[Content Warning: Manipulation, abuse, victim grooming, sexual assault, physical assault, mild reference to BDSM themes, toxic relationships, general squick]
[Author’s note: this account, while full, is not exhaustive or replete. It can’t be. There are hundreds of moments I could include in this narrative that illustrate and illuminate the dynamics of the relationships I’ve survived, and despite which, have chosen to thrive and flourish. Comments will remain open, but as always, moderated strictly by me, prior to posting publicly. ]
Being in an abusive or exploitative plural relationship is a lot like falling asleep in the bathtub with the lights out and no map. Wait. Let me explain.
Okay, so let me back up. Have you ever fallen asleep in a hot bath? I do it with some regularity. It’s a rather odd experience and feels as close as I can get to describing what it’s like to find yourself immersed in abusive and exploitative relationship dynamics. You find yourself in a nice, hot bath. Imagine that the bathtub is deep — deep enough to cover your knees and shoulders comfortably in a half-reclined position. The water turns on when you lie down in the tub, and turns off automatically when the tub is full. The water is two shades shy of hot. At first, it pools at the bottom of the vessel, underneath your body. It feels a bit strange at first. It might even sting a little. But as the water level rises, you adjust to the sensation. You stop noticing it. You feel your body becoming buoyant as the water rises, and softly sink to sleep. Time becomes strange. You slip in and out of a half-waking state, aware of the rising warmth around you. Then, suddenly, you fully wake. Time has passed. The water is no longer running. You’re disoriented. You move, displacing the water close to your skin that your body has kept warm, and realize: your bath has cooled. You are freezing. It has been an hour or more, and you’re shaking with cold.
This is what abuse and exploitation can feel like, especially in situations where power differentials are operative, but not acknowledged. The slow rising of nearly imperceptible change, boundary erosion, vocabulary shift. I remember the moment that I felt sleep overtake me, the moment that I realized and accepted that nothing made sense and that was just fine. I also remember the moment I woke up in an ice bath, wondering what the f*ck just happened.
My name is Hilary Nunes. I come from a background where abuse was operant. I joined a polycule that consisted of my former girlfriend, Gina Martinelli, her husband, Wesley “Wes” Fenza, and Wes’ other wife, Jessica Orsini. I left that polycule under extreme duress in June of 2014. Since that time, Wes has continued to present himself as an authority on predation, abuse, relationship anarchy, and consent in the polyamory community. He raped two of my friends. My relationship with Gina can only be described in terms that reflect unacknowledged exploitation. Jessie has recently publicly admitted that for months after my egress, she failed to comply with requests to remove my image and contact information from public sites relevant to their theater troupe, expressly violating my consent, and also recently named me against my will in a vitriolic post trying to co-opt and malign my experiences. Wes’ partners have both explicitly and publicly asked me to publish my account of my relationship with their family. I suspect their motives are not pure. Their response to other efforts to call their household to accountability for toxic dynamics, bullying, narrative control, and exploitation have been met with the sorts of responses you’d expect from people engaged in toxic dynamics, bullying, narrative control, and exploitation. I am sharing my story because it has become clear that Wes, Gina, and Jessie are relying on my silence to amplify the message that the reports against them have been fabricated out of bitterness and resentment.
They shame survivors everywhere with these tactics, and I will not, as a survivor myself, a crisis counselor, a former rape crisis advocate, peer educator on sexual and intimate partner violence and control, and primary prevention advocate, countenance this affront to a community that purports to value ethics, consent, and love.
I am about to share a lot of uncomfortable truth and experience.
A great deal of this feels extremely personal and potentially damaging to share in such a public forum. However, it has come to my attention that my silence is being relied upon to amplify the narrative of people I identify as dangerous. I write today to tell an abbreviated but far fuller version of the events of 2014. My hope in doing so is that by speaking my own truth, others with similar experiences will come forward in ways that make sense for them, corroborating the danger and galvanized by my story. I also hope that organizations will begin to look more closely at who they permit into their ranks, and to act as spokespeople for the poly community. It appears that the small steps taken recently to alert the community that abusive dynamics were taking place in their midst, and facilitate the kind of support that people who abuse others require to change their behavior have backfired, and I am now being obliquely targeted on social media as a result. It is clear to me that my continued silence only serves the individuals in question, and that they are banking on that silence continuing because of their beliefs about my agency and courage. I have no desire to remain in conflict with my former polycule. My policy from the beginning has been that I would only share the details and identities behind the troubling events if asked directly, and even then, have done so as quietly and gently as I could.
As it turns out, I was recently asked directly because of a potential vector of grooming and abuse by several nexuses of leadership, event organization, and conference curators, and could not in good conscience remain silent. I shared only what I was asked to share, and that narrative did not leave out the points of my own culpability, mistake, and accountability in what transpired. Most of that narrative appears here, verbatim. Additions have now been made, since a “full account” is required by Wes, Gina, and Jessie, in order for them to consider accountability or amends to their community, let alone to me or the other victims. I have made a heavily edited version of this particular draft available to anyone who asked for my account of what has transpired, and what is now transpiring, in an effort to provide transparency to the loved ones who have questions, the networks to which I belong and am accountable, and in solidarity with the other people who have been touched by this situation.
I will say, briefly, that yes, I was deeply hurt by the way and circumstances under which my relationship with Gina ended. However, anyone who knows me knows that I have always been fair about relationships ending. I have never poisoned the well, gone on a public or invasive tirade, or otherwise spoken out of turn about anyone I have dated, even if there was a great deal of hurt. I do not have a reputation for things like vendettas or smear campaigns. I don’t slash tires, spread rumors… in fact, the opposite is often true. There were times when it may have been wiser and more kind to myself to speak my own truths sooner, but didn’t out of a desire to protect what was once valuable to me about a relationship. It is also quite rare for me to sever ties permanently with anyone I once loved. In fact, it has happened only on two other occasions in my life — both of which were abusive situations, one of which terminated in criminal charges and a conviction. I’m aware of the rhetoric being used on the other side of this narrative, and I trust in the strength of my reputation and the testament of my character to act as the rock upon which I stand to speak my truth. For those who find that insufficient, I suggest you mosey; I gat nathin far ya, as my Nan was wont to say. Harsh ye naught my shine.
The things I am about to share are frightening, both in terms of their rawness, and their ability to expose me to risk, judgment, and frankly, disappointment and further harm. I took steps this fall to limit Jessica Orsini, Gina Martinelli and Wes Fenza’s ability to contact me directly — my phone number has changed, I’ve moved and kept my new address hidden from public view, and emails from them filter directly to my partner rather than coming to me, with copies saved to an archive folder in my inbox without notifying me. I have an extensive archive of messages and communications that show a pattern of harassment, exploitation, gaslighting, and manipulation. I am also not the only one with a copy of those communications, and the people who hold copies have explicit instructions about what to do if anything happens to me. The last time Wes and I had contact, I was threatening legal action to issue a cease and desist to him and his theater company, of which I was once an instrumental member, to have my images and contact information removed from their promotional materials. That battle was three harrowing months long, and when I threatened to contact a lawyer and the police, he did back down. I remain pretty confident that he is aware that contact with me is likely to result in harassment charges. One of his partners was placed in the role of primary contact on that matter, but he remained the website administrator, and there was quite a bit of back and forth on when my image would actually be removed once I threatened legal action.
However, his bullying had a much longer, and I feel a bit darker, history. Honestly, so did Gina’s. Jessie was a late addition to the party, but her choices to violate my consent after I exited these relationships cemented in my mind that the toxicity of the culture that surrounds the Fenzorsellis encompasses all members, and that my egress should have occurred far sooner. But I had fallen asleep in the bath tub, in the dark, with no map. I’ll get to that part, shortly.
While I was dating Wes’ wife Gina, he showed an interest in our journey toward intimacy in a way that felt unhealthy and invasive. At that time, I valued Wes as a dear friend and ally. When I mentioned to him that Gina and I both had a lot to unpack before we could both feel good about being sexual with one another and that his pressure and questioning and impatience felt like an added barrier for me, he became manipulative. He started to label me his Queer Platonic Primary Partner, and stressed to me that anything apart from complete openness and transparency was an affront to the importance and gravity of his relationship with me. There were times, when Gina and I made steps toward intimacy that it was clear he was on the other side of the door, occasionally cracking jokes. I reiterated to him consistently how I felt about this disruptive behavior, and he would often play it off like I was being too serious. I also feel strongly that even without my insistence, that behavior alone shows a pathological approach to the autonomous sexuality of other humans.
It was at that moment, I fell asleep in the bath tub. I realized at that moment that my body was a thing. My desires were a thing. I was a thing. The warm, sleepiness of acceptance slipped over me like a blanket I’ve known my whole life — just accept it. Arguing would only cause more strife. I’d have to explain every feeling, every objection. He’d make me cry, question myself. The girls would side with him. Just let it take over. Accept that the people who love you think this is what you deserve. They’re probably right. I have been known to be playful with people and to accept an occasional pinch or swat (usually invited by me, or at the hands of friends with whom we have a history of loving physical contact) and I was so shocked, I played it off. It always struck me as strange, though, given how highly he speaks of enthusiastic and robust consent culture. I felt like there must have been something wrong with me, since he felt so many people deserved that, but I didn’t. I never brought it up. I let it happen again. This was what I deserved. I was worth no more than this. This is what love, what polyamory looks like. I began to withdraw. I placed boundaries less frequently. I stopped believing that my desires mattered. I dreaded seeing the people I loved. This felt normal.
Gina chose to end the romantic aspect of our relationship over a number of conflicting priorities and needs, and did so rather suddenly, immediately following me placing a hard limit on one aspect of our interactions: I would no longer participate in discussions about her former partner Shaun. I had suggested, asked, and pleaded that we spend less of our time together engaged in dialogue about her (completely legitimate, well articulated, and deserving of care and concern — but also completely personally exhausting, devaluing, and increasingly toxic) feelings regarding her former partner. I had expressed that I felt over-used as a resource, unimportant outside of my context as emotional support, unloved, unwanted, undesirable. I stated these things several times over the course of our relationship. I placed the explicit boundary with the belief that it would jeopardize our relationship. I was right. She accused me of withholding information I now see from our email history, I had been telling her all along. And yet, I believed her over my own experience. Because that is what she and her family had trained me to do. That boundary, and another. During a fragile and hard time in my primary relationship, I was ambushed with a performance with my former metamour’s partner. While I am now on excellent terms with both individuals, performing burlesque with them present was hard for both my partner and for me. I had expressed this on numerous occasions, and was told after four glasses of wine, that we would be sharing a stage in 2 days. When I stated that if that were the case, I’d prefer to cancel my performance, conflict erupted. My primary relationship was attacked, as was my capacity as a poly person, and a loving family member. It was Jessie’s birthday show, and I was putting my own “insecurities” (or, you know, previously expressed boundaries regarding burlesque performance) ahead of her happiness and prior, totally unannounced plans. When I expressed anger, betrayal, and disappointment at my polycule’s disregard for my prior boundaries, the tables were spun. Why was I so angry at former metamour and her partner? I wasn’t. I was angry at my polycule for putting me in an untenable position; but they would not hear me.
This is when I woke up in the freezing cold bathwater. I was hurt when Gina ended our relationship, opening her email to me by attacking my primary partner. I expressed to her that this was inappropriate, and that the behavior she attributed to my partner was actually behavior in which she was engaging, and I had explicitly asked her to discontinue or curtail. I understood that she still desired my friendship; but that I would require a fairly significant amount of time to reorient and heal. I felt that my trust had been broken by the way she approached that conversation, and made some suggestions for what we could do to heal that trust and make a friendship between us feel happy, healthy, and safe for me down the road. I did this, because it was what she and Wes talked about all the time: trust being broken doesn’t mean a relationship ends — it means, I thought it meant, they said it meant, that you adjust your expectations, make them explicit, and generate ways to secure new data upon which the future expectations you have are reality and data-based. I was doing what they said to do in cases of broken trust. I did the thing! She rejected the validity of those suggestions, and the boundaries they were meant to support, stating that my new limitations and expectations demonstrated that I no longer desired closeness with her.
As is their wont, my conversation was shared with Wes who again grew very manipulative. I wanted to speak with Gina and he insisted that Gina could not handle or internalize my feelings or words, and that I should go through him instead. As we talked, he undermined my concerns, misdirected my points of contention, and engaged in a lot of blaming behavior. He insisted that he and I meet up, as I felt that he also violated my trust during this period, and when I made the decision to simply cut ties with everyone for a few months, lick my wounds, and learn to love myself as I was again, he exploded with rage. I canceled my meeting with him, requested a cease and desist of all contact, and his last text message to me was, “I overestimated my importance to you, and I regret that. The next time you try to speak with me, it had better start with an apology.” The fact that he identified his own importance as the problem, here, was not lost on me even at the time.
Gina engaged in some further bullying and manipulation of her own before I cut contact permanently with the entire household and most of their close associates, and in the months following, I fought to have my pictures removed from their websites and facebook for our burlesque troupe. That conversation looked like this:
7/2/14: Email to Wes: I’ve removed my posts from Living within Reason. Kindly remove me from the authorized poster’s list. Thank you.
7/2/14: Email to Wes: Please also remove my photo from the Busts & Trunks brown paper ticket site.Thank you.
7/3/14: Email to Wes, Gina, Jessie: I am copying everyone at this point, because I’m not sure who runs which accounts, and do not desire to put the wrong responsibilities on the wrong shoulders.Please remove my image from the brown paper tickets site. And, apparently, the website, the facebook profile, and any other media I am not naming here of which I might be unaware.I hereby explicitly revoke my consent for my image, name, or body to be used in connection or for promotional purposes for Busts & Trunks, Ocelot on a Leash, Fringe, or any future ventures.Also, I am getting phone calls to my mobile phone about the show and fringe, because my contact information is still listed as the primary on the brown paper tickets site. I have thus far answered the questions I have been asked, but will not do so after this email has been sent.No response necessary or desired, apart from compliance with my request to no longer have my body used against my will to promote an endeavor of which I am no longer a willing participant. I understand that this was likely not purposeful; however I do require that it cease as immediately as possible.Thank you.
8/13/14: Email to Jessie and Wes: As a heads up, I’ve just received 3 phone calls in the last hour or so about the show this evening. I’m not sure if there’s some sort of confusion on your end or not, but people seem to be under the impression that the show is sold out or cancelled.Perhaps a facebook status update or a brown paper tickets announcement would be warranted, at this point.
8/13/14: Email responding to Jessie and Wes, who asked if I could do the leg work for them: I haven’t any idea where my number could be. Given that it still appears for all intents and purposes that I am still associated with the show, I assume they were repeat customers who saved my number from previous calls or questions. Several of the names sounded familiar.This is one of the reasons I had asked for my image to be removed entirely from facebook and from the ocelot website. I know you’re all on that or whatever, but so far, it’s been every second Wednesday of the month, I’m somehow still fielding busts and trunks questions, being asked about my place in the show on social media, etc., and frankly, getting angrier about it.I’m completely uninterested in fighting about that at this point, but I will continue to ask, in writing, that my request be honored.
8/14/14: Email to Wes and Jessie: This email is to notify you that I’ve reported the images on the Busts & Trunks facebook page to the administrators at Facebook.com with documentation of my previous requests, and also filed a note to Busts & Trunks documenting my requests that they be removed on 7/2, 7/21, 8/1, and now 8/14.This email is also an additional formal request that my image be removed from the Ocelot website.I will permit a week to pass, and if my very reasonable, very patient requests are not satisfied, I will consider retaining counsel. You will find the things due to be returned to the Fenzorselli Household sometime tonight, on the porch.This failure to act is in direct violation of my consent. I did not desire further adversarial communication, but I feel that my hand is now being forced.
Three entire days later, I received a deeply invasive, deeply troubling and frankly, squicky as all f*ck email from Gina. Three days after threatening the troupe with legal action, and just barely a month since I had asked her for no contact, with space and time to heal and reorient. I will not print her email here, because I do not have her permission. My response to that email appears in an earlier post of mine, located here. There is a different draft of my response that neither she nor her partners will see, because it serves only me. It serves as a reminder that from start to finish, I was groomed to accept boundary violation, gaslighting, lovebombing, aggressive over-communciation, and narrative control, and that that expectation continued for my former polycule even after a cease contact request. The water was freezing and there were bees in the house.
Shortly after Gina’s violation of my no contact request, I reestablished connections with people the Fenzorsellis had forsworn and maligned. With the toxic influences gone from both of our lives, we shared our stories, and found the space to carve out meaningful friendships. There was a period of stress, when I was dating Gina (wherein Wes was called to task on sexual violation and consent infractions by a third party, unbeknownst to me) and it became apparent that my perceptions and access to information, and feelings in general were being deliberately micromanaged, and frankly, weaponized. After hearing accounts from other women who had been ejected from or voluntarily fled the inner circle of the Fenzorselli household, I realized that I wasn’t alone in feeling that Wes’ behavior was invasive, problematic, bizarre, and hazardous, or that Gina was his willing and knowing accomplice. I’m so sad about what happened to the other women to whom I’ve spoken, the communications of theirs I have read, and the underhanded and cruel way they were treated, and sometimes fret that by failing to see what was happening, I was somehow complicit in their harm. It was recently stated that Wes apologized for this behavior, both via email and a (totally inappropriate) blog post (wrestling narrative control back into his own hands, without the permission of his victims). It was asked, by Jessie echoing my own question, how we account for accountability?
Having read that email, can I begin with, Maybe, just maybe don’t tweet about #abuseinpoly when you’ve been reported for Abuse In Poly. Maybe don’t say things like, “I have a right to be in your home without your permission, because I’ve chosen to label your experiences of assault and violation as ‘lies and innuendo'”. Maybe, you know, people don’t have to explain or justify why they don’t want you around. Maybe just say, “I respect your space, I will see your housemates outside of your home out of respect for your pain.” After all, consent is important. Maybe put your money where your feminist and consent-positive rhetoric spewing mouth is, even when it doesn’t benefit you. Maybe don’t require your victims to eviscerate themselves publicly sharing the embarrassing experiences over which they feel great shame just so you can be sure you’ve only apologized for things you actually feel you (or your partners) are obligated (by your own estimation) to apologize. Perhaps, have some integrity, and respect people when they report you have hurt them.
I have now been cast by Gina and Jessie as a member of a “League of Evil Exes” for coming forward to the PLN with my story and its implications. My experiences have been trivialized and cast in dubious and insidious colors. My well-founded, evidence based claims of manipulation, micromanagement, and harassment have been reduced to the responses of a scorned woman with a vendetta against her former family’s happiness. If it were just about me, I’d likely remain silent. However, I believe I have a responsibility to the other people in exploitative and controlling relationships in the poly community, and society at large to stand with courage against the claim that what was done to me was Just Fine and I should STFU about it. It seems likely to me that if every relationship a person has ended has ended under circumstances in which one or both parties have felt abused, exploited, gaslit, transgressed upon, and violated that perhaps it is not something that should go quietly into the darkness of Impolite Conversation. It certainly isn’t what I look for in a leader, speaker, or advocate on relationships or their structure.
So we’ve covered how abuse and exploitation in plural relationships felt like falling asleep in the bathtub in the dark. But what’s this nonsense about a map?
Looking back on everything I just wrote — the emotional process of dissecting my experiences, naming them, recalling them, reliving them — It’s like looking at a map of your own stumbling path through a dark forest. When you’re in the forest, all you have is the territory. Things are dark, frightening. You misidentify threats. You mistake one sound for another. You talk to yourself, and double back on labyrinthine paths you’ve already traversed. You try to pick out landmarks, and follow the sounds of water, walk in the direction the sun travels — all the things you’ve ever heard about getting out of a sticky situation. And then you emerge, gasping.
You let the helicopters come. You let EMTs cradle you in blankets and choke down energy bars, drink water like your life is ending. You let your rescuers cradle you. You let them be proud. You feel and internalize their pride. And then, later. A cold, sobering moment. Someone traces your path on a real map. And you see every mis-step. Every mistake. Every landmark you should have seen. Every sound you should have heard. The stream you missed, the five mile detour in the wrong direction. A narrow escape from a jutting cliff. A rockslide you missed by an hour. From here, the path looks easy. You have the topography! There’s the clear path, why didn’t I just take it?
But the map is not the territory. And the territory can consume you. The terrible thing about abuse and exploitation is you often can’t see it until you’ve fully extricated yourself. This can take months. Years.
This is my story, and I encourage you to share it. I’m safe. I am happy. I have found myself. And I will not be silent as the people who have hurt me claim ignorance of their actions, and position themselves to groom and harm others.