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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How the Steampunk Community Was Rocked By Its Own #MeToo Scandal

 For years, you couldn’t talk about steampunk in the Northeast without mentioning Jeff Mach.

For a decade, the event organizer had dominated the scene for the subculture that celebrates the aesthetics of the Victorian Era, fused with sci-fi. He was also a key player among Renaissance Faire enthusiasts, kinksters (practitioners of BDSM—bondage, sadomasochism, and sexual domination), pagans, and any number of overlapping communities.

Mach was famous not only because his conventions were some of the biggest and best-attended, but because he had a cult of personality, a well-cultivated brand. He also blogged and spoke publicly about good sexual consent practices, claiming to be a builder of safe spaces. So when Mach was publicly accused of personal and professional abuse, the fall-out was huge.

Mach’s events were centered in New Jersey, though they took place throughout the Northeast. His three largest events were Steampunk World’s Fair, an all-ages weekend; Wicked Faire, a hodgepodge event; and the Geeky Kink Event, a fusion of BDSM and fan convention that seemed to grow with each passing year. Eventually, there was even a satellite GKE in New England. At their heights, event attendance broke four digits.

With the #MeToo movement changing conversation about abuse, people who felt victimized by Mach felt there was finally a space for them to be heard. When Mach posted on Facebook in mid-January asking for volunteers for an upcoming event, the dam burst.

From the many stories shared on social media over the last two months (many of which have been aggregated on a blog called “Owl Eye View”), patterns of toxic, manipulative behavior emerged.

These allegations ranged from exploiting cheap labor to make his business profitable to leveraging his position of power to commit acts of harassment—including frequently offering sexual favors from young underlings as compensation. Nine former associates of Mach spoke to The Daily Beast on the record, including event performers, former employees, and those who had sexual encounters with him.

Four accusers spoke to The Daily Beast of Mach harassing or assaulting them personally; three others have posted on blogs or social media alleging the same. In addition, three of his long-term partners, all of whom were young and inexperienced in dating and kink at the time, have claimed online that he would pressure them into sex and BDSM acts and otherwise manipulate them.

“I had an intense chronic insomnia episode,” wrote a former partner of Mach on FetLife, the BDSM social media network, who requested her username be withheld elsewhere, but told The Daily Beast she stands by her original post.

“He has a phobia of not sleeping and many meds to control this phobia. He pushed his meds on me to assuage his own fear… This is the only time in my life I have had suicidal ideations, and I think it was due to these medicines he was giving me. Through this, he almost killed me.”

Mach denied this allegation, saying that on two occasions to have “found her in my medicine bag.”

“We were certainly discussing the possibility that she should try some of my medication,” he admitted to The Daily Beast, concerned for her lack of sleep. “I was really damn desperate. When I saw that she had written saying quite clearly that I forced medication upon her I was extremely upset, because that is a lie.”

“He used a knife and left marks on my chest” during a BDSM encounter, another woman who goes by Lexual Romance told The Daily Beast. “Which is where I said I didn’t want marks, and I didn’t want him to use a knife.” Mach does not recall the encounter.

This record of alleged abuse bled over into Mach’s professional life. Three women told The Daily Beast that he hit on them when they were volunteering or working for him, and nearly everyone interviewed recalled a habit of saying he would provide sexual favors from workers as payment during events. Mach denies these claims.

“He was doing this weird thing where he was offering people to other people,” former events volunteer Catherine Kopytek told The Daily Beast, who recalls both being offered the sexual services of young volunteers and being offered to a staff member at an event, without her consent. Like others, she thought that perhaps he was joking.

Mach denies offering sexual favors as payment. In any case, Kopytek continued volunteering and socializing with Mach.

“You get caught in this kind of cult of personality,” she explained.

Then, at an event in 2014, Kopytek alleges that Mach violated her consent during a BDSM scene. She says he left while her judgment was impaired and passed her off to a couple she had never met, let alone consented to sexual contact with them.

“I believe in believing the victim and believing the accuser,” said Mach of the Kopytek’s story. “But I also say specifically that there was actual stopping of the scene and actual verbal discussion.” He says the situation haunts him.

“How do you judge whether or not there was enough verbal discussion? How do we judge what headspace people were in? How do we judge things years after they happen?”

At the time, Kopytek decided to keep the incident to herself.

“In the moment I sat there and looked at the reality of the situation.” she said. “I realized if I said anything that would kind of give him a black mark, and I wouldn’t be welcome in the community. I’d seen it happen enough,” she said, claiming that Mach would besmirch the reputation of those who spoke out against him—a habit that several former associates echoed to The Daily Beast.

Mach told The Daily Beast that not only did he and Kopytek remain friends after the incident she describes, but that they shared BDSM scenes after the fact too.

Kopytek said after the incident with Mach she had sexual encounters with him privately twice, once where money was exchanged, and the other where he observed her having a sexual interaction with another woman for a time.

She added, “Once I started the disclosure process with someone on the JME consent team, I was no longer in contact with Jeff. Before that, I’ll admit I was a vulnerable member of the community. I was too broke to attend these events without assistance, so to remain in a community that had supposedly accepted me and would supposedly accept me as the weird freak I was, I needed to keep interacting with Jeff on some level.”

In addition to the sexual allegations, other bad business practices are also alleged against Mach. Several former associates shared online and four told The Daily Beast that Mach had a history of simply not paying people to whom he promised money.

“Jeff had a practice of trying to avoid putting out money that he felt he didn’t have to,” Alexandria Schneider, who worked as Mach’s performer’s manager from 2009-2012, told The Daily Beast. Her instructions for dealing with the talent? “If no one brings up compensation, they don’t get paid,” she says Mach directed her. If they called foul, “find an insulting sum to shut them up.”

“Jeff ran a fundraiser for me at one point when I was in the hospital with heart issues, and I’ve never seen a dime of it,” Gil Cnaan, a former employee, told The Daily Beast.

Mach says that the event didn’t turn a profit, and that besides, he ran another fundraiser for Cnaan to launch a program that never materialized. During his time in Mach’s employ, albeit with no contract, Cnaan claims he lent much of his own money to the company.

He also maintains that Mach verbally promised him over $15,000, on which he has since given up. Mach insists that Cnaan has not related these concerns to him personally. Cnaan says that Mach blocked him wherever possible online.

(Both men claim wrongdoing on the other’s part when it came to the second fundraiser. Mach claimed Cnaan absconded with proceeds from it; Cnaan claimed Mach ran it, and used the money to pay a debt to another employee, telling Cnaan that said employee has “made off with” the money.)

Cnaan’s story is not unusual for Jeff Mach Events, which had an extraordinarily high staff turnover by all accounts, including Mach’s. Mach had a tendency to hire impressionable young people, excited to be included in what they saw as community-building. Staff knew it was a labor of love, but didn’t know how literal that was.

“We’d say, ’We’re doing this for the community! We’re doing this for the community!’ We never really realized—no we weren’t. We were all being taken advantage of,” says Nikki Cohen, a vendor who sold corsets at Mach’s events for several years, despite consistent disorganization because of the inexperienced staff.

In 2011, Cohen connected Mach with her father, a PR agent, to help promote an event. Cohen alleges Mach never paid the $1,800 owed, and when her father became ill with cancer last year, she pressed him to pay his debt. Mach’s version of events is that he had assumed the work was pro bono until he received an invoice.

“Would this money help keep your father alive any longer?” Cohen recalls Mach asking. Mach says his phrasing was kinder, but he did eventually challenge, as he often does, “Sue me.”

Cohen is considering legal action, though she is unsure if a new company has assumed the debt or if Mach even has the money.

Between the stories of financial and sexual wrongdoings, anger against Mach grew. He gave his final public word in a Facebook post on Jan. 26, saying that he would take time to reflect on his personal life, and work to settle company debts. He now says that he copied and pasted a statement prepared for him and has not read it himself.

“I don’t think we have a good mechanism for what to do when there is a gigantic social media firestorm followed by absolutely no attempt at legal or financial contact on the part of the people initiating the firestorm,” said Mach. “I don’t think we have any models for what a person should do.

“I stepped aside to allow there to be a process, but there hasn’t been any process at this point,” he added.

In any case, the steampunk and other alternative lifestyle communities are now at a loss. Who else is complicit: the employees who stayed despite being aware of some of Mach’s practices? Those who are trying to revitalize the events now? What did it mean to benefit from these community gatherings that hurt so many? And what will become of those events now?

“People believed that without Jeff there was no community,” said Cohen. People continued to support his events “because they believed, ‘We’ve got to do this for each other’… That becomes more important than the people who actually got hurt.”

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