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.



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,
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).

[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?’

Should Gordon Webster’s band play the pie/cake song? No.

This is a post drawing together some thoughts that I had in a discussion with some friends. These were good friends, in a private discussion, so I won’t present their words here, just my own. But I want to give them credit for their thoughtful comments.

Here is the nub of the discussion: should Gordon Webster play the song ‘I Like Pie, I like cake’?
Background: he recorded this song with Steven Mitchell on vocals, in the early stages of the band’s push to popularity. The album included some very, very good musicians, was recorded live, and is super super popular with dancers.

Now that who and what Steven Mitchell has done is being spoken about publicly, most dancers and DJs have decided not to play that recording. But what about Webster? Should he still play the song, even without Mitchell on the lyrics?

My response is: no. No. No.

Apparently Webster plays it almost every gig he does. When a friend commented in real time, that Webster was playing it at that moment at Snowball in Sweden, one of the biggest events in the lindy hop calendar, I was shocked. I couldn’t really believe it was happening. Surely that’s a no-brainer? Don’t play a song made famous by a rapist?

So I just assumed that there’d been a confusion with the organisers, a problem with the person who briefed him. As I said in that online discussion:

If they [the organisers] didn’t tell him ‘no pie/cake song’, then it’s their issue. But if they did brief him, and he played it anyway, the band organiser should have had a list of ‘consequences’ for breaches of the code of conduct, and know how to handle the situation.

If he did it at my gig, I’d be fucking ropeable.
Though, to be honest, Webster doesn’t impress me with his understanding of these issues. Especially after hearing that ep of The Track where he talked about it.

After a few other general comments, a man asked:

why can’t he play that song?….. Is it because of the connection with SM, that he shouldn’t play it?

I was, frankly, flabbergasted. What do you think? But then I reminded myself: not everyone is elbow deep in safe space policies. And it also made it clear: men who aren’t doing this work, aren’t thinking about it a lot, are able to think about other issues, and do other work. It’s clearly a limitation on their own work, to not understand these issues, and, at heart, a failure of empathy. But it also limits them creatively.

But let’s look at my response. The following is cut and pasted from the discussion, removing names to protect anonymity, and hopefully edited for coherency :D

Yes [it is because of the SM thing], because Steven Mitchell is recorded with the band, on Webster’s biggest selling album, and because Mitchell was always at the front of the band showboating with that song. It’s impossible to separate the two in people’s minds.

Most events have that recording of the song on their banned list, as it’s
a) grossly insensitive to play a song by a man who sexually assaulted girls and women for years, and
b) when we play that song, we are saying ‘I think this is a good song, and I don’t care about other people’s feelings’.

We should draw the line somewhere.
I choose not to play it because Mitchell groomed and sexually assaulted girls and women, using his power to force them into horrid relationships and situations with him. It makes me feel ill to hear him sing. It makes me angry to hear people applaud it or celebrate it by dancing.

So should Webster play that song, even if Mitchell isn’t singing?
I say no.
Mostly because it shows very poor taste (as though he’d rather get the props for playing a popular song than respect the women Mitchell assaulted) and very poor judgement (it implies he doesn’t care or is too cavalier to realise how playing this song might imperil future gigs or his reputation). But also because it shows us that he simply puts his own ego and feelings ahead of the girls and women who were assaulted, and of all the other women, girls, boys, and men who have been sexually assaulted or deal with harassment and the threat of sexual violence every day.

Basically, Webster playing this song tells me that he doesn’t think. And his continuing to play this song, even after being made aware of the issues, tells me that he puts his own ego before ethics, and that he’s tone deaf (in a social sense, not musical sense).

As an organiser, that tells me he’s trouble.
As an organiser, I’d get right up in Webster’s face (after the gig) for playing that song. I’d be so fucking angry, as I would definitely have told him not to play it. Webster playing it at my gig would be tarring my reputation, but it would also be his disrespecting me, publicly, as a woman and as his employer.

In fact, his continuing to play that song absolutely guarantees I’d never book him.

I’m also wondering if the band booker/manager for Snowball gave Webster clear guidelines on this. Playing the song in Australia would technically constitute sexual harassment and bullying, which is illegal (and could get an event manager into serious trouble). There are a range of issues at work here, including the scope of the band booker’s brief (ie what exactly are their powers and responsibilities), and whether there is a clear policy in place for dealing with sexual harassment and/or difficult behaviour from musicians. These aren’t questions I can answer for this event. But with events I run, I have clear guidelines for the bands (leaders and musicians), and scripts that I use for addressing issues with bands. Because I’ve had to in the past.

After this comment, some other friends made interesting observations. I want to maintain anonymity here, as this is a thoughtful group of people exploring difficult issues in a safe and private conversation. So I’ll paraphrase.
This from a very interesting comment:
– Webster still plays this song, every gig, even after the Mitchell issue became public
– People have spoken to him about the issue
– He has spoken to other people (including women who have spoken publicly about being assaulted by Mitchell)
– He knows it’s not ok to use the recording where Mitchell sings
– I’ll quote this bit: “he feels that he and the lindy hop scene can and should reclaim the song for themselves. It’s a theme for the band, not the person, despite the previous recordings. ”
– Sarah Sullivan’s (Stevens first public accuser) band also plays that arrangement specifically for the point of reclaiming the song.

I’ve heard these points from a few people now, phrased in roughly the same way. I think these are key issues, and worth addressing. So here are some things I said.

There’s a huge difference between Sarah (a woman, a survivor) playing this song, and Webster (whose band recorded it with Mitchell) playing it. The power dynamics are completely different. If Webster had a reputation as a clear ally, and if he wasn’t such a showboat, I’d consider it.

I feel that as a powerful, white, straight man, Webster’s speaking to other people about it isn’t really convincing. Who’s going to tell him to stop? In what settings does he have these conversations? At gigs where he’s the headline act, the ‘star’? Who’s he speaking to? Women? Men? Who? Women who’ve been assaulted by Mitchell?

[Let me digress here, to explain why ‘talking to people’ isn’t an adequate reason for continuing to play this song]
It’s difficult for many women to confront men like Webster, on a topic like this, in confronting circumstances. The very emotions of this issue make it difficult for many of us (whether we have been assaulted or not) to articulate why we don’t think it’s ok. Our culture discourages and punishes women who rock the boat and critique powerful men in public spaces. And Mitchell took great pains to make sure his targets were disempowered and unable to speak up against a powerful man.

Dance events aren’t really conducive to serious talk, and where else would ‘ordinary’ dancers have access to Webster? Not too many people would dare to confront or disagree with a ‘star’ at a big gig. Not too many people, other than other powerful people.

And here we have the point: who are these ‘other powerful people’? Who are the MCs, the organisers, the DJs, the high profile teachers? We still see men over-represented in these roles.
And it’s clear that other men covered up for Mitchell, and enabled his actions. Other teachers, organisers, MCs, influential people. ‘Other powerful people.’ While they may be quick to condemn Mitchell now, these men are not as quick to dismantle the social structures that enable injustice. And dismantle their own power.
Playing a song made famous by a sexual offender is an articulation of power, and it is an injustice. It is part of the discursive and industrial structures that enable sexual offenders. It tells us that the stories and songs of powerful men are more important than the stories and safety of women and less powerful people.
Who says what and where is a matter of power.
Who sings what song, and where, is a matter of power.[/]

Listening to that ep of The Track, Gordon’s clearly not aware of the way his own power and status work in his interpersonal and professional relationships within the scene. Though he may have changed his thinking since then, I’m just not convinced his judgement is sound on this one. And continuing to play this song tells me that he’s not aware of the nuances at work.

The thing is, Webster worked with Mitchell for so long, taking him to cities where he assaulted and harassed women. This makes Webster complicit in Mitchell’s actions, even if only through neglect or awful coincidence. As a band leader, he was in a position to call Mitchell on his other inappropriate behaviour (and Mitchell was always a difficult, demanding, pain in the arse). He could have disrupted the continuum of exploitative behaviour Mitchell was operating within. He could have removed Mitchell’s literal platform for self-promotion and self-aggrandising. But he chose to put him on the stage, at the gigs, again and again.

And I’m not really ok with a white, powerful, influential man ‘reclaiming’ something. That’s a concept that works as a way to ‘speak truth to power’. Sarah can do it, a woman can do it, even a band that’s not associated with Webster can do it. But the song was ‘his’ to begin with… He had and has the power, so what’s he ‘reclaiming’ it from? His own poor decisions? His own association with a man who has always had a reputation for inappropriate behaviour, let alone assault? Better to make reparation and let the song stay unplayed.

At the end of the day, as a powerful person, he should be making choices that are beyond doubt. By choosing to hang onto a song because it gives him props as a pop anthem, he’s treading on dangerous ground. With his history of association with Mitchell, he needs to be beyond doubt in his actions. And this choice is very dubious.

At this point in our discussion, I thought, ‘What am I doing? Why am I defending this position? Surely it’s clear, that choosing not to play this song is the right choice?’ I really felt as though I was going to a lot of effort to prove something that should be self-evident. To articulate that lurch in the guts that was a combination of rage and frustration and fear and sadness. Now I realise that that ‘self-evident’ emotional, empathetic response isn’t shared by people who do not experience sexual harassment and assault. Men aren’t trained to see and respond to these things the way men are. So they need it pointed out; it isn’t self-evident to them.
And this is the kernel of my discomfort: I feel as though we keep having these discussions. And it’s always women who are doing the explaining. Where are those male allies to step in and do this work? Why aren’t men willing to just accept that we actually know what we’re talking about? It’s so, so tiring. And as long as women continue to do all this work, the social structures that enable injustice remain in place. Women spend time and labour on this, instead of other creative work.

[edit: same goes for issues of race. How come it’s poc doing all the hard emotional labour, and white people (especially white men) so unwilling to just trust their word, believe black people?]

So then I felt like I had to excuse or explain my ‘shouting’ and long comments. I always feel like this. As though I need to excuse or explain why I’m so worked up. That there’s something wrong with getting worked up. But because this was a group of friends, I just posted my feels. And then I realised: this is the core of it. The feels. This is what I wrote:

I am so adamant about this because I’ve seen the havoc these men wreak. After the last year working with women reporting assault, I’m just… I cannot articulate just how evil these men are. It’s not ‘just’ a matter of ‘attacking’ a woman once. It’s systematic, ongoing control of every aspect of their lives. These women are terrified, seriously fucked up, and it’s just so so bad.
These women contact me saying ‘I just want to know if X is going to be there. If he is, I won’t go.’ They’re just so afraid, that if they see these guys they dissolve into panic – it’s real trauma. And the things these men do to them. It’s horrific.

And it’s now very clear that these men all cover up for each other, support and defend them. That’s the part that’s really upsetting me. I keep running into organisers and DJs and teachers and musicians who actively protect men who are known rapists and cruel bastards, because they’re also doing these things! They hire each other for gigs, they bully women into disappearing quietly, they provide environments that encourage exploitation in all sorts of ways.

It’s all so awful that I can’t read any more reports. I haven’t been assaulted, but I am regularly harassed, because I’m a woman. And now that I’ve heard these stories, that are just so common, I’m just heart sick.

So I just can’t believe that someone like Gordon Webster wouldn’t do something as simple as stop playing a song. It’s such a little thing for such an influential person, but it’s such a big gesture.

Reading these comments again now, I’m reminded of the arguments people make for watching and posting videos of Max Pitruzella, another reported rapist. People go to great lengths to defend this choice. And I’m not convinced.

In sum, then, I don’t think Gordon Webster should play the ‘pie/cake’ song with his band. He should stop playing it. For as long as he continues to do so, and for as long as men defend his playing it, I will be suspicious of him and his motivations. They are not my allies.

what is inclusivity? what is a safe space?

Shelby recently asked on fb:

Dance friends!

What is inclusivity?

Also, what is a safe space?

I know what these are in general sense but curious of what people’s functioning definitions are rather then these ne terms that thrown around in the ether but don’t have a definition tied to it but rather have actions connected to these terms.

This is what I said.

I use these words in different ways in different contexts, but in my dance work:

What is inclusivity?

I usually talk more about ‘being inclusive’ (ie doing something, rather than a noun), because it’s tied to activism – actions – in my head.
Basically, it means doing what you can, changing things, to include all sorts of people. The assumption is that mainstream spaces (ie lindy hop classes, parties, workshops, etc) are dominated by white, middle class, heterosexual, urban, able bodied people. This isn’t an accident, but a result of how the space is designed and functioned.

So when we make things ‘more inclusive’, we change the space. That can include:
– the language teachers use; the type of teachers (eg hiring POC, same-sex couples, etc etc);
– where a space is (in a middle class area, or out west in a more diverse community?);
– how a space is advertised (changing images and language to be more welcoming to a wider range of people);
– the make up of bands (from all white men, to ….heck, anyone else).

Before we can make these changes, though, we need to study the space itself, and note it’s characteristics: who’s missing from this space? Which voices are heard? Who is speaking? There’s lots of literature about this stuff to draw on, so we needn’t invent the wheel. This is also my background: looking at communities of cultural practice and finding out who they are.

I don’t think every single person is welcome at all dance events. As an example, I don’t allow known sex offenders or violent people into my events. They are clearly not welcome.
As another example, we have women-only dance classes in the Sydney scene, run by and for women who don’t feel safe with men, or want to dance just with women. For all sorts of reasons. That’s cool.
We also have lgbqt classes, which welcome straights and allies, but also make it clear that these classes prioritise queer language and politics. So anyone coming needs to be cool with that, and might find it challenging at first.

So when we say inclusive’, I’m thinking ‘a place or policy that actively works to resist and undo patriarchy.’ It’s not a neutral ‘everyone is welcome’ policy. It’s an explicitly political policy to undo the privileging of straight, white, middle class men in lindy hop.

What is a safe space?

I don’t use the phrase ‘safe space’ very often, but I do talk about ‘safety’ in my dance work. When I talk about safety, I’ve specifically chosen to position my work on preventing sexual harassment and assault as part of ‘occupational health and safety’ work. Why? Because I run a business, and there’s a lot of good literature and resources on this exact issue, coming out of feminist activism and also union work.

So when I talk about ‘safety’ I’m talking about:
– prosaic stuff like avoiding injuries and accidents by removing dangers. But this is useful because a ‘danger’ can be a known offender that we ‘remove’ for the safety of workers and punters.
– I like to position sexual assault and harassment as potential injuries, as this makes them ‘ordinary’ and desexualises them to a degree. This allows us to get past some of the social taboos around talking about sex or bodies or gender in our community.
– I like to push the idea that ‘safety’ is all of our responsibilities. So I use the phrase ‘we have each other’s backs’ and ‘look after each other’ a lot. The three main ‘rules’ of my business’s dance classes are: ‘look after your partner, look after yourself, look after the music.’
-> this idea of mutual responsibility is central to my feminism: it’s about communitarianism and collectivism (rather than individualism); it’s about care and nurturing; it’s about empowering people by giving them responsibility for each other.
-> very central to this is giving people concrete ways to ‘care’ for each other – eg our code of conduct has a section on ‘how not to harass someone’. At events I say, “If you see someone who needs help, offer to help them to the registration desk” (and this is said over the mic to punters, but is also written in our handbook for volunteers and staff). They have explicit ‘scripts’ for asking for help or for offering help.

At the heart of this approach, is my belief that to make spaces more inclusive and safer, we need to undo patriarchal power structures. ie we need to undo the ‘top-down’ pyramid of power, where we have one ‘boss’ at the top, and then layers of people with less and less power. I aim for a flatter power structure, and more rhizomatic systems of responsibility. When I say ‘rhizome’ I’m talking about a model where everyone is connected to each other in complicated ways and relationships, not just looking up to one boss or down to employees. Change is the most important part of this: we are capable of change, and we should aim to change and learn and try new things.