Food and Dance; as ordinary as oxygen

Soul Food Junkies (broadcast version) from Sonia Gonzalez-Martinez on Vimeo.

This is a really great little docco. As you’ve probably figured out, one of my favourite ways of experiencing the places I visit is to see what people eat, how they eat it, and where they get it. I especially like ‘ordinary’ or ‘everyday’ food – supermarkets, greengrocers, delis, markets. The places where people buy their everyday food.

Sitting here in Herrang, at a dance camp devoted to black dance history, I’m struck (once again – for the millionth time) by just how selective this ‘history’ is. It’s heavily vetted by middle class white people, and barely touches on the everyday lives of black people in the 20s/30s/40s, let alone today. One of the very real consequences of this, is that lindy hop and tap and all those other black dances are even more clearly separated from the black vernacular.

The other night there was a library talk about lindy hop, with the provocation: “lindy hop: a dance to preserve or develop?” All three of the people on the panel were white, middle class Swedes. I find this thought more than a little troubling. This was clearly a statement of ownership of black dance. By white business owners. I couldn’t attend, and frankly, I couldn’t quite bear the thought of another belaboured discussion where white people give endless excuses and reasons for why what they are doing is ok, because this one time a black guy told them so. To paraphrase an important movement in lindy hop today: the voices of black lindy hoppers matter. Time to stop talking and listen, white lindy hoppers.

Anyways, this documentary is about the way black families can both preserve and innovate, by focussing on community development (specifically in terms of addressing food deserts and access to ingredients in black communities, as well as cooking). Here, the cultural practices and products – cooking, eating and food – are clearly marked as central to black family life, and therefore of vital importance to black cultural life. This filmmaker makes it clear that stepping aside from the commodification of processed food and black eaters’ engagement with food only as consumers is a serious issue. Growing your own greens is as important as dancing your own dances and making your own music; it is soul food.

Gendered language in class

I’m ok with talking about gender and using gendered pronouns in class. I just like to be sure I’m not just using the same two boring pronouns all the time, and that I’m using people’s preferred pronouns.

I’m not ok with gendering leading and following, or skills related to leading and following.

This is partly why I’m not ok with some elements of the ambidance movement: I don’t want to do away with all gender.
But I do want to do away with the essentialist coupling of skills and ideas with two gender ‘norms’.

How then do I work to deconstruct gender in lindy hop when I’m teaching?

1. Use the words ‘leads’ and ‘follows’ (or the role name, and I’m with Dan when it comes to avoiding leader/follower) rather than ‘ladies and gentlemen’, ‘men and women’, ‘she/her/he/him’ etc etc.

2. Use people’s actual names rather than the role. It’s nicer generally, but it also encourages us to think of people as individuals, not roles. I try to use my teaching partner’s name.

3. Rather than talking about or around your teaching partner (eg “The follow will do this,”) speak to your teaching partner, asking them to describe what they’re doing (eg “How do you know I’m asking you to move forward, Alice?”).

Then there are trickier, less obvious things.
1. Always ask permission before you touch someone. It’s quite common for leaders to simply ‘grab’ a follow in class/their partner to demonstrate on them as though they were an object. I always try to ask them if I can touch/demonstrate. And I always apologise if I’ve just thoughtlessly grabbed them.
I started doing this after we started asking students to always introduce themselves and ask someone to dance before touching a new partner. It rubbed off on me :D
This stops us treating our partners like objects/just ‘the follower’. And this issue happens more with leaders grabbing follows than vice versa.

2. Conceptualising lindy hop as something other than ‘leader says, follow does’.
We are currently using ‘call and response’ and both partners can do it. We also use ‘leader invites follow to do X, follow decides whether to do X, how fast to do X,’ etc etc etc.

3. Don’t use words that position follows as objects.
eg never using words like ‘push’ to describe what leads do: ‘the leader pushes the follow’. No. This a) not technically accurate, and b) disrespectful.

4. Always try to talk about and think about your partner as a human with feelings and emotions.
When we get really technical, it’s easy to reduce our partner to an object force/momentum happens to, or a subject who generates force/momentum. We are real people with real feelings. So while physics is at work, our feelings and emotions are much more important. So we use language that describes what’s happening from that POV first. In nerd terms, this means using ‘external cues’ rather than ‘internal cues’.
eg. I ask Alice if she’d like to go to the snack table, then I take her hand and go with her to the snack table. vs ‘I hold her hand with my fingers in X position, then I engage my core, prepare, and then lift my left foot, swing it back 20*, place it back behind me, and then she engages her core and activates her frame…..’
The technical jargon encourages us to talk about our bodies and partners as technical objects, not as real live humans. It also slows down learning :D

5. Speak and act as though your partner and other dancers have opinions, and that these opinions may differ from yours.
We often try to hide the way we ‘make the sausages’, but it’s more useful for learners to see us discuss things, perhaps disagree, share different ideas. So ask your partner and students what they think and feel. Allow yourself to learn from your students and be surprised and delighted by this new information.

-> all this stuff is about deconstructing not just a gender binary, but a hierarchy of gendered power with straight white bro at the top.

And what of historical accuracy in all this?
I think it’s important to talk about gender in a historical context when we talk about lindy hop. So while a gender neutral pronoun is very much something white, middle class Australian teachers are experimenting with, that’s not how black dancers might have spoken of each other in the 30s.

Again, though, I like to take care about generalising. While some dancers today would have us believe that the 30s were a time of rigid gender norms, that’s not entirely true:
– There were women leads and men follows (and every gender ID ever) in the olden days,
– There were queer dancers and musicians (I’m currently reading about queer culture in NY in the 20s-40s… helllooooo genderflex ID and jazz dance!) and genderflex lindy hoppers fucking up the patriarchy then. Lester Young, anyone?
– Some of the most supportive teachers I’ve had have been black OGs, who’ve used gender neutral language and openly said they support women leads/male follows/genderflex dance IDs.

So when we talk about ‘ungendering’ lindy hop, that’s perhaps not helpful. It’s more that I want to widen my understanding of gender (and sexuality) in dance to more than just straight men leading and straight women following. The world is huge, and jazz asks us to improvise and innovate.

I have written about this many times before:

How to be an ally: talking about women’s health care

My friend has a male work colleague who thinks of himself as a feminist ally. He has a ways to go yet, but he listens carefully and is open to new ideas and information.

He recently said something about how there are women who repeatedly use abortion as contraception. He then expanded, telling this story of being a teenager in Wangaratta in the mid-80s and listening to his parents in dinner party conversation with the town obstetrician who told them that he’d just seen a patient who had come in for her eighth abortion.

My friend, in conversation with feminist friends, wanted to know where she might go from here in addressing the many issues raised by this highly problematic anecdote.

My first feeling is:

  • Why does he assume this is a true story, not an exaggerated one?
  • Is he sure is recollection is correct?
  • One anecdote is not a good sample size.

So he should begin by interrogating the premise of the question, rather than assuming that it is a legitimate claim. He should be asking himself “How many women have abortions?” And then “How many women have multiple abortions?” And finally “What demographic are these multiple-abortion women (if they actually exist)?”

This is the sort of research task that can easily be done by an ally (and should be).
Actually discovering data is a key part of untangling patriarchal myths. He has to understand that this tedious task skills him up (in terms of research skills), gives him an appreciation of the type of work and thinking feminists have to do to counter cultural myths, and also gives him useful knowledge.

This idea that ‘women use abortion as contraception’ is a persistent myth in our culture. It suggests that being sexually active outside of reproduction is morally wrong or self-indulgent. It also suggests that having an abortion is quick, easy, and physically just like taking the pill. All points that are easily disproved. Particularly if one is living in 1980s Wangaratta.
Acquiring an abortion requires knowledge (where to go, how to book an appointment, an understanding of termination as a real option), time (being able to go to an appointment, then get home, without dependent children or work demands), and money. If not money, then access to public healthcare. In Brisbane in the 1980s and 90s (when I was a young woman, and my friends had abortions), you also had to find a GP who would refer you to a specialist for the termination. It was illegal to acquire an abortion if you weren’t at immediate medical risk; you could go to jail for this ‘crime’.
Wangaratta in the 1980s was a regional centre. Finding a doctor for a termination in that town at that time would have been incredibly difficult. And as this anecdote suggests, maintaining confidentiality would have been hugely difficult.

But let us assume we do accept this increasingly unlikely premise. That one woman this one time had multiple abortions (ie more than 5) I’d be looking at other data:
Is she catholic or otherwise unable to use contraception (eg has an abusive, controlling husband/partner)?
Is she the victim of serial abuse by a family member where she’s desperate to terminate pregnancies and doesn’t have the autonomy to get the pill?
What was the time frame for these abortions? A year? 30 years?
The doctor had a duty of care to discuss the issue with her. Had he? Why not?

Multiple abortions don’t suggest that a woman is using termination as contraception.
They suggest she doesn’t have reproductive autonomy. Because we know abortion rates drop when education generally (esp of girls) goes up. We also know that access to good contraception decreases women’s pregnancies and number of children.

So if women and girls are educated and have access to contraception, they have fewer pregnancies. They are also, consequently, less likely to terminate pregnancies. Multiple terminations in one woman’s life then supports the theory that she does not have bodily, reproductive autonomy. In other words, she cannot make informed choices about her own fertility and body. Whether because she doesn’t have the education she needs, she doesn’t have access to contraception (which isn’t that unlikely in semi-rural Wangaratta in the 80s), or she isn’t free to choose whether or not to become pregnant.

So i think the other important point here for my friend’s male friend, is to recognise how issues like sex, reproduction, bodies, healthcare, etc are employed in patriarchal discourse. He should ask himself “Ah! A comment by a male professional with institutional power about women’s bodies which perpetuates a myth that can be used to control women’s bodies! This ticks some boxes; I need corroborative evidence.”

Of course, the fact that it’s hard to find the answer to this question tells us that this data may prove awkward for men who want to retain that myth of sexual woman = out of control hetero breeder.

Which should make us all the more curious: why hasn’t anyone asked this question before?

We do know that women’s reproductive health is a neglected area of medical research. We also know – and this anecdote makes this particularly clear – that men do not trust women to make decisions about their own healthcare.

Important note: decreasing access to safe abortion does not stop women having abortions. It stops them dying from unsafe abortions.

Why I want to hang onto gender when we talk about race in lindy hop

As part of the ongoing discussion about race and lindy hop, Shelby (a black American man) asked (in response to a comment about how the dance community’s response to race differs/shares with its response to rape and sexual assault):

So can we stay on the topic at hand please. Just once would like a discussion on race not have another topic though pressing be brought into the discussion unless they actually crossover to prevent tangents

I responded like this:

I think they’re all linked. We can’t talk about race in America without talking about class. We can’t talk about race in vintage fashion culture without also talking about gender and class (and sexuality). It’s important to note that ‘gender norms’ in mainstream American lindy hop culture involve race. As an extreme example, I was reading an article the other day pointing out why the American second amendment is inherently about race and a part of slavery. In that setting, we have to talk about class and race if we want to understand why white men in America are over-represented in mass shootings in schools.

I think it’s super, super important to identify how ‘idealised female bodies’ are ethnicised: white skin, straight hair, long clear lines created by shoe choices and lots of pointed toes, etc etc. And how clothing choices emphasise particular aesthetics and shapes.
Joann Kealiinohomoku wrote a great article about ballet in 1983 which is directly relevant to this conversation. She pointed out how ballet – specifically the ballerina’s body and movement – are shaped by ethnicised notions of beauty and gender. She pointed out how ‘whiteness’ is constructed by particular ways of moving and particular body shapes and aesthetics.

If we are going to make lindy hop more tenable for poc, we need to deconstruct how lindy hop is ethnicised, where the dominant ethnicity is ‘whiteness’. We have to deconstruct whiteness. We have to think about ‘whiteness’ as ethnicity. As culture. Not as some neutral ‘norm.’ And that means not only talking about historic black dancers in class; but looking at how vintage fashion aesthetics contribute to contemporary gender norms; how dance step ‘trends’ favour particular rhythms, which reflect vernacular spoken language; and how the cost of events limits the participation of people who don’t have disposable income (class).

I don’t expect you, personally, to take on this work, but as a white woman, I feel I have a responsibility to see how privilege works in the context of patriarchy. I need to unravel all the threads, and see which ones contribute to which knots. Then i can start untangling and undoing patriarchy.
Working within a feminist framework (in my background) means asking how race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, age, etc all work to privilege some people and marginalise others. The generation of feminists who came after me talk about this in terms of intersectionality. For me, it’s a way of saying “How come the work of white feminists of the second generation (1960s) didn’t turn out to be so useful for black women?”
My approach is informed by black feminists and feminists of colour, who clearly state: gender is not my first point of engagement with power and injustice; my race is. I can dig that. But I feel that as a white woman, I owe it to my black sisters to take on some of this labour while they’re getting on with addressing issues like school lunches and literacy rates in black communities.

Kealiinohomoku, Joann. “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance.” What Is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism. Eds. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. 533 – 49.

More references on this topic.

Looking for Langston

Speaking of the black experience in jazz and blues dance…

I haven’t yet ready anything in the blues and lindy hop community about the black queer male body dancing.

There’s been some good work on black women’s bodily experiences in modern jazz dance culture, and a bit about black masculinity. Quite a few too many white men have whitesplained how blues works as a black space, and far too many white women and men have avoided talking about vintage fashion as an ethnicised scene.

Apparently the black queer body in a well cut suit or gorgeous gown is too terrifying even for whispers.

I saw Looking For Langston (an art film by Isaac Julien) last night. The whole project – a film made during the 80s AIDS crisis by a black British man, about a black American man of the Harlem Renaissance – is a meditation on queer desire, jazz aesthetics and the blues. The name (and a lot of the content, including some proto-vogueing) reminds me of Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna, and the queer-eye-on-art. It includes voice work by Stuart Hall and Toni Morrison, Paul Gilroy gets props, Jimmy Somerville plays a cherub (again), and Tongues Untied is referenced. Also there is some cock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The installation at Rosley Oxley9 Gallery features some beautiful large scale black and white stills from the film, depicting black men dancing in closed embrace. Photos I regularly see linked up on facebook as examples of queer dance in the swing era. Ha.

Liah says it’s good to check out the Mapplethorpe exhibit at the agnsw as well, so you can see how Julien’s work responds to Mapplethorpe (and the white queer gaze on black bodies).

I’ve hooked up this obviously pirated version of Looking for Langston, because it’s a hard one to get to see.

 

photos:

mise en scene pic from Isaac Julien’s set (source).
Stuart Hall, from his obituary in the Telegraph.
Toni Morrison by Gregg Delman in the Times.
Paul Gilroy (source).
Jimmy Somverville in Sally Potter’s Orlando.
Tongues Untied (source).
My pic from the exhibition.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Two Men Dancing (source).

No, white people, you are not the victim here.

There’s a debate going on over in the Teaching Swing Dance group on facebook. A black dancer posted a real yawp of a post: a loud, angry, upset, emotional, frustrated shout. About his experiences with white dancers, about the blowback to Ellie’s post, Cierra’s response, and his own attempts to enter the discussion. Basically, he was fucking shitty with the white bros in the dance scene telling him to sit down, shut up, and get over himself.
All very legit reasons to post angry.

But then a (presumably white) woman posted in response:

I sent the following PM yesterday morning:

Good morning, Odysseus.

I’m an admin for South Florida Lindy Collective. Thank you for taking the time to write your post. I understand that discussions regarding racism and appropriation vs appreciation can trigger people to react in unexpected ways. And, I’m sorry that you were not able to get through to your local organizer at that time. As a leader, I’m more interested in learning about how you personally plan to help make things better so that the swing dance community is more accessible to black communities. It is on ALL of us to learn the importance of swing dance history (that it helped unite a segregated country) and spread that knowledge. It is on each of us to be an active participant and welcome and invite each other to swing dance with positivity rather than passively waiting for someone else to make the first move. I encourage you to try reaching out to your local organizers again, after tempers have cooled, and present them with solutions. If they’re not on board, it’s ok. Start implementing your solution without them. Your efforts will be undeniable and YOU will be the change you’re seeking. (I highly recommend watching the movie “42” for inspiration on positive change regarding racism.)

I ask that post your personal thoughts and solutions in the existing thread regarding this issue as it will be easier to follow everyone’s input if it’s all in one place, which is why I’m denying your original post. I also ask that you don’t rant on this thread regarding your conversation with your local organizers because it won’t improve the global situation and may hinder positive change within your local scene.

I would like to add that I have not read Cierra’s response to Ellie’s post, but I would like to. Would you please send me the link?

Thank you for your efforts,
Cici
South Florida Lindy Collective

The immediate response from other people in that group was shock. How patronising. How tone-deaf. What a bloody shitful response.
Anyway, there was some interesting debate, some strong feels, some thoughtful comments all round. But this woman refused to bend. After a few posts, she wrote:

…I certainly don’t feel safe sharing my opinions here without feeling like I’m being judged or reprimanded for sharing them. And, not one person has attempted to address the difficult questions I posted…

Now, please note that I’m taking a small section of a longer post, and I’m presenting it out of context. But this is the issue I want to address, and it’s something I’ve seen come up a lot in discussions of race and gender in the dance world. Women who are disagreed with then respond by playing the ‘martyr card’. They’re usually relatively high status (teachers, organisers, etc), and they’re obviously not used to being disagreed with.
This strategy is an attempt to control the discussion, to set the terms of the debate. To reposition the speaker as powerful and high status.

It’s a clear example of a failure to grasp the main issue: they have power through virtue of their ethnicity, and/or position within an institution that is unjust.
Their response – presenting themselves as a victim – is an attempt to control the terms of the debate. To keep them in a position of authority. I see women do this a lot. And it narks me.

At any rate, I replied like this instead:

While I am sympathetic to your feelings, I’d caution you not to prioritise your own discomfort above the feelings of people of colour dealing with racism and injustice in America today (let alone the lindy hop scene). https://www.sbs.com.au/comedy/article/2016/03/21/white-men-are-under-attack-or-when-youre-accustomed-privilege-equality-feels.

[I shouldn’t have linked to satire, because these people never understand it]

Yes, it’s hard work to change the way you do things.
Yes, it’s challenging and a bit threatening to discover that you hold a lot of power and status when you thought you were just ‘normal’.

But we’re badass jazz dancers. We can totally do this.

[Another woman replied to this comment with a description of how her college lindy hop group had failed to get black dancers involved in their scene. I continued…]

I think this is an interesting point. We work with street dancers here in Sydney (almost all of whom are Asian-Australian, coming from lots of different countries in Asia and south-east Asia).
If you want people to come to your party, you have to go to their parties first. To be blunt, simply standing in your yard trying to get people to come over isn’t going to work.

Cierra wrote (in her brilliant response to Ellie’s article):

“I keep hearing the question: “How do we get more black people into our scene?” The answer is quite simple. Join our communities. Become our friends. Not because you feel some white guilt about how you participate in blues, but because you’re excited. Learn to code switch. Learn to adjust to other people’s cultures.” (linky)

I think that the fact that the students in the other groups were too busy with other stuff gives you an important clue. They have other priorities: spending time on their study, working on other issues, working with other POC. You might want, very badly, for them to get involved with your group and events, but it’s clearly not relevant or that important to them. This is a super important point: people of colour in America today have important things to do, just to keep from going under. _Particularly_ young people at university. They’re already battling a whole heap of bullshit, and have accomplished so much just to get there.

I think this is an interesting illustration of how lindy hop changed as it moved through generations. It had to change, it was changed, to maintain its relevance and usefulness. This is why I get quite angry about the ‘lindy hop died out’ historical narratives. Lindy hop didn’t die out, it just changed its spots.

So why would young black people go to a lindy hop event, where they have to take classes, learn new music, leap through a bunch of hoops and come in at very low status just to get in the door, for a scene that people keep telling them belongs to them? Why not do stuff they enjoy, at events and in groups that make them feel good, value their modern day life experiences, and provide support and solidarity in a decidedly hostile world?

All this should tell you that your modern day lindy hop scene doesn’t have what young black people need. So either you own that, or you change up what you do. To be more relevant, you need to go to those guys’ parties and events, and skill yourself up.

Time to do some work, white people.

Can you ban someone from your dance if they don’t do anything ‘wrong’ at dances?

What do we do if a guy assaults someone outside of dancing; can we (ethically) ban him from our dances if he didn’t break our code of conduct at our events?

First: of course we can, ethically.

Secondly: it’s important to think about hate crimes (and I include rape here) as working not just as individual instances (eg raping someone; beating someone). A ‘hate crime’ isn’t just the single instance of violence. It is the culmination or total sum of a number of moving pieces.

So when I ban someone for ‘stalking’, I’m banning them for the total sum of their behaviours, which may only include ‘not taking no for an answer to dance invites’ and ‘dominates a young woman dancer’s time’ happening in dance spaces, but also include ‘constant fb messages’, ‘lewd comments’, ‘constantly pushing boundaries’, and other things in non-dance spaces.

I expand my idea of ‘dance community’ from just ‘dance spaces’ (dance halls, classes, weekend events) to social and cultural spaces. I look at behaviour not as single incidents, but as the _relationship between acts_.

So, in the context of racist hate talk, we can ethically ban someone from our dance events even if they’re very careful not to to use racist slurs or beat anyone up at dances.

We can do this by:
– Expanding our idea of what constitutes ‘dance community’ from ‘dance spaces’ to lots of other spaces: online, face to face, the parking lot outside the studio, the train home from the party, the carpool to dinner before dancing, etc. This then expands our network of personal responsibility: we owe our dance buds a duty of care, even when they’re not dancing.
– Seeing ‘racism’ not just as individual incidents like using a racist slur, but as a pattern of incidents, and the _relationship_ between incidents.

So it’s not the individual actions we call out, it’s the patterns of behaviour that we call out. And that means that we need to get specific. We need to learn how to identify and record the ‘tricky’ stuff we can’t see or measure:
– What was that joke that was borderline? Write it down, record it. How did it make people feel? What was the ratio of black:white people in the room?
– What sort of things does that person share on their fb page? Who do they tag in discussions?

….and so on. We need to be able to articulate why we feel uncomfortable about someone.

We have had to do that with sexual harassment and assault. And that is just like racism, in that it’s about people using power to control or manipulate or degrade other people.

Maybe that means it is time to stop dancing.

To be honest, dancing itself covers a multitude of sins. All that adrenaline and endorphins and social
manoeuvring can mess with our powers of observation.

Stop dancing.

Ellie Koepplinger explains why she stopped blues dancing.

I think this is one of the most important posts of the last year. I like that she makes a very clear, no-bullshit point: stop dancing. It’s a challenge. To me, it says, “I’m asking you to put your money where your mouth is. Are you really an ally?”

Or as (to paraphrase) what Breai said in that Focus talk: wearing a black person’s face on your skin is not the same as having black skin. To etch the image of a black body into your skin, to train your muscles to move as you imagine a black body did, does not make you black. Being black – living black – means living with injustice. And you can’t tattoo away your white privilege. As a white dancer, you have a far greater responsibility. You have debts to be paid.

There isn’t any way you can argue with what Ellie is saying: she is saying, bluntly, “I am a black woman. And you cannot benefit from the exploitation of black culture on the dance floor without also engaging with the broader exploitation of black lives and bodies in our communities.”
She’s saying: “This is wrong. If you keep doing this, you are part of the wrongness.”

I’m actually trying to negotiate a way of engaging with these issues from Australia, which has a different (and pretty horrific) history of white invasion, colonialism, and explicit White Australia Policy. Not to mention current day literal human rights violations. Our black history is not an American black history. But we are standing on black country. And I am a white woman who benefits indirectly and directly from racist government policies, racist history, and racist culture. Particularly as a white middle class woman.

It is essential (for my own peace of mind, if not for the sake of just being a decent human being) that I remember that I am still benefitting from the exploitation of those faraway black communities. I’m still participating in that exploitation. Unless I do something about it.

And I have been thinking of it like this:
Too many lindy hoppers today care more about long dead black musicians and dancers than they do about the real, living black people in their own neighbourhoods. They care more about the idea of these black people – a myth of black jazz – than they do about actual real people.
And this upsets me. It is too selfish.

Do something or stop dancing. That is the ultimatum.

I welcome the challenge. It’s going to make me a better person. Make me more useful.

…and if I can rant about how straight white men are getting shitty because they’re figuring out just how easy they have it, then I have no right to get shitty because I’ve had my privilege pointed out to me.

Straight men: the last ones left to learn how to do sex

With the public attention to sexual assault and the same sex marriage plebiscite in Australia, straight Australian men are figuring out that they need to have conversations about sexual relationships, and negotiate safety. Stuff that gay men figured out when AIDS happened in the 80s, that the S&M community figured out RE safe words, that poly folk figure out with their partners, that everyone queer has had to do RE getting married. Stuff that everyone else who isn’t positioned as ‘the norm’ where the ‘rules’ are just ‘taken as given’ have had to figure out.

This is what it means to be part of the dominant ideology: your rules about sex are unspoken and privilege the most powerful person. ie the rules are what the most powerful person (straight men) want them to be. Straight men are used to just doing what pleases them. And suddenly they’re being asked to think about that.

Suddenly straight men are having to do what every other adult has to do: talk about sex, ask for permission, negotiate terms to be safe and happy and have fun. Suddenly they have to think about their partners _as_ partners, with as much right to happy, safe sex as they do. Suddenly they have to learn to talk about sex. To stop being the ‘strong silent type’ and to actually answer when women ask them what they’re thinking about. And to be interested in what women are thinking about. When they think about sex.

And straight men are not happy about it. They’re not happy about having to talk about how they feel and what they want to do, instead of just doing it. They’re not happy about the fact that their pleasure is not the only priority in sex. Mostly they’re not happy because they’re figuring out that they’re actually really crap at doing sex.

Bros: time to get some skills.

A spectrum of behaviour vs a continuum of harm

Ah, another post which is really a bunch of facebook comments masquerading as coherent prose.

A friend linked up Gay Alcorn’s Guardian post ‘Helen Garner’s The First Stone is outdated. But her questions about sexual harassment aren’t’ the other day. I was flabbergasted by the piece. It made me incoherently angry. I literally could not write or talk about it.
I wrote a furious comment, but then retracted.

A few days later, I found a way in, when a man asked a useful question.

Please, first read the article above, then read on.

I began with this response:

Nope nope nope nope nope.

Which escalated to:

I think this Alcorn article is bullshit too. I’m so angry I have to step away from the computer.

But my way in came in the form of a specific discussion about a ‘continuum of harm’. Garner and Alcorn argue that a grope is less important than a ‘rape’. They argue that there’s a continuum of harm/seriousness, and neither really understands why women don’t just ‘deal’ with offenders in less serious cases. This made me very very angry. It’s an attitude profoundly lacking in empathy, but it also suggests to me that this sort of woman is enabling and participating in rape culture by dismissing claims about the ‘severity’ of an offence.

This is what I said next:

I actually don’t buy the continuum of seriousness model, where we have ‘totally not a big deal’ at one end, and ‘horrible violence’ at the other. It simply doesn’t work in practice.

In my experience working on s.h. and assault within a community over the past couple of years, it’s the relationship between incidents and behaviour that is significant. So a whole heap of ‘minor’ things all add up, within the context of patriarchy, to a pattern of exploitation and abuse. It’s very important to recognise these ‘small’ things as part of character type, so that you can predict what will happen next.

So I like to use a ‘spectrum’ of behaviour, where it is the connections between actions that are important.
I think… no, I _know_ that dismissing something like a ‘boob grope’ as inconsequential is a way of dismissing women’s concerns, and making them question their own instincts.

At any rate, should we wait til a man violently rapes a woman, or watch for patterns of behaviour and intervene well before that point?
Garner and Alcorn seem to be suggesting the former, I argue – angrily – for the latter. In fact, I think that Alcorn and Garner’s attitudes are dangerous and betray a profound inexperience with practicalities of dealing with s.h. and assault in real communities with real people. The theory of assault is nothing like the realities of dealing with it in real settings, with real people.

Me, when I see the pattern develop, I step in. I ban men who are potential trouble, because I am not fucking waiting til they do something ‘serious’ enough to warrant a police report. And I devote a lot of my class time to teaching men and women how to identify inappropriate behaviour, and how to respond to it.
This is the deal: women under-report assault and harassment. Men don’t report it. Women question all their instincts. Offenders train women to question themselves and downplay the seriousness of offences.

Garner completely fails to see how her demanding to know all about an event, and to have access to all the details is about her presumption of privilege. Basically, the right to disclose or not to disclose information about assaults and harassment is a key – central – most important! – part of responding to reports.

In my work, we have found that protecting anonymity is SO IMPORTANT. Because women who report, and women who act as agents reporting for survivors, are threatened – physically, legally, financially, emotionally. Within my dance community we’ve had to develop complex networks of relationships to make it possible for women to make reports anonymously. Garner’s coming into a situation like that, behaving the way she did, endangers women.

Reporting to the police? I fucking laugh. That’s far too dangerous and public for almost all the women I know who are reporting assaults.

Garner can fuck off.

I’m getting so angry writing about this, I have to stop. It’s seriously triggering my own vicarious trauma from working on these issues.
Garner, Acorn, and their opinions are fucking bullshit.

Someone then asked:

What’s the difference between a continuum and a spectrum of transgression?

And this is where I really go to town.

A continuum ranges from A to E in a straight line, suggesting A leads to B leads to C leads to D leads to E in gradually increasing severity.

A spectrum thinks in at least 2 dimensions – imagine a circular field, with lots of points all across that field. Instead of progressing in a straight line, offenders commit numerous offences and do many things that in themselves seem ‘unimportant’ or less ‘severe’, but taken as a whole network, add up to a more complex understanding of sexual assault and harassment behaviour.

It’s very very important to note that most offenders defend things like a breast grope or a very tight hand hold, or repeated invitations on dates, or persistent facebook messages, or standing too close, or interrupting women, or not using their proper titles as ‘small’ things. They often admit to doing these things, apologise profusely, and profess ignorance. They target younger, less experienced, less confident, less ‘visible’ women and girls. Women and girls less likely to report and less likely to believe their own instincts.

Taken one by one, each of these is ‘small’. It’s the relationship between all of them, and the repeating, ongoing ‘snow’ of actions that add up to important character profiles.

Most women actually tend to dismiss all these individual things as ‘unimportant’. More significantly, they may not even recognise that men are doing these things to them – eg a woman might feel ‘uncomfortable’ talking to Mr X, but not realise it’s because he’s standing too close, touching her ‘accidentally’, making a lot of eye contact, asking for too much personal information, choosing to speak to her in smaller rooms with no windows, etc etc etc.
It’s easy to apologise for a ‘small’ thing: “Oh, sorry! I didn’t realise! I’ll never do it again. I’m so sorry. Is it ok? Do you feel ok? Let me make it up to you.”

So we have a second important point: women are trained to doubt their very good instincts, men are trained to take the assertive role in these interactions.

A third point: women are trained not to notice or give weight to these many ‘small’ actions/offences.

A fourth point: women are trained to prioritise politeness, male comfort, and avoiding social awkwardness above their own discomfort. So they won’t move away, let alone speak up or ask a man to stop.

A fifth point: women and men lack a language for talking about these minor things, let alone major things.
Women are discouraged from using precise terms to talk about their own bodies: vulva, breast, bottom, stomach, small of the back. This means when they try to articulate where they were touched, they are imprecise: “He touched me down there” rather than “He brushed his finger tips across my vulva”; or “He boob swiped me,” rather than “He trailed his whole hand across my left breast as I turned away from him.” This social awkwardness combined with lack of _words_ makes it difficult for women to explain why they felt uncomfortable, why it hurt, why they didn’t want him to do these things. So when they report these ‘small’ things, they blush, tremble, stutter, hesitate. All signs that suggest ‘fabrication’ or ‘dishonesty’ if you’re looking for a lie.

A sixth point: offenders are really fucking good at hiding what they do in plain sight. I’ve stood and watched a man holding a woman in his arms while dancing, knowing he was groping her, but not being able to see it. I had to trust the woman’s report that he held her too tight, wouldn’t let her go, squeezed her fingers, pressed her groin against his leg. So ‘minor’ things in combination are easy to hide, and also work in concert to make a woman a) doubt herself, b) feel utterly trapped, c) make it impossible for her to report. What does she report? “He touched my hand in passing that one time? He sent me a lot of fb messages?”

A seventh point: other men are discouraged from calling men out on their behaviour, especially when it’s smaller stuff: “Lighten up, mate, it’s just a joke.” They’re trained to dominate space, and to prioritise their own feelings. So they don’t ‘see’ when a woman is trying to get away from a man in a public space in a non-confrontational way.

And, finally, I have seen that offenders invest a lot of time in all this ‘small’ stuff, training women to be quiet, isolating them from friends and help. And then, they escalate. They most commonly seen to escalate to becoming a ‘boyfriend’ who may not actually declare the relationship, but insist it’s casual or just for fun. And within that relationship they often escalate the violence of sexual encounters, and use a lot more controlling, gaslighting, and isolation techniques.

All this is why it’s super important to remember that rape is something that usually happens in the home, domestic or work space, by men women know well.
When we position rape as ‘violent attack on the street by a stranger’, it’s inexplicable (what was she wearing? why did this happen?).
But rape isn’t a bear attack or an earthquake. It’s not an inexplicable natural disaster. It’s often a very carefully planned and executed act of control, and just one expression of a whole continuum of control and exploitation.

So when we want to ‘look’ for sexual assault and harassment, it’s not useful to ‘look’ for the most ‘extreme’ incidents (which are usually defined in terms of phallic power, often literally in terms of vaginal penetration). If we want to find (and stamp out) sexual assault and harassment, we need to look for the ‘little things’, and then the relationships between these little things.|

This is how it’s essential to consider rape and harassment within the context of patriarchy. Everything about that story in the First Stone establishes this as a serious example of sexual harassment. If I was investigating that incident, I’d look for other, non-sexual(ised) incidents of his exploitative and controlling behaviour. Did he use women’s real titles? Did he take them to dinner a lot, or pay for a lot of drinks? Did he only hold meetings in his own office? Did he fail to pursue delayed pay or conditions for employees? Did he ask people to work late?

And so on.

I also need to add that I didn’t really understand how all this worked until I worked on it my dance community myself. I started seeing clear patterns in women’s reports and men’s behaviour. There were a lot of things that I couldn’t articulate or pin down about what made something ‘dodgy’. Luckily dance gives me a good vocab for talking about how to touch someone. But still, it was super difficult, and I still feel like I’m not quite there. I’m missing something. Most telling, I find my own empathy for women reporting assaults, and my own vicarious trauma change the way I think about and respond to reports.

I just don’t think that Alcorn and Garner had or have this understanding of the practical experiences of working on these issues. Too much office time, not enough observation and listening time.

Of course, if you’re reading along as a dancer, and as someone who’s read my other posts, you’ll realise that this is why I get so niggeldy about gender specific language in classes, about the types of photos of dancers we see at events, and whether the lead or the follow is listed first in competition couple announcements.

The ‘continuum of harm’ model is too simple. It suggests only two options: bad or not bad. Which is a) intellectually dishonest, and b) actively disempowering women and survivors of assault. It forces them to decide, ‘Was I raped/harassed or not?’ when the question should be ‘Is that man’s behaviour threatening others?’