Charlie’s Work Around His Understanding of Teaching, Speaking, and Leadership

A Table of Contents for all posts by Charlie’s pod, including the dates each article was published and a brief description of the contents of each post, can be found here

When the community of Charlie’s friends, professional peers, and others within sex-positive circles first began calling Charlie into accountability online — primarily on Facebook — in 2016, several people called out the fact that Charlie’s position as a leader within the sex-positive space allowed him to exert power over others and get away with harmful behavior. Charlie initially dismissed and rejected this callout because he didn’t consider himself a leader. This was due to many factors, including his own narrow definition of the term “leader” and ensuing distancing from the responsibilities a leader would have, as well as the benefits of his status as a leader in the years prior to the call for him to address the harms he had caused. During his accountability process, the accountability team has done significant work with Charlie around understanding the power he holds and developing both greater awareness and structures necessary to avoid abusing his privilege.

This post describes three key areas where Charlie has done work around this theme of leadership:

  • recognizing his position as a leader,
  • being conscious of how he uses his platform (which meant giving up aspects of his platform during this accountability process), and
  • leveling the playing field in his interactions with others so that his privilege doesn’t create harmful dynamics (or at least reduces the potential for them).

Understanding his position as a leader

Before the accountability team began working with him, Charlie was neglectful in examining and addressing the many ways in which he held privilege within sex-positive circles and how those privileges compounded. These privileges include his gender, race, socio-economic status, and social capital, which was augmented by recognition resulting from media interviews, published writing, speaking engagements, and his length of time in the field. Meanwhile, during this time, he wrote and spoke extensively about some of these aforementioned privileges, especially around issues of gender and masculinity. Yet he also had glaring gaps in his frameworks around ethics, power, and consent, and he personally benefited from not examining those gaps. Thus, the accountability team provided a space where these things couldn’t be ignored and he had to actually engage with them directly, repeatedly, and over time.

Charlie did not initially view himself as a leader because he perceived that leadership was tied to being “in charge” of events, organizations, or physical spaces — or otherwise holding a formally recognized leadership role. He also felt that his approach as an educator was philosophically centered away from “leader” and more toward “guide.” However, his position as a recognized expert whom people turned to for information and guidance did make him a leader, which created a dynamic where people had difficulty saying “no” to him and/or speaking up about his harms.

This allowed for situations where he behaved inappropriately toward colleagues and spoke disrespectfully about others on social media, while receiving few (if any) repercussions. As an example, Charlie used his platform to attempt to control the narrative around his former intimate partner’s experiences of harm (from others but also Charlie himself). In other cases, he felt comfortable engaging in sexual interactions with colleagues or assuming a mutual level of consent without examining the ways that the power he held could compromise the consent of others. Furthermore, his affiliations with other leaders in the community prevented them from holding him responsible or calling him out on this behavior, as evidenced by organizations and groups choosing to continue working with him even after receiving various complaints. Through our collection form, we received reports from harmed individuals who expressed fear of going against Charlie’s wishes or reporting his harms because they feared (or actually experienced) exclusion from the sex educator and therapist communities.

To prevent future situations where his position of leadership could harm others, Charlie first had to grasp and acknowledge the idea that he held power in these communities and, therefore, had a duty to be fully mindful of his words, actions, and privilege. (This is unfortunately very common with people in roles of privilege and power: simultaneously reaping the benefits of power and also rejecting that the power exists in their case!) He initially rejected the idea and title of “leader.” However, after learning to address his resistance (outlined below), he was better able to accept that some people saw him as a leader and that he had the benefits of being a leader regardless of his own opinions or perceptions — and, as such, he needed to act accordingly. As part of this process, he also was asked to look into why he was so reluctant to acknowledge his own privilege — especially as someone who spoke and wrote extensively about such things. One thing that he realized and admitted was that he had wanted to think of himself as one of the “good guys,” not someone embroiled in toxic masculinity, even though he benefits from male privilege.

The work done to help Charlie acknowledge his role as a leader included guided and unguided writing exercises, reflections and deconstructions on how people treated him (including why people may have shown him the respect they showed him), and numerous sessions of challenging dialogue with pod members and the consultant around his definition of “leadership” and the ways it was incomplete, misapplied, and evasive. He was also given resources to explore a consent model, which was designed to be easily understood, remembered, and applied to any situation.

This model was based on four pillars — capacity, information, agreement and autonomy — which, when used, aid in addressing factors which may not be readily apparent (such as lowered capacity from being tired, or not having enough information about a situation or activity to know what you’re getting into). To create a more transparent and healthy consent agreement, this model offers a roadmap and safety checks to assess the risk of a violation by upholding each individual’s autonomy and addressing nuanced power dynamics. The four-pillar model also opens communication to collaboratively create an agreement where all involved feel honored.

After learning about the model, taking time to integrate the learning, and exploring ways to implement the consent model into his everyday life, Charlie was asked specifically to look at the ways in which his position as a leader might impact another’s ability to consent or engage authentically with him. He engaged in thought and writing exercises where he reflected on scenarios identified from his past where he perceived that he “pushed” the boundaries of peers or people who were new to the community. In recollecting those interactions, he catalogued all of the obvious power dynamics where he had power “over” or power “up” (white, cis or perceived as such, male, older, greater social influence) and then imagined some possible nuanced or potentially “unseen” factors that would prevent someone from being able to freely consent (including the enviroment where the interaction took place, level of experience with the community or activity, cognitive processing, invisible disability, history of trauma, etc.). His personal and professional consent ethos has been the capstone of this work.

The accountability team members have also made a point to call out in real time when words or actions of Charlie’s have harmed them, particularly when these harms related to his position of privilege. He now better understands that he has been — and likely will continue to be — seen as a leader and is thinking deeply about how to avoid using his leadership status to assert power over others. Accordingly, he is creating processes (including consent policies and ongoing accountability work) to prevent him from using this position as a leader to exploit folks.

So if, in the future, Charlie rejects or minimizes his (actual or perceived) privileges or power — or claims to lack understanding or frameworks and skills in this area — this is an important piece for him and the community to come back to. (We name this because this itself was a harmful pattern of behavior Charlie has exhibited for years).

Being conscious of how he uses his platform

Charlie initially (prior to engaging with his accountability process) chose to step back from teaching to attempt to reduce harm to himself and avoid triggering his former partner. Because Charlie’s frequent media appearances and speaking engagements gave him a platform that enabled him to harm others, he decided, with the encouragement of the team, to continue to step back from teaching and speaking during his accountability process. It was important to limit any avenues he had to cause further harm.

When the process was well into the second year of our work, pod members discovered that Charlie had continued appearing on podcasts, and he had separately asked the pod and the consultant whether it was OK for him to appear in a documentary. This led to a discussion of how he defined “teaching” and “speaking” and how his narrow definition of these actions — like his definition of “leadership” — prevented him from acknowledging his privilege and taking responsibility for his actions.

Charlie hadn’t viewed media interviews as speaking and teaching, which was, whether subconsciously or consciously, a way to avoid pausing activities that were advantageous to him. The accountability team had discussions with Charlie about the need to pause anything that elevated his platform — as those activities had the same net effect as teaching and speaking, and they were not in the spirit of his accountability agreements. He initially sought out the team’s input on whether the invitations that he received to make public appearances or to work behind the scenes with other educators or organizations would “qualify” as teaching or speaking; however, the team asked him to reflect before checking in with us and begin to take ownership over this decision rather than asking the accountability team what was OK to do. We also explicitly named that this behavior was aligned with patterns of evading responsibility while making it look like it was just “asking for feedback” or “being considerate.” In addition, we named the ways this also eroded others’ ability to maintain their perspectives and boundaries and could even lead to gaslighting (whether he was consciously attempting that or not).

This required him to develop a concern for the spirit of the choice to stop speaking and teaching and consider what impact he might have on others, rather than focusing on what would allow him to “pass” his accountability process. In one of his journal reflections, he wrote, “any time I try to argue about the letter of the law, I’m already at risk for going against the spirit of it.”

Charlie’s habit of deferring to the pod and the consultant for questions around media engagements was part of a larger pattern of deflecting responsibility, where Charlie would rely on others to tell him what to do rather than using his own judgment. The accountability team called on Charlie to ask himself whether he really needed others’ input in these situations and taught him how to better regulate his emotions so that he could decide how to act on his own. The goal is for him to be able to make choices and manage interactions and emotions after the accountability process is complete. When faced with an ethical decision, he now asks himself, “would this be acting in my integrity?”

Pod members and the consultant also had extensive discussions with Charlie about how his speaking and teaching engagements put him in a position of power because it allowed him to influence how others were thinking and solidified his role as a leader in his field. This helped him to reflect and understand why putting a pause on these activities was so important and to uphold this commitment without needing the pod or the consultant to remind him of it or explain it to him.

Leveling the playing field in his interactions with others

Charlie’s work around understanding the power of his platform, using it wisely, and limiting it when needed led to many discussions about how to limit the ways that the privilege that he carries may cause harm or negatively impact others in the future. The team has worked with Charlie to build his skills in listening to and validating the perspectives of those who carry less privilege than him and not asserting his experience over theirs, particularly in ways that repeatedly cause others to question their valid experiences (gaslighting). This includes asking for time to process critical feedback rather than becoming defensive, saying “I’ll look into that” (instead of “that never happened”) if someone references an incident that he doesn’t remember, and resisting the impulse to engage with others on social media when he’s dysregulated or defensive.

To make sure he is held accountable for minimizing the potential for future harms, Charlie drafted a consent policy that he now shares via his website, the Medium site, and that he sends to coaching clients before he signs on with them. He has assembled a team of people to support him after this phase of accountability process, including someone people can report future harms to. He would like to return to teaching and speaking after the accountability process has completed and this team is in place but is considering how that can be done responsibly. If and when he does go back to teaching and speaking, he is committed to informing any potential collaborators and organizers of his accountability process and consent policy before they make a decision to work with him. He will also have a plan in place for how to ensure that during educational events, everyone’s bodies, voices, identities, and consent are respected, especially those involving demonstrations.

It should be noted that this team cannot rubber-stamp Charlie as a safe and ethical teacher and send him on his way, but he can hold himself responsible for staying true to his own ethics, and the larger community — especially leaders in this community who have the privilege of being able to hold people responsible without major repercussions — can make a commitment not to let people with status and privilege get away with abuses of power. Our hope is that when harms happen within the sex-positive community in the future, whether by Charlie or another educator, they will be addressed by the person who has committed harm and by the community members around them as soon as possible, repairs will be made, and future harms will be prevented.