The Help Desk: Locker room talk and the arts

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

I’m writing because a loudmouth white man has too much power. (Not THAT loudmouth white man, though if you have any advice on surviving Donald Trump’s administration I’d love to hear it.) I’m talking about a guy who holds a very high position in a Seattle arts organization.

The problem is his locker room talk. He’s never to my knowledge made unwelcome advances on a woman, but he’s prone to making jokes around women that make them feel uncomfortable. This has happened more than once, and I hear he’s been reprimanded for it, but he’s still in a position of power that affects local writers, and we can’t really ask him if he’s stopped making sex jokes, so there’s no way to know if the coast is clear. Everything has happened behind the scenes, and there’s never been any public acknowledgement.

Like I said, there’s no groping and no smarmy come-ons, but the sexual nature of the jokes make it very difficult to deal with him. I don’t know if I want him to lose his job, but I do know of at least one artist who won’t work with that organization because of the way he made her feel in the past, and he’s made no attempt to reach out to her.

I guess I’m hoping for some fictional scenario in which he sees this question, realizes it’s him, and cuts it out forever. But barring that miraculous outcome, what do you think I (and my friends and fellow artists) should do?

Sorry if this question is too vague.

Cait, Capitol Hill

Dear Cait,

Your letter reminds me of an old friend – a human one – who often says things that are so inflammatory and sexual my shoulders cramp from cringing. When in the company of this friend and strangers, what I typically do is make excuses for him: most of his close friends are women, which I believe in his mind is proof that he is harmless, and like all of us, he is cultivating an image of himself – that of a loudmouth, boundary-pushing dude adrift in eye-contactless, passive aggressive Seattle. He's fond of locker room talk but unlike Trump, he's no pussy grabber.

In fact, that is why we became friends. He is a man with whom I could joke about naming my next abortion "Lezbo" in order to offend everyone equally.

But that doesn't excuse his behavior, just as it doesn't excuse the behavior of the man you speak of. It seems this man has failed to acknowledge that his ambition is paying off – instead of being just another 20-something arts employee that people could ignore at will, he now holds a position of power. His words and actions carry weight. Cocking off at work, or after work with coworkers, artists and interns, is no longer even marginally socially acceptable.

You say it's been all talk at this point and he's been reprimanded for his behavior; it has cost him influence and professional relationships. I would hope that he has learned from this. But if I'm wrong, you should encourage those he's offended to go public with their grievances. The best way to affect institutional and social change is to address problems openly. It's also the only fair way to give the person you've accused of wrongdoing a chance to respond.

And if he still seems oblivious, I will meet you at University Book Store, where together we can purchase a copy of Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, wrap it in the book sleeve of Who Moved My Cheese, and beat him across the face with it.