Monday, April 13, 2015

Mansplaining Away Rape Culture: Waylon Lewis' "Strange" Partial Defense of Yoga Guru Bikram Choudhury

Waylon Lewis of the popular spiritual webzine Elephant Journal has a history of ... ahem ... troubling behavior. In 2011, I wrote a post about racism on EJ, which Waylon sought to defend as humor. The same post and comments section goes into other problematic editorial choices, as well as pointing out how criticism tended to receive a combination of snarky and inflammatory responses from Waylon. That was 4 years ago, and for the most part, I haven't given Elephant Journal any attention. However, that post routinely falls in my top 5 weekly reads list, and new comments have come long after the original issue had died down.

This morning, my attention was drawn to a new controversy. For some odd reason, Waylon has chosen to make a video pleading with us to maintain an "innocent until proven guilty" attitude when it comes to the sexual assault and rape case against Mr. Hot Yoga Empire Dude. Aka Bikram Choudhury.

Of all the people in the yoga world, Bikram is probably the last person in need of such "support." He's amongst the uber wealthy in this country. He's taken the privatization of ancient spiritual wisdom and practices to new heights. And, most importantly, there's an endless string of lawsuits and allegations against him going back well over a decade in some cases. Sure, it's technically true that Bikram is in a court of law innocent until proven guilty. However, throwing your weight behind someone with Bikram's track record is a dangerous proposition. Especially if you're another privileged male. The slide from well intentioned supporter to upholding the good ole boys club and patriarchal oppression is swift and almost inevitable.

But this video wasn't just a call to not indict Bikram prematurely. It was a powerhouse load of horseshit commentary on the nature of sexual assault and rape, as well as the supposed responsibilities of victims experiencing threaten, or potentially threatening conditions. Here are several rebuttal comments from women, as reported in the Wonkette article I cited above, that offer some insight into what I mean:

“Hey Waylon, I think it is a mistake to combine rape culture education awareness together with the Bikram case….I think you make a mistake to pit a feminist approach against a men’s group approach.”

“Placing the responsibility for preventing rape on women, and placing blame on women for not saying no, however gently, has been around for decades. It hasn’t prevented rape.”

“I fear that the way you approach these issues and this topic is confirming the reasons why women do not come forward….I hope that you can listen to this feedback, watch this video yourself, and start to have more awareness of yourself and these issues.”

“I just found it to be a regurgitation of society’s lack of understanding of the depth and breadth of this issue.”

“The way that you have attacked commenters who have had the courage to speak to the confusing and upsetting tone of this video is disturbing to me.”

“The video is a mass of contradictions and confused thinking about rape/sexual assault. Consensual sex is not sexual assault….Weirdly, despite your entire video lamenting acts of sexual assault, you appear not to know the difference.”

As a survivor of a sexual assault via a visiting male professor during my undergraduate days, I find so much of Waylon's take on these issues painfully ignorant and highly damaging. He's since apologized for producing an "offensive" video, but really, offensiveness is the least of my concerns. If Waylon were just some random yoga blogger dude offering such tropes as go report your concerns to the police and they'll take care of it and "just say no" I'd probably just shake my head and perhaps leave a brief comment with some educational links attached to it. However, for better or worse, Waylon runs a magazine with a fairly large following and has become a public figure of some standing in the American yoga and Buddhist communities. Which frankly is a big problem.

I'm guessing that this post will be dismissed by some in spiritual circles as being "personal," coming from "wrong speech," or lacking compassion. In my opinion, though, staying silent on such issues when you have to opportunity and ability to say something corrective is lacking compassion. Furthermore, as a man who is bone tired of the numerous ways in which patriarchy and colonialism have oppressed, damaged, and destroyed people of all genders, I feel that it's long past time for men to see it as normal to call out the bullshit of other men, and work towards creating a more liberated society for all.

So, Waylon and any other man tempted to defend his take on rape and sexual assault: YOU DON'T HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT! Please, go educate yourselves. You can find some eyeopening statistics and other information here to start with. I can tell you that I didn't say a word to anyone about my assault for a year and a half. I lived with feelings of guilt, shame and confusion that no one sans other survivors really can fully understand. Men are even less likely than women to report such incidents than women, but overall reporting rates are really low, and attitudes like your own only help to guarantee a continuation of that.

Furthermore, don't - in response to what I just wrote - offer "sorries" to me or other survivors for what we went through. Sorry does nothing to put an end to rape culture and the patriarchy that spawned it. Instead, do your homework and start asking what you can do to change the culture.

And whatever you do, stop putting out videos defending notorious male yoga gurus. Just stop. Bikram is more than well equipped to defend himself as it is. So much that even in the face of piles of damaging evidence, he might go free when the odds are he shouldn't.


linda sama said...

I've written about Waylon and EJ before, you have, as have other bloggers. It is curious to me as to why more "well-known" yoga bloggers who shall remain nameless have stayed silent. Why anyone still reads or writes for EJ is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

Hey Nathan... That's a super courageous post that you have there... Nice time when I was young I gave a ride home to a guy that was a friend of a friend. said the guy was "cool". When we got to our destination, of course he wouldn't get out and tried to "make his way with me"...I had been studying martial arts before I found yoga and "smashed his head on the dashboard and then reached over and opened his door and pushed him out and then drove off"... I told my friends about it but they said that he was a "nice" guy and defended him. I was cleaning out my car about a week later and found that his hat had got knocked into the backseat...I kept that hat in my car for over a year knowing that I would see him again. Finally I did at another party and went out to my car to get the hat. I probably shouldn't publish what I said to him. But I can say that I publically humiliated him in front of his peers... It gave me such a sense of power to confront him and released a lot of pent up anger that I had towards him and my friends who took his side....There have been numerous times in my life when I have been touched, fondled, leered at or what ever... Always lots of creepy sh*t going on on public buses...It always takes courage to point out the obvious to people. It always takes courage to tell your own story...and it's always a disappointment when others try and defend the criminal....and try and appease the victim.... The way of the Guru is a prickley path. It must take a REAL one to be able to forgoe all the hype and stardom that comes along with it...Don't you hate it when people make you right??? Just kidding. Thanx for sharing your story Nathan. Keep up the courage and keep living your own truth. That's all that counts, for you are truly the center of Your Universe!! Take care and I hope this finds you well. Cheers! Tracy

Nathan said...

Hi Linda,

I don't get it either. The bulk of the writing at EJ is straight fluff, and the good writers come and go for obvious reasons. How many of these stories are needed to get folks to wake up? Maybe they don't care, as long as they're entertained and given some feel good messages in the process.

Hi Tracy,

Thank you. I'm sorry you had to deal with yet another "Nice Guy" who actually isn't at all. Perhaps that blow to the head and subsequent tongue thrashing has made him think twice about such actions since then.

I think it's difficult for people who have invested in a certain image of someone to let it go when faced with highly contradictory evidence. I'm guessing with some of Bikram's supporters that to admit that he's a serial rapist and power abuser would be to call into question their entire spiritual path or way of being. I saw some of this firsthand when the former head of my zen center was removed from his leadership post for sustained abuse of power. Nearly half the sangha left, some out of disillusion and some to follow the old teacher, condemning the rest of us on the way out.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading your post.

The only think I recognize Waylon Lewis is his ironic ability to copy people.

Yoga seems to have a clear problem with boundaries.