior of men is a long road to misery. I’ve also learned that the American Theater is not a utopian society where my sexuality and professionalism can co-exist without punishment. To lie to myself or hope for the ideal would be living in a state of denial that would lead to repeat trauma and depreciation. To deny the world as it is would erode my self-esteem. So I must change my own actions and choices and insist on 100% professionalism. Even if that means people read me as bitchified.

When I do business, I choose to build my own empowering scenario. In order to set the scene for this scenario, instead of accepting boundaries imposed on me by my scene partner, I create and set them for myself. And you can, too.

Now that we’ve explored the complex and devastating phenomenon of mind-rape in our industry, I’d like to leave my readers with one final, heartbreaking question.

Why can’t I start having more meetings with women?