Thinking about sexual assault and harassment as OH&S

I’ve started to get really interested in the way labour relations and workplace bullying/safety feeds into these issues. After all, the work place offers a model for describing and engaging with the patterns of power at work in these spaces. It also allows us to shift the idea of ‘work’ from strictly pay-for-labour to ‘paid and unpaid labour’, which of course lets women, POC, and other people into the discourse.

I’ve actually chosen to take the OH&S policy approach to responding to and preventing s.h. and assault in my dance work. From documentation and training to reporting and policy. Partly because I run a dance business, but also because OH&S discourse has all sorts of useful language tools: responsibility, legal responsibility, moral responsibility, mutual responsibility. I have been quite excited by this idea of ‘responsibility’, and have turned it around to become the phrase ‘we have each other’s back.’
I found that my repositioning s.h. and assault as a ‘safety issue’ for everyone, just one example that sits next to things like unsecured ladders, a lack of fire escapes, violent punters, and professional bullying, it gives the community a way of engaging with it. We can bypass the sexual stuff (with all its attendant taboos and gendered assumptions) and consider s.h. and assault as just one example of a harassment, bullying and exploitation. It also turns out to make perfect sense, to see s.h. as just one tool in an offender’s tool box. It’s very unusual, I’ve found, to see an offender _only_ s.h. They are likely to exploit in lots of other ways as well.
This approach also makes it clear something that many feminists (except perhaps Garner and Alcorn) realise. Rape and harassment aren’t so much about sex as about power. So if we set aside the ‘sex positive’ subtext (where it’s implied that I’m supposed to think about assault and harassment as sex, and if I’m against anything sexual, I’m a prude), and position s.h. and assault as a failure to ‘look after each other’ – a safety issue – we can rock on.

In my work on s.h. and assault in the dance community, I regularly have to point out the difference between a happy, consensual sexual touch/interaction and uncool stuff. This helps me move away from dichotomies of consensual and non-consensual, and repositions the whole discussion as asking the question, “Do you have your fellow dancer’s back?” I use phrases like:
– we have your back
– we’re looking out for each other

And in our training manual, I require all workers to practice realising when they need a 5 minute break (self care) and realising when their colleague needs a 5 minute break, and how to step in and encourage them to take that break (mutual care).

In our dance classes, we also spend quite a bit of time on learning to observe our partner. I often phrase this as ‘check in with your partner’, and we practice verbal ‘checking in’ (how to give it, how to respond to it), visual ‘checking in’ (what does their facial expression tell you?), and physical ‘checking in’ (what does the way they touch you tell you?, how is their body communicating their feelings?). In a dance setting, it’s quite simple to then make the next link, and say ‘a successful dance is one where both partners are working happily together, communicating well. And we have plenty of practical dance games and specific moves that require lots of ‘checking in’ with your partner, including copying, call and response, building on something a partner introduces.
I think we can make that same practical connection in non-dance spaces. eg being an audience and a speaker at at conference, managing employees and being managed, carrying a table from one room to another. etc. The key is to have practical, real time experience with these models, where people actually experience the benefits of them.

So the important parts seem to be:
– a discursive repositioning of s.a. and s.h. from ‘sex’ to ‘safety’ (and specifically OH&S)
– putting s.h. and s.a. in the same family as ‘if you see someone who feels sick, help them get a cup of water or take a break’ and ‘running a safe event includes preventing s.h., fires, and underpaying workers.’
– providing a language and model for _positive_ and happy, healthy physical contact. ie knowing the difference between sex and social dance, knowing how to talk about and ask for specific things, men in particular learning to read women’s emotions nonverbally

Most importantly, repositioning s.h. and s.a. as one point on a spectrum of exploitation helps us get past social taboos and discomfort associated with sex, and to think about the actions not as sexual, but as exploitative, violent, aggressive, manipulative, etc etc etc.

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