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A friend linked up Gay Alcorn’s Guardian post ‘Helen Garner’s The First Stone is outdated.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.
Why?

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 rub: who are these powerful people? Who are the MCs, the organisers, the DJs, the high profile teachers? We still see men over-represented. And it’s clear that other men both covered up for Mitchell, and enabled his actions. Other teachers, organisers, MCs, influential 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 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 similarly 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. 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 rub: 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.

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.

why the black kids sit together

I was just watching this video ‘Why the Black Kids Still Sit Together’ feat. Beverly Daniel Tatum and thinking about how important it was to have critical mass of black dancers at Herrang this year in week 4.
There was a moment after the meeting when I was watching the OGs hanging out with the Frankie ambassador peeps, with teacher, dancers from all over the world. They were just hanging, talking, dancing a bit while staff tidied the hall for the dance, the DJ (me) set up for the gig, and the hall emptied out.

Watching these peeps of colour from all over the world hang out, I was struck by just how white Herrang is, and how there’s this insistence in the camp that we only listen to black music from no later than the 50s in common areas. No hip hop. No rap. No reggae. No modern rnb. None of the music that these young people listen to, own in their everyday lives.

And I thought, ‘This is some pretty fucked up shit. That white, middle class people are gate keepers for what counts as ‘legit’ black culture. And it’s the black culture that’s back there in another time, out of reach of these young people.’ And it makes me want to laugh as much as cry that the camp was stretching as far back as the 1600s to an ‘authentic’ black dance from Africa for classes, rather than just reaching out its hand to the kids who were right there in the camp, a living part – owners! – of black culture today.

That’s why the black kids sit together in the cafeteria, lindy hop.

[edit: these same points apply to why we need more women in DJing, why we need to queer it up in lindy hop, etc etc etc]

How gentle classes can fight the power

I was thinking about this this week. When it’s hard for peeps to get to class, if our classes are extra welcoming and embracing diversity, we make it easier for marginalised peeps to get to class and learn to dance.

I think it’s important for us, in this political climate, to do what we can to counter the horrible sadness and anger we feel about injustice. And I think we can do that by doing positive, excellent stuff that makes people feel good and happy. Including us. And lindy hop is just perfect for this.

This is my back story:
Our country is currently embroiled in a very nasty public shitstorm about a survey asking whether or not the laws should be changed to include same sex marriage. It’s not a referendum or a binding vote. It’s just a huge, expensive, shit-stirring survey intended to stir up distress and foment conflict. All because our spineless government didn’t want to allow members of parliament to vote on a new bill according to conscience (rather than party lines).
Last week in class we had a few same-sex couples come to class for the first time. Our door person was wearing her excellent ‘YES’ tshirt*, and I’d reposted this the previous week:

The couples felt a bit nervous about class (usually first time beginner stuff). And today I was thinking, ‘I’m so glad we were making it clear that anyone can lead or follow. I’m so glad we had a same sex teaching couple that week. I’m so glad we have a friendly class that focuses on looking after each other. I’m so glad our usual students are so welcoming and nice to each other.’
It’s hard enough coming to class for the first time as a shy noob. But if you’re someone who’s used to be marginalised, it’s even more important that you’re met with a welcoming class environment.
Because I believe, so strongly, that happy students do better learning. And we can do very good, important things for the world just in teaching dance. It’s not ‘just dancing’. It’s important.

*meaning ‘vote ‘yes’, let’s change the laws.

When and why to ban offenders, and when to commit to rehabilitation

Another post growing from a fb discussion.

I’m not the hugest fan of Clem Ford, but I’ve mulling over this very point RE offenders in the dance scene:

…people with criminal convictions have the moral right to reintegrate into society once their sentence has been served. But being entitled to access basic needs like employment, housing and amenities is starkly different to being supported to re-enter spaces that automatically confer privilege and power (Clementine Ford, What it means to be a good bloke).

Thomas pointed out in response to this,

This thread’s on point. If a criminal conviction can limit someone’s ability to travel, it’s difficult to see how they shouldn’t be limited in their access to positions of power as well.

and Liam replied

Agreed, but Ford is confusing criminal punishment and social shunning, which are both at work, or not at work. Shunning of transgressors is a social punishment there aren’t any rights against (which is why it’s so powerful/dangerous, and sometimes called for).

The issue within the lindy hop world (and the wider world implicitly), is that most rapes don’t go to court. More precisely: very few of all rapes and assaults go to court. So in most cases there aren’t any criminal charges to enforce or take into account. In the dance world the nearest equivalent is a public report and then community-based action.

The modern lindy hop world has a very strong (certainly evangelical) ethos of ‘growing the scene’. This is rooted in the myth that lindy hop has ‘died out’ and needs to be ‘revived’ or ‘kept alive’. The specific reasons why it should be kept alive are harder to pin down.
But this push to ‘grow the scene’ is often employed by less ethical organisers to justify everyone supporting their events or classes (eg ‘we should support all the classes because we want to grow the scene‘). And it plays a very important part in many community members’ refusal to ban or blacklist offenders: we must ‘keep’ big name/talented/famous dancers (especially ones who were involved in historical research, people like Steven Mitchell) because we have to ‘keep lindy hop alive’ and honour these roots.

This last point is the most worrying for many of us. We are encouraged to venerate original groovers and historians because they are so important to a preservationist/revivalist project. Many dancers resist blacklisting or shunning these dancers because there is a sense that… fuck, it a clear belief that ‘preserving the dance’ is more important than women’s safety.

Steven Mitchell’s systematic grooming and assault of a large number of women and girls was facilitated by dancers who excused his behaviour because he was important for ‘reviving lindy hop’.

Within the dance scene, social shunning is almost the only response to assault by community members. And it is super powerful, because it’s usually achieved by:

  • Blacklisting teachers and DJs (so they don’t get gigs and aren’t put in a position where they can hurt people);
  • Blacklisting/boycotting organisers’ events (if they offend or hire offenders, or don’t ban offenders);
  • Banning offenders from attending big events, and smaller local classes and parties;
  • Excluding offenders from fb groups and discussion lists (which are really super important for community participation where the dance floor itself precludes a lot of talk).

…and so on.

The issues within the dance scene at the moment are:

  • Who carries out and enforces these bans, boycotts, and blacklists;
  • When and who decides it’s time to lift these bans;
  • How to organisers share info with other organisers and with the general punters about who’s been banned (and do they have an obligation to share this information);
  • Who will share information about offenders with whom, and which of these sources is ‘reliable’;
  • What role women reporting offenders should play in this process. eg are they obliged to forgo anonymity and risk physical danger (this seems to be a preponderant view among male organisers, and more conservative organisers);
  • Organisers’ not knowing how, or when, they should enforce bans, and being faced with financial loss and face when discovering a contractor is an offender.

I must point out, that while there’s quite a bit of chatter on the fb about how we should act on these issues, the vast bulk of the practical work is being done by women.
Which brings me back to Ford’s original point: why aren’t men stepping the fuck up on this?

My final points: if we are supposed to commit to rehabilitation of offenders within the community, who exactly is going to do this unpaid labour? And why is their rehabilitation given great value than the mental and physical wellbeing of the women who survived their criminal violence?

If you’re an event organiser and not acting on safety, you’re a dickbag.

Ruth reposted this great post by Miranda on fb today:

If you are an advanced dancer, you are probably a scene leader. If you check out of important safe space conversations, you are complicit in reinforcing toxic behaviors. Not taking a stance, is a stance that it’s cool for messed up things to happen.

These conversations need you to participate or don’t be a role model. Oh and if you’re a good dancer, you’re someone’s role model.

I agree. Completely.

A friend had tagged me in their comment to this post, and asked me to comment on how to not be a dickbag organiser. He didn’t use the word dickbag. That was me. Because if you’re not acting on this stuff, you’re a dickbag. A bag of dicks.

This is what I wrote:

I have a bunch of things I do (with regards to safe space policies and practice), but I don’t really have the brain space to outline it here.

But there are two parts to this issue:
1) preventing harassment through cultural change (eg how do you teach students, what do you model on the floor, what type of teachers do you hire, etc AND dismantling current power structures like unquestioning adulation of teachers, and top-down authority networks.);
2) responding to s.h. and assault.

You can’t not address this issue today. a) because be a good person, and b) it’s bad PR to be a dick. No one will attend your events, you’ll get a bad rep.

My current concern:
The men who offend are not my big concern.

I am concerned about the people (organisers, fellow teachers) who protect, defend, and enable these men.
I am seeing patterns of behaviour in event organisers who actively protect known offenders, and often enable them. Particularly if they are famous teachers. But they also dismiss reports about ‘less famous men’ because it simply doesn’t have the impact that reporting a ‘famous teacher’ does.
This is what truly terrifies me.
And it’s common and truly upsetting.
They’re not protecting them out of ignorance; many organisers know these men offend, they simply don’t think it’s such a bad thing. And they would rather defend their profits and profile than defend the safety of their students and peers.

So that’s what I’m working on right now. The things I look for when ID’ing rape apologists and enablers (usually a combination of these, with the general result being that it shores up the power of the organiser):

  • lack of code of conduct;
  • a code of conduct that’s been cut-and-pasted from elsewhere and clearly hasn’t been thought through and has no clear ‘voice’ reflecting that organiser/body;
  • no transparency in prevention and response strategies (ie they won’t tell you what the process is);
  • focus on ‘letting the police handle this’ and official legal recourse where women have to report assaults, but they don’t actually assist women in this;
  • talk about ‘private issues’ and framing assault as ‘sex’ or ‘bad sex’ rather than physical assault or attacks;
  • focus on ‘common sense’ to stop people offending;
  • wanting to ‘hear the other side of the story’ or ‘talk to the man’ rather than believing the reporter;
  • wanting a meeting where the reporter and offender meet ‘to discuss this’;
  • refusal to admit that it happens at their event;
  • wanting to handle this on a ‘case by case basis’ where they ‘speak to’ the offender (vs a broader policy with transparency and clear consequence and preventative strategies);
  • statements like ‘women make false reports to hurt a man’s career’. We all know this isn’t true;
  • tatements like ‘if they were raped, why didn’t they tell me? If they didn’t tell me, it wasn’t such a big deal.’

All this keeps the power with organisers and offenders.
Codes, policies, and transparency change the power dynamic, so that we are all responsible for each other and can act on offences; not just one powerful person.

How to approach this issue, as a decent human:
1. Learn about s.h. and assault, from the laws in your country to the info provided by rape crisis centres.
2. Be prepared to be upset, and get your support networks in place. This is upsetting stuff.

More generally:

You have to have a code of conduct. Even if you call it your ‘mission statement’ or ‘vision’ or ‘manifesto’. It’s a public statement of your values and the ‘rules’, and you have to be specific. eg actually explain what counts as sexual harassment in a dance setting – eg hands too low on backs, etc.

Now you have a code, how do you tell people about it? Website? Flyers? Posters? Hand outs?

Once you have a code, you realise that you need consequences for people who break the code. ie do you ban? Do you warn? How do you escalate responses (eg when do you ban vs when you warn).

Once you have consequences, you realise you have to have a process for delivering and then enforcing your consequences. Who will do the warning? How? Paper or email or f2f? How do you keep that warner safe while doing that job?

Develop a process, script, and role for this. Then practice it all.

Once you’ve banned someone, do you tell other organisers? Is it a lifetime ban? Do you take on a remedial role for that person, or do you just get rid of them (I’m in the latter camp – I’d rather give my time to people who are nice than people who hurt other people).

If you have to warn or ban someone, how do you keep track of who did what? You’ll need a reporting process. Who writes the report? When? Where? What happens to that report afterwards? Do you have a report form? Where is it? How many copies do you have? How do you safeguard anonymity and safety?

Safety. Mine. Other Women’s.
At this point the biggest priority for me, having done public reports about known offenders in the Australian scene, and actually being active on this issue, is the safety of women who’ve been assaulted/harassed, and my own safety:

  • my physical safety (I have been threatened for speaking up);
  • my legal safety
  • my financial safety
  • my mental well being (it’s fucking stressful and exhausting)
  • knowing my limits: how far do I go in protecting women who reports assaults; how far do I go in reporting? How much will I do before I say ‘ok, this is enough; I’m too tired/scared.’
  • protecting the anonymity and safety of reporters. I find that EVERYONE wants to talk to these women – to ‘verify’ the story, to know who they are (as if that matters), etc etc etc. This is partly straight up sexism (people simply don’t _believe_ women).
    I have also found that the offenders want to ‘talk to’ the women reporting them to ‘work it out’. This means they want to bully or threaten them into shutting up. Remember that assault and harassment is frightening and physical assault: people are injured. So protect the reporter.

Actually illegal things that lindy hoppers do

I’ve just been reading this post, Jeepers, peepers, what to do with your creepers by Dan Newsome, and I was struck by a particular list, where Dan lists things that contribute to a situation being ‘unsafe’ (there are other lists (sexist, creepy, coercive, etc).)

Just plain illegal
– Seeking physical affection from another person when that person is inebriated or otherwise incapacitated
– Drugging
– Using threats
– Using physical force
– Continuing to contact someone when they’ve drawn a boundary
– Having relationships with someone below the age of consent

This bit rang a bell for me, because there are many cases where lindy hoppers excuse this behaviour.

‘Using physical force’: The ‘rough’ lead.
All of us know a lead who is so rough he routinely hurts his partners. Yet our response is women either avoiding him or tolerating it. A lot of dancers excuse the rough lead as ‘a beginner’, or ‘just how he is’.
But if we won’t tolerate a stranger physically yanking us about in a cafe, or a man grabbing a handful of our flesh in a supermarket, why do we tolerate it in during a dance? When we say yes to a dance, we aren’t giving our partner permission to hurt us.

If you’re teaching lindy hop, your number one priority should be safety. People come to dance classes knowing how not to hurt people. So if they leave your dance class having hurt people, you’re responsible for that.
If you see someone hurting their partner, say something to them! You don’t have to be a teacher or a famous person. Make a polite script, practice it, then do it.

‘Continuing to contact someone when they’ve drawn a boundary’: keeps asking you to dance person.
If someone says ‘No thank you’ when you ask them to dance, deal with it. Be ok with with that.
If you don’t want to dance with someone, it’s totally ok to say “No thank you,” and leave it at that. You don’t need to give a reason or excuse.

If you see someone hassling someone to dance (the ‘dragging her onto the floor guy’, the ‘needy pleading girl’… and vice versa), say something. “Hey mate, be cool.” You don’t need to step in and dance with that annoying person (though we often do this). Australian slang has the perfect expression for stepping in: “Steady on, mate.”

Occupying space

Someone posted a photo of a man ‘manspreading’ on the tram to facebook, and there was a good discussion about it. For me, manspreading is a physical version of mansplaining, or of patriarchy. A (male) friend made this comment about the original post:

I sit like that..but i would 100% sit less comfortably so that i dont put others out like that. I find both men and women go about thier day unmaliciously unaware about how inconsiderate they are towards other people across a range of general day to day activities. I think if everyone made an effort to be empathetic in general things like this wouldnt happen..

This is a very sensible and reasonable response. It’s what I tend to think of as a humanist or individualist response to a feminist critique. On one level, I’m in agreement. But on another, I don’t think this approach actually captures the nuance of human relationships. Feminism begins with the assumption that men and women experience the social world in different ways. And these experiences are shaped by social forces and institutions which favour men.
I like to add detail to this, by adding the notion of ‘patriarchy’. Patriarchy is an organising force or ideology that organises institutions (schools, business, markets, hospitals), discourses (discussion, media, the exchange of ideas, things), and lived reality (our physical experiences). One of the key features of patriarchy is that people are organised not just by hierarchies of gender (where men have more power than women). They’re also organised by class (rich men have more power than poor men), by race (white men have more power than men of colour), by sexuality (straight men have more power than queer men), by age (middle aged men have more power than teenaged men) and so on. The ‘most powerful’ man, then, is rich, white, straight, and middle aged. We describe this type of ‘most powerful’ man as hegemonic masculinity.
It’s important to note the difference between ‘man’ and ‘masculinity’. ‘Man’ is about biological sex. Masculinity is a social construct. That means masculinity is a product of the way boys are taught and learn to act as men through formal institutions like schools, churches, and armies, and informal relations like families and peer groups.

Most recent feminist talk has approached this issue in terms of ‘intersectionality’. In the late 80s the more common term was ‘diversity politics’ or even postmodern feminism. But that thinking has been refined and developed to become intersectionality. The word gives us the image of a number of sphere or lines ‘intersecting’ at a particular point. Here’s an example. Let’s imagine a woman called May who has Shanghainese parents, is a lesbian, was born in Australia, and is the mother of two children.

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 12.52.51 PM

All of these things make her the person she is. Let’s also imagine May identifies as a Chinese-Australian lesbian mum. This identity is the intersection of the traits that May considers most relevant (to this conversation at this time).
Of course, May’s person is the intersection of many more characteristics.

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 12.50.38 PM

She’s also tertiary educated, cisfemale, middle class, lives in urban Sydney, and is able-bodied. At any time she may identify as one or a combination of these characteristics. This is important: choosing how to identify, is a mark of social power.

If we return to our hegemonic masculinity, we can see that this identity also exists at the intersection of a number of characteristics:

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 1.05.36 PM

The important point here, is that the power of this hegemonic masculinity lies in not recognising the different elements that contribute to this status. A man like this, occupying a position of power and influence, a businessman for example, might describe himself as a ‘hardworking, self-made man.’ He may attribute his position of power to working hard all his life. Which may be true. But his gender, class, ethnicity, and sexual identity mean that he is allowed to marry the person he wants, has access to better housing and health care, and has not faced racial discrimination.
Not acknowledging these advantages is an important part of patriarchy. The myth that power and success comes from hard work (rather than privilege) is an important part of capitalism as well.

So let’s go back to manspreading.
How is this an example of patriarchy at work?

I replied to that comment above with this

It’s partly about how men and women feel about occupying public space. Women are trained to take up as little space as possible – to be smaller, to talk softer, to be less confident, to avoid conflict by becoming invisible. Whereas men are trained to sit wider, stand wider, talk louder, disagree, to ‘stake their claim’ on space and ideas, to ward off conflict with a show of strength, take up more physical and audible space.

If a woman does break these rules – is louder, bigger, more confident, more visible – we have lots of ways to shut her down. Slut shaming, comments about being ‘strident’ or ‘shrill’, etc etc.

So manspreading enrages women because it’s about men being so comfortable with occupying space they don’t even to stop to consider their behaviour.

NB this is culturally specific.

When I talk about ‘public space’, I’m placing it in opposition to ‘private space’. Public space includes inside public transport like a tram, on the street, in shops (though these are technically private spaces, they function as publics), in the media, online, in parks, and so on. Private space includes the home, family, inside a car, personal email.
When I say ‘men and women’, I am talking about the men and women of urban Australia, a post-colonial, space in the modern, white-dominated developed world. The photo of a white man manspreading was taken on a Melbourne tram, where he is occupying more than half a seat he shares with a white woman:
Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 1.12.23 PM
Using textual analysis and an understanding of discursive context, we can identify them both as white, probably white-collar workers in urban Australia. We could make some guesses about age, and we could probably extrapolate about sexual preference. But the most important features here are gender and posture. He occupies more space with his wide legs, his relaxed, open shoulders, his joined hands, extended elbows, forward-facing posture, raised chin. She takes up less space with her closed legs, drawn-in elbows, compressed pecs, biceps and shoulders, her bag across her shoulder and in her lap. And so on. She also ‘closes’ herself to him by turning away and speaking on the phone. His ‘open’ posture suggests confidence and almost challenge (considering the context).

This sort of posture is not something that you see on peak hour trains in Seoul. Because Seoul commuters (the same class and age as these two) are taught culturally and socially to share space in a more communitarian way. There are certainly hierarchies of age and gender in the Seoul underground, but they operate in different ways.

Why is this the case?
If we follow the individualist reading, we could argue that the man has ‘won’ more space by being more confident, and by simply ‘stepping up’. But there is extensive research and observation proving otherwise.
Women in our culture are trained to think of public space as ‘dangerous’. They’re taught to be wary of rapists and physical assault, to preserve their ‘modesty’ and avoid unwelcome sexual attention by covering skin and literally keeping their legs together. They’re taught to avoid interaction and conflict by not ‘challenging’ others by using more than their ‘fare share’ of public space on a seat or in a tram. This includes speaking softly, not making eye contact, keeping their body ‘contained’ and ‘covered’, not speaking to or challenging men, not expressing their opinions, not laughing loudly, not swearing, not moving in a free way.

Women who don’t follow these ‘rules’ are disciplined with a range of strategies: men may ogle them, comment on their appearance, touch them, or interact with them despite being told to stop. These women are seen as having forfeited their ‘right to autonomy’ by being in public in particular way. Other women may be less overt, more effectively censorious: they may sneer at a woman’s body (she’s too fat!), eye her clothing (it’s too revealing!), mutter about her (she’s too loud!), draw away to avoid touching her (she’s contagious!)
The most important thing that I can say about this process, is that it is impossible for a woman to every behave or dress or be in a way that keeps her ‘safe’ from male attention and female policing. Because, despite the insistent slutshaming mythology of our culture, she is not responsible for men’s behaviour. Men are responsible for the way they disrespect women, though they are rarely held accountable. This is a very important point, because it makes women complicit in their own oppression. It makes women feel guilty for and accountable for men’s behaviour. It treats men’s behaviour as ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable’.

Even more importantly: if women are busy feeling guilty and vulnerable and taking responsibility for men’s behaviour, it stops them being confident and capable and asserting themselves. And this is how patriarchy polices women: we are convinced that we don’t deserve equal space on the seat, equal time in the conversation, safety in our homes, safety in public spaces.

Of course, power and privilege are largely invisible to those who have it. That white man on the tram probably has no idea he’s pushing that woman off the seat, or that the observing photographer is judging him. He might move over if you ask him to. Or he may be just as likely to huff and make a fuss about being inconvenienced by having to share. Because ‘when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels Like oppression‘.
Women, though, are far more likely to be aware of this inequity. Women are hyper-vigilant about their safety and bodies in public space. They sit in a particular part of the tram in a particular way to avoid conflict (note that woman’s almost apologetic use of the seat, her attention diverted by her phone to avoid a challenge). They avoid eye contact with strangers. They won’t tell an intrusive man to fuck off if he hassles her. Women wear coats over a skimpy dress in public, they don’t laugh loudly, they don’t ask these manspreaders to move over and share the seat. Because that manspreader is likely to see this request for equity as an injustice or challenge.
And here, of course, is the clincher. Women are trained to see themselves as vulnerable. Women are trained not to confront men about seat sharing, because they are afraid that man will hit them, shout at them, or humiliate them. Or – not impossibly – wait for them when they get off the train, then punish them verbally or physically. Women are taught to carry their bodies as though they were weak and vulnerable. To not ‘challenge’ male dominance with open, strong posture or direct eye contact.

This is where mansplaining comes in.
This dominance of physical space extends to verbal or intellectual space. Men are taught that their ideas are more valid, more important, more urgent than anyone else’s. More importantly, they are taught not to notice this, and to see this as normal. So when they do have to ‘share the floor’, they perceive an equal distribution of speaking time as inequity. And they respond to this as a challenge to their…status? Virility? Power? Who knows.
There’s a vast body of literature (primarily in linguistics and spoken discourse analysis – an area I did some work in during my MA work, and later employed in my analysis of online talk in my Phd) studying exactly how men and women talk in same-sex and mixed-sex groups in different settings. This somewhat dodgy post gives some interesting links (do make sure you read to the end.) Men and women use language in different ways, and they talk in different ways. I think it’s absolutely fascinating.

I have extended this model to my analyses of dance. Because I approach social dance as a public discourse: a place for the exchange of ideas and discussion and articular of identity. Through dance. So I see manspreading and mansplaining as two examples of male dominance of public space/discourse. Verbal/audio space and physical/visible space.

How does this relate to dance specifically? Well, we can look at the way some leads perceive the idea of ‘sharing improvisation time’. They may feel they are giving the follow equal time, but they do not see the power dynamic at work. Firstly, they do not understand that ‘giving a follow space’ is an articulation of the idea that the lead is the ‘boss’, rationing out ‘space’. This policing of improvisational space actually ensures that the lead is always in control of the whole dance. And of the follow’s body and creative voice. Secondly, their notion of ‘sharing fairly’ is skewed; it is not an equal division of time and space at all. In this situation I’d argue that this whole paradigm is poop.

This is partly why I really dislike the ‘dance is a conversation’ analogy. Because the type of conversation many men imagine they are having with their partner has more in common with mansplaining and manspreading: there is formal turn taking, but men interrupt more, take more time, and are more defensive and more aggressive, discouraging women from doing or ‘saying’ anything that could potentially embarrass or challenge a male partner. Deborah Tannen (linked to in the post linked above) points out that women and men use interruption in a different way. Women are more about collaborative meaning making (interrupting to exclaim “Oh my god, no way!” vs interrupting to mansplain and paraphrase a woman).

I would like to remind you that we need to think about intersectionally, here. While I’m saying ‘men’ and ‘women’, I should be saying hegemonic masculinity and talking about whiteness and class. The lead-follow relationships in modern Australian and American lindy hop are marked by class and race and gender and power. Much as people may like to pretend they are recreating the Savoy, they are in fact continuing the thinking and behaviour and relationships of their wider lives in the current moment.

As an example, listen to Frankie Manning’s discussion of leading and following as challenge in this video. He makes it clear that he enjoys being challenged by female partners. He also relies on women partners to help him get through improvisation. And he listens to his women partners’ improvisation and timing. It’s not exactly feminist talk, but Manning is articulating (and embodying) a masculinity that is an intersection of other identity markers: heterosexual working class masculinity of early 20th century urban Harlem New York jazz dance culture.

I’d like to add an addendum here:
In my experience, women who speak up about injustice – who question men’s behaviour or ask for equity – are attacked. Verbally. Physically. Legally. Financially.
I very rarely attack specific men personally for their behaviour, and if and when I do, it is always with bountiful evidence and with the express purpose of protecting women from his actions. Yet I am continually bombarded with emails, facebook messages, blog comments, letters, shouting down and interruption in public. I’m not particularly rude and I’m not aggressive. But I am perceived as such, because I’m not actually sitting down and being quiet.

It can be scary, but now that it’s happened so many times, it’s not scary any more. It’s just irritating. And I’ve also discovered that women are just much better at this public talk and action than men. Bitches get shit done.

Flat vs heirarchical power in safe space discourse

Following on from my last post, Conflict or Bullying?….

There are technical definitions for harassment, abuse, and bullying in various government or medical literatures. But I’m finding these aren’t as significant as the perception of these differences within the dance world.
For context, the last two years since Steven Mitchell was openly outed as a serial rapist and sexual offender, have seen dance scenes around the world leap into action to develop policies, processes, and practices which respond to and prevent sexual assault and harassment. This could be referred to as ‘safe spaces’ discourse in the scene (even though many people don’t use that phrase).

Now that we’re two years in, particularly in Australia, where we’re actually a little ahead of the game, we’re seeing people moving to a next stage. How to maintain these processes how to support and care for safe space workers, how and when to lift bans or enforce stronger measures. We’re also seeing organisations exploring formal legal options and advice, and in Australia, there is a general movement towards coordinated efforts. A sort of loose national consortium or more accurately loose network of communication. This means that various bodies and individuals who run events, teach classes, or are active in their local scenes are talking about these issues and sharing information and resources.
In an activist sense, we’ve moved from agitate to educate and are now into organise.

We can say that there is, on the whole, a very general (though not comprehensive) agreement that we need to address sexual assault and harassment in the scene in an active way. This is quite a different culture than the one I wrote about in 2011 in A Difficult Conversation About Sexual Violence in Swing Dance Communities.
I think this is a very good thing.

We are also seeing another interesting (and occasionally frustrating) issue developing: dancers are beginning to talk about and act on a range of anti-social behaviours, but they don’t always (rarely?) share the same understanding of ‘bullying’, ‘harassment’, ‘conflict,’ and so on.
Two of the key issues seem to be: what do we take responsibility for responding to (as institutional bodies)? How do we respond to various behaviours? And what is our scale for ‘anti-social’.
So, while we’re all on board for ‘improving safety’, now we’re seeing clear differences in how people think ‘we’ (as a community) should respond, who this ‘we’ is, and when it should happen.

I’ve seen two general groups of thinking:
1. Peeps who would like to preserve a hierarchical, top-down power structure, where we have powerful people (organisers, teachers, etc) who respond with authority to incidences and reports.

2. Peeps who would like to see broader cultural change to undo some of these hierarchies, so we have a flatter community power structure, and more people feeling powerful enough to intervene in unsafe situations, or to stand up for themselves and others.

I’m in the latter group.
I’ve noticed that people in the first group are very focussed on processes of reporting, ‘punishment’ (from ostracising/banning to police intervention), and essentially maintaining the status quo.

People like me, who are in the latter group are much more focussed on doing things like changing the way we teach dance, and on building class cultures where students do stuff like ask each other to dance in class (and know how to say yes or no, and how to deal with either response), know how to say ‘please move your hand’ or ‘I’m not ok with that’. For a lot of teachers, one of the important parts of this approach is to rethink the lead-follow dynamic, from changing the emphasis on heteronormative gendering (where men lead and women follow) to shifting from moves-based dancing (where leads lead a zillion moves in a row and follows execute them), to movement-based dancing (where both partners interact in a more collaborative way, with an emphasis on rhythm and the music rather than executing moves. The ‘ambidancetrous’ movement is a part of this latter group, but also what I think of as ‘gentle teaching’, where classes are less focussed on mini-routines, teacher-centredness, and class ‘levels’. A ‘gentle teaching’ approach focusses more on social dancing skills in class (eg students counting themselves in, lots more music in class, etc etc etc).

I’ve talked a lot about teaching, but there are other projects that have similar goals (cultural change) and aren’t focussed on teaching. A good example is a very wonderful shift away from school-organised parties in Sydney, and towards individual- or friend-organised parties. This has meant that we’ve seen lots of smaller, more collaborative parties in the last couple of years, where the people putting the events on work with friends and aim to have fun. My favourite part of this is the collaboration with musicians. Whether they’re blues musicians, gypsy jazz bands or swing bands. From a nerdy music POV, I’ve seen that these bands rarely work from written scores; they tend to do more improvised stuff, and there’s more to-and-fro between musicians in the band, and between musicians and dancers. It also seems that musicians like these gigs a LOT more than the other type of gigs.

I really like the second as an example of cultural change, as we see a move away from centralised hierarchies (with power and decision-making centred on one or two people) to localised, flatter hierarchies (where decision making can by done by anyone, and anyone can run a party, and we attend because we think it sounds fun, or because they’re our friends, rather than because we feel institutionally obligated).

One of the interesting parts of the second approach is how Sydney (as my working example) has integrated safe space practice and discussion into this culture. If we are localised (rather than centralised) and we have lots of people making decisions, how does a code of conduct work?
Things I’ve seen in Sydney:
– people share resources and ideas
– people are saying ‘I am personally responsible for my friends’ and my own safety’. And I see men saying this too. So individual people are feeling engaged, rather than relying on a powerful person at the top of a hierarchy to ‘fix things’.
– there’s more communication between individuals running parties, but also between people who are working on events in other capacities. eg the people who managed the door at Jazz with Ramona this past weekend also manage the door at other parties and events, and they are taking their experiences with both groups’ safety policies and growing a practical, tailored approach that works in both spaces.

I really like all this stuff.

But a clear consequence of these two general groups of thinking has been some clashes in ideas about who should do what. And about what ‘counts’ as harassment, bullying, or conflict.

So, right at the end here, I’m actually in favour of shunning or ostracising in some cases. The most obvious of these is when groups of women say ‘no thank you’ when a known groper asks them to dance. They feel confident enough to say no without justification. And they are making it clear to him that they are the bosses of their bodies, and his antisocial behaviour has had consequences.

If those women had chosen instead to make a complaint to a powerful person, who had then ‘warned’ that man, then those women remain disempowered, and the organiser has the power.

Of course, in this environment, knowing when to do formal bans, warnings, and escalation of responses is a more complex issue. And this is where I (and a few friends all over the world) are now: how do you use official roles and processes in a flatter power structure?

Hence my interest in understanding the difference between conflict (which I think is inevitable and ok – especially as it teaches us how to manage conflict in healthy ways) and bullying/harassment.