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.

More talk about consent and blues dance: the consequences of trauma on discourse

In a continuation of the discussion begun by Damon’s post, Kelly posted a lengthy, intelligent piece on facebook. This one was only visible to friends (not everyone), so I won’t copy and paste it here. But she did begin some interesting discussion about being a white woman engaging with this topic. I chimed in there in a less careful tone than I would on Damon’s post, as I know Kelly better, and I wouldn’t splash my feels all over the page of someone I don’t know.

Anyhoo, this is how I responded:

While i can get behind the statement, ‘Some historic blues dance styles are defined by a close embrace’, i cannot endorse the line that walking through the door at a blues dance event _is_ giving consent for a closed embrace.
Whatever the history of a dance, drawing an equivalence between those two points is rubbish.

I’m also very unkeen to just recreate the past. Honour our history, yes, but i’m not just going to give a blanket ok for wholesale reenactment of ‘history’.
I go to dances with my brain and eyes open. One of the most important parts of the cultural transmission of dances between generations, communities, and cultures, is adapting them to make them socially relevant. That’s why canel walk in 1930 and camel walk in 2018 aren’t exactly the same.

So i’m saying it bluntly: even if the historical ‘truth’ was that you (women, it is implied), give up the right to withdrawl consent at blues partirs, i am NOT ok with that now. And i do not want to revive or preserve that little nugget. And i sure as shit won’t tolerate retrosexist bros who use this ‘history’ to enable contravening women’s rights.

No punches pulled there, right?
But I’m finding it so difficult to stay chilled on this topic.

A couple of black men responded, but again I won’t cut and paste their comments here, as they weren’t publicly visible. When a post and comments aren’t public, we assume that the authors assume a degree of anonymity or ‘safety’.

But I did continue, after some thought, with the following post. I think it best sums up by difficulties in dealing with this topic. It’s so, so hard to unpack privilege and assumptions about race and ethnicity when your brain is being pounded by the effects of vicarious trauma.
Lately the topic of intergenerational trauma has entered Australian discourse about indigenous Australian rights and compensation. Part of me would like to talk/write about the physical consequence of trauma and violence (and living with the threat of violence) for people trying to participate in public discourse. Basically: it’s fucking hard to be calm and coherent when your brain is pouring adrenaline through you. And I think that this is why we need allies. We need people who have the privilege and advantage of not being physically threatened by patriarchy to do some heavy lifting.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I get so upset about this particular point. I understand with my brain, but then my emotions just come raging in.
I think it’s an old school trigger. I have heard men use exactly this argument -“It’s a blues hold”, “Relax and go with it,” “This is how you do blues dance” – when a woman asks them not to hold them so tight it hurts, not to touch their breasts or groin, or gets so upset they cry and leave the dance. I’m dealing with these men in my local dance scene at the moment.

So when I hear just the beginning of this sentence, it’s like a switch gets flicked in my head, and I hear those women literally crying, ashamed, and telling me what the man said as he held her down and groped or assaulted her. Repeatedly. “Relax. It’s a blues hold.” It’s line built for gaslighting.

I know I feel this way because I’m dealing with vicarious trauma from working on so much s.a. and harassment stuff. But my brain isn’t in control here. My emotions are.

At this stage, I simply can’t accept this approach. As I type this, I’m starting to feel a bit distressed. But right now, I’m 100% not ok with even getting anywhere near supporting or even taking apart this argument to see how it works.

I’ve also been wondering: am I doing some low-key racism here? Am I policing a topic for my own privilege? I’m not sure. I do know that I’ve heard white male offenders appropriate the ‘this is authentic black history’ argument to justify serious harassment, as social dancers, and as teachers, _teaching_ other men that this sort of behaviour is legit. And that makes me super, super angry.

So I’m going to sit on this for a while until I don’t get so seriously triggered. Then revisit it.

When do you give consent: blues dance and historical context

Damon Stone, a high profile black male blues dancer recently made this post on facebook:

Blues dance post following –

Asking for consent before dancing in close embrace. If you are at a blues dance and someone asks you to dance, the expectation is that you are going to do blues, be it freestyle or a specific idiom…if they say yes, that *is* consent for you to dance in close embrace.

Like all other activities and aspects of consent, such consent can be withdrawn at *any* time, but if you do not want to dance in close embrace with someone politely refuse the dance. If you don’t want to dance in close embrace with anyone, then, respectfully, find a different dance.

EDIT: This is assuming two things, 1) that the person is dancing correctly, 2) that not every single blues idiom dance is a close embrace dance, but blues idiom dances use close embrace as their starting position.

I read this post in light of the recent (and most excellent) comments by black women about white blues dancers (which I note in my post ‘Stop Dancing’), and ongoing about how to negotiate consent and avoid sexual assault and harassment in the contemporary blues, balboa, and lindy hop scenes.

My response was as follows.

I think there are a few issues here for me as a dancer and observer:
– One is the history of blues (and we are talking about a dance that includes a very close embrace – just as tango does),
– One is the different current cultural contexts of blues music and dance around the world today,
– And one is the different notions of consent and negotiated physical contact in different cultures today and then.

I think this statement is problematic:

If you are at a blues dance and someone asks you to dance, the expectation is that you are going to do blues, be it freestyle or a specific idiom…if they say yes, that *is* consent for you to dance in close embrace


Because people take this statement and this concept at face value. As a relatively experienced dancer, I know what it means: if I go to a blues party at Damon’s house, I should expect some pretty close physical contact. I’ll be able to tell a bro or a woman to back off if I’m not ok with what they do, but I should expect a close embrace (vs no physical contact at all, as at a tap jam).

But an awful lot of people take this sort of dance etiquette and map it onto their relationships throughout the dance world. An awful lot of men and women are trained to expect this: that a woman or man must say yes to a dance invite, a close embrace, a partner doing as they like with our body. Because an awful lot of people don’t know how to touch other humans with respect.
In my world (fuck, in Trump’s world), men expect to touch women as they like, women expect that men will try to touch them without permission, and learn to avoid that in a non-confrontational way. Men learn to exploit this and exploit women.
So when we go to a blues dance, some people need to be told, explicitly: you don’t get to do what you like to your partner’s body. You have to ask permission.

I’m rolling my eyes too. For fuck’s sake.

Blues as a historically-rooted dance comes from black communities, where notions of how to touch and when to touch and who to touch were something black kids learnt growing up, engaged with as teens, and then continued to negotiate and renegotiate as adults.
These ideas of ‘appropriate’ touch, how to ask for permission to touch, how to reject touch and so on weren’t monolithic across black communities in the US. I mean, there’s that iconic story that Frankie Manning told about imitating his mother dancing by dancing with a broom and getting into big trouble. The implication here is that dancing that way was something adults (sexually mature people) did. And they certainly didn’t do it across generations (part of his mother’s reaction was no doubt to do with the fact that Frankie was watching his mother, not some random woman, in an intimate embrace).

So we have generational differences then. We also have generational differences now. And young women regularly police the boundaries of when old is ‘too old’ to dance intimately (and sensuously) with (“eee gross! He is too OLD for you!”)

Then of course, we have different regional differences (country v city, city v city, etc), and different class differences (eg the super close intimate dancing has long been associated with ‘low’ culture, and wasn’t appropriate for huge, cross-generational dances in ‘polite’ company).

In all those spaces, people figured out what was appropriate and what wasn’t. A good slap would tell a man if he’d crossed a boundary. From that woman, or her brother or father. And then a series of stern frowns, lectures, and ‘punishments’ from a world of aunties and grandmas and mothers.
But, for many dancers today, blues dancing isn’t situated in that close community network. Their aunty is never going to know what they did at that party and come after them with a broom. There isn’t that inter-generational education about how to touch and be touched on the dance floor.

Blues dancing today also exists in lots of different cultural and social contexts, with all sorts of attendant social mores and modes of behaviour. We are at this moment having very public discussions about the role of race, cultural heritage and who gets to police these values. Who gets to speak in these discussions, who gets listened to, and whose words last are subject to broader socio-political forces.

I’m saying this not to be patronising (I know you all know all this), I’m saying it to signal that I’m aware of these issues. I need to talk context, and I am aware of the bigger issues, and the intensely personal issues at hand.

But I think that one of the voices I’m not hearing in many discussions about blues dance (and how to touch a partner on the dance floor) is black women’s. I think that Cierra’s Obsidian Tea piece about dating is really useful here, for me (as a white woman in another country). It says, ‘Hey, mate, your rules of physical intimacy may not apply here. Pay attention.’ So I’m paying attention.

BUT there is also an ongoing contribution from black women talking about their rights to decide how and when they give consent, and to whom. As a full-on example, a queer black woman at a blues dance not automatically give consent for a man to hold her in a closed embrace. Nor does a straight black woman. They might not need to give and receive verbal consent, but they certainly have a right to set boundaries about their bodies.

So I figure: in this moment, when we are renegotiating blues and lindy hop, we don’t assume anything about how we touch other people’s bodies. I might go to a tango practica expecting to be held and to hold in a very close embrace. But each dance that I have in that session will involve some degree of negotiation. I might invite a close embrace, but I might also reject it. I might end a dance early. I have a right to do all these things with no notice, both on and off the dance floor. How I do this depends on the traditions of that scene, and my own social skills (or lack thereof).

In my culture (white woman in urban Australia), women are strongly discouraged from publicly embarrassing men. To protect their own bodies, but more to protect the reputations and status of that man. So we are trained not to slap a handsy man on the dance floor (though goddess knows I’d like to). We’re trained not to say “STOP THAT” to that handsy man on the dance floor. We’re trained not to move away from that handsy man on the dance floor.
And I don’t know what a black woman my age at a party in Chicago would do in those situations either. I’d probably watch and learn, and ask my female friends questions, and figure it out. But I’m in Australia, and I’m white. So I’m figuring it out long distance. And this is why I really really want to see black women talking about how they do this stuff.

We might sensibly assume that if we go to a blues dance or event that is advertised (or described) as a party in the sense of the historic blues idiom, that we might be doing some close embracing on the dance floor.
(which I think is your original point, Damon?)

BUT I think that we should never assume that we can embrace someone or touch someone without asking for and receiving consent to do so. And to continue to check in and to see that our partner is ok with this. And being prepared to end the dance ourselves if our partner isn’t into it, or if our partner wants to end this.

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.

YES please

I think often of the two men who intervened when they came upon Brock Turner assaulting an unconscious woman at Stanford — they knew instantly that something was wrong, because she was clearly not participating. Contrast that with Evan Westlake, who in high school witnessed his two friends raping a semi-conscious girl at a party in Steubenville, Ohio. When asked why he didn’t intervene, he told the court, “Well, it wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.”

I’m sure there are many differences between Westlake and the two men in the Turner case… but the one that stands out to me is that Westlake was raised here in the US. The two men on bicycles in Palo Alto were Swedes, raised in a country that teaches healthy attitudes toward sexuality and gender in school, starting in kindergarten, including lessons on not just biology but healthy relationships, destigmatizing taboos around sex, and, yes, affirmative consent. They knew that a woman who is lying still and not participating in sex is a woman who isn’t consenting. And it prompted them to take action (Jaclyn Friedman ‘I’m a sexual consent educator. Here’s what’s missing in the Aziz Ansari conversation.’)

This is of course our next task: how to let someone know, if you’re really into having a dance with them, and how to know if someone is really into dancing with you. This came up in a discussion about teachers being paid to social dance: who wants to social dance with someone who has to be paid to do it?

If we train our new dancers to always say yes to a dance, I’ll never know if they really want to dance with _me_. I want to be a dance partner people enjoy dancing with. And I think it’s very hard for many of us to admit that: that we’re hurt when people don’t think we’re nice to dance with. If people _have_ to say yes to our dance invitation, then we never have to face the fact that not everyone wants us (as dance partners).

So a good, enthusiastic “Yes PLEASE!” is as important to practice as “No thank you.”

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.

Thinking about sexual assault and harassment as OH&S

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should teachers ask to be paid for social dancing?

A well known and relatively high status teacher, Åsa Heedman posted this (public post) on faceplant yesterday:

Today I learnt that some Lindy hop teachers take an extra charge for 1) showing up at the dance evening and 2) charge even more for dancing with the students. Ridiculous! Organizers in the world: don’t support this, it is not gonna help creating a good Lindy scene.

There were a range of responses, from wholehearted approval of the sentiment to profound disagreement.

Me, I got opinions. Of course. Let me premise yet another poorly written post with the point that I feel that sexual harassment is just one point on a continuum of exploitation and misuse of power in the lindy hop world. So if we want to get rid of assault and harassment, we need profound restructuring of institutions and social conventions throughout our scene. Teachers and teachers’ working conditions are just one of these. The premise here, of course, is that teachers are at once powerful and influential people, but also disempowered and exploited in many of their teaching roles.

One of my general comments was this:

I reckon it’s fine for teachers (and other workers) to charge what they like. The market will let them know what it can bear :D
But i also think it’s totally fine to discuss pay rates and who charges what. If we didn’t, then pay inequities (eg male teachers being paid more than female) and exploitation (eg workers not increasing their rates annually, not being fed or housed properly, or overworked) wouldn’t come to light.

One of the most interesting comments on this post was by Alba Mengual:

Asa i completely agree. On the other hand we have had a contract sent to us that specify “that we must show up to the evenings and dance with the students” and i felt i didnt want to sign it (even if i do it allways) because i do it for the LOVE not because of a professional obligation. about if i only go 1h to the party bc im tired? Will i get not paid because i breached the contract? .and how many students is enough?? To have this in my contract kills my soul and my love for what i do…i want to have joy at night inviting people and i do in any party bc i love dancing…and not feel that im working..really really for me its a big difference

This was my response to Alba’s point, and to the issue overall:

I think Alba’s reluctance to sign a contract where she’s obliged to social dance a lot (has to social dance) is justified. She has a right to say no to dance invitations. Everyone does. I think that it’s not only important for her well being, but for her to model self-care like that.

I always clarify with teachers whether they charge for social dancing. I’m ok if they do.
When I write up agreements for events where I have booked teachers, I always specify the terms:
– whether or not teachers are expected to come to parties
– whether or not they’re expected to social dance
– whether or not they’re expected to arrive at the beginning or stay til the end.

As long as both the organisers and the teachers (ie employer and contractor) understand and agree to those terms, it’s fine.

From an industrial relations/workers’ rights point of view, I don’t mind whether teachers require payment for social dancing or not, and if they do require payment, they should set that out very clearly in their terms and conditions document.
Similarly, organisers need to state very clearly in their own terms if they want teachers to arrive dead on time, dance every song only with students, and only leave at the end of the event.

-> These points are very, very important if I’m talking with non-Australian teachers. Especially if they come from a culture where workers’ rights are strongly protected (eg Sweden) or not protected. Or just plain different to Australia. I have legal obligations to not only protect contractors’, volunterers’, and workers’ rights, but to be sure they understand their rights.

Personally, I say this in my agreements with teachers:
– you’re not obliged to attend parties, but it’d be nice if you did;
– you’re not obliged to social dance, or to turn up at the beginning, or to stay all night;
– you’re definitely not obliged to come to late night parties.
-> I tell them to prioritise their health, and if that means they need to take a longer break between classes and parties, that’s good. If they need to leave earlier to get more sleep, that’s also good. If the sound levels are an issue, if they have kids to look after, etc etc – all those things are more important than their coming to a party.

I just make sure I hire the best bands I can find, bands that makes people want to DANCE. Or sit and watch and listen. Or have a drink or two and talk to people!
I also make sure I hire teachers who enjoy social dancing. And then I make sure that their working conditions and experience makes them feel like dancing.
And I also try to say clearly in my event PR “please welcome guests to sydney – invite them to dance, say hello” etc etc. And that means teachers, musicians, visiting dancers, volunteers, etc.

I also have terms in my agreements with teachers about drinking (ie don’t teach drunk; don’t drink while you’re working because OH&S; abide by the code of conduct).
The code of conduct makes it clear that drinking to excess while working or in a position of authority is not ok; and I’m clear about sexual relationships with students at events.

Åsa then replied:

Sam Carroll, it sounds like you are one of those organizers that teachers really appreciate to cone and teach for. Great! That’s the kind of circumstances that bring out the joy, please come but you don’t have to. But as you are also good with that some people charge for attending social dance I just want to ask you how you handle the fact that maybe one teacher is getting paid for being at the social dance and the rest is not. Is that fair? Is then that teacher getting paid while somebody else is not. For the same kind if “work”?

That’s a tricky one, Asa. It’s a bit like asking ‘how do you feel if one teacher is being paid a higher rate than their partner for teaching’, or ‘one dj is being paid more for their djing than another.’
There’s actually lots of work done on negotiating contracts and collective bargaining by unions. When you are part of collective bargaining via a group like a union, you may accept a lower pay rate so that everyone can be paid and have better conditions. Bosses of big businesses often work to dismantle unions and pressure workers to sign individual contracts. This saves bosses money, and gives them greater negotiating power.
So individual teachers have a right to charge different rates, after all, we don’t have unions, nor do many events observe local industrial relations laws.

I feel that it’s better to go legit as an organiser, as it offers you legal protection if things go wrong (so you can call the police if a teacher assaults someone at your event), and you pay tax in return.

Similarly, if teachers ‘unionise’ (ie talk collectively about terms and pay and so on), they can push organisers to provide better pay andconditions or risk a strike/boycot by teachers.

We are seeing the beginnings of this collectivism now after the public talk about teachers assaulting people. Some teachers are saying, “I will not work at events that don’t have a code of conduct”. This is a way of saying, “i won’t work at events that don’t respect health and safety laws.”

Similarly teachers saying “you must pay me to social dance,” is a way of saying “you must respect the fact that social dancing is physically and socially hard work; you must allow me sufficient rest time after classes; etc etc.” You can still love your work and be paid for it. In fact, there’s a theme in the lindy hop world that you shouldn’t charge or be paid for wonderful, creative work you enjoy. Why not? You can love your job and be paid for it.

So when i read that some teachers charge for social dancing, i ask myself, “what experiences have led them to this action?” Perhaps this is a response to poor working conditions:
– too little rest time between long days of classes
– very late nights
– not getting enough sleep or rest (because they don’t have real beds or doors that close)
– terrible parties with awful music
– a scene vibe that encourages dances only to dance with ‘the best’ dancers instead of people they like,
…and so on.

So this pattern in teachers’ pay rates tells us a lot – far more than just ‘they want money.’ There’s nothing wrong with wanting money. But there is something wrong with exploiting workers.

Btw, i have to give specific props to Ramona Staffeld on this issue. She is brilliant to work with: she’s very clear about her terms (and explains why), she tells me when i’ve erred, she’s super professional. She balances self care with an intense, hedonistic love of social dancing, AND she’s a brilliant teacher and dancer. And just plain nice.
Working with her has made me a better organiser. But it’s also led to my doing wonderfully fulfilling creative work with musicians, tappers, and lots of other volunteers and contractors.
I actually don’t do late night parties, but i do always book bands. Musicians who love to socialise with dancers. And Ramona’s generosity of spirit is what leads her to yell approval at a band mid-song, make friends with them, and get up and jam with them. So our evening parties tend to be very rich and intense, whether you’re dancing or talking!

I know i work well with clear structure, but Ramona has also taught me how to let loose and just revel in the jazz as well.

After this, there are a number of posts arguing against having contracts at all.
And I’m not ok with this.
Here is an example from Matthias Müller:

We never signed contracts with our teachers and made great experiences with it. The better you treat the teachers, the less you have to fix by contract and the more you get rewarded by them.
So, thats the big thing for me: Don‘t blame anybody for anything, this is the free market. But choose well and reflect your own setup as an organizer…

I replied:

I disagree vehemently with this, @Matthias. Clear agreements are important. There is a clear correlation between no-contract (no code of conduct) events and underpaying, exploitation, sexual harrassment, bullying, and straight up bullshit.

..i’m also deeply suspicious of any organiser who pushes contractors _not_ to have agreements. All the ones like that i’ve worked with (as dj and head dj) have been fucking dodgy, and later proved to hire and cover up for sexual harrassers and rapists. Dodgy approaches to OH&S issues are a big alarm bell for me.

A contract or agreement is just a way of writing down clearly what you have all agreed on.
Note: the events that hired Steven Mitchell here did not have written agreements with all contractors, and have been the very worst for not paying teachers or djs, overworking staff, etc etc etc.

It is possible to have a contract and still be good friends, guests, hosts, and so on. An agreement just ensures clarity.

At this point, Carla LaRue Heiney commented. I enjoy her contributions. She makes interesting points, and is very thoughtful.

What if we shift our paradigm here….
When I was teaching with Kevin St Laurent and we put in our contract that we needed a “real bed”with a door that closes to the room, people thought we were crazy, but it was because we were trying to take care of ourselves so that we could do the best job possible and also be present. We valued social dancing with the students at the evening parties, but we also valued getting some sleep and eating healthy.
I remember people talking about us and gossiping that we had certain things in our contracts. We had to do this because we honestly were not taken care of and I don’t think it was anyone trying to really “get away” with something, but rather a new scene and people trying to figure it all out still. I don’t think we even knew what we really needed until we had been traveling a bit and realized how poor sleep conditions and lack of time for things manifested in sick instructors, grumpy instructors and more.

So, we talked to some other professionals and we decided to have a contract that just stated what we wanted and needed and nothing too crazy, we hoped. Real bed, private sleeping areas, 3 meals a day, down time, maximum number of hours teaching etc. I am wondering if these newer contracts and requests from both sides are not just another attempt at people trying to take care of themselves and simply need refinement. To me, personally, I think of how nice it would be if some of the dances were earlier or didn’t go quite so late, but that is the mom in me talking.
I have also hired instructors are are known not to social dance as often as others because I still highly valued their instruction and take on the dance and the other things that they added. I tried to balance this choice with hiring instructors who were known to be on the social dance floor throughout the night. And I also made a lot of mistakes along with some good choices, hopefully, too.

The big thing is, let’s try to figure out why and not try to think negatively about the organizers making those requests and the teachers asking for certain things. I am all about choices and freedom and understanding. There is always something to learn.

This point is most important, I think: “The big thing is, let’s try to figure out why and not try to think negatively about the organizers making those requests and the teachers asking for certain things”.

Later, Tonya Morris added this comment:

You know, when Sugar Sullivan taught in Seattle, we couldn’t keep her away from the dance floor at night…one night she ended up in a ridiculously fast jam at the end of the night with Peter Loggins doing first stops and swinging out hard. I kept offering to bring her home and she looked at me like I was crazy. That’s the epitome and spirit of Lindy Hop…just saying.

My response to this:
Different lids for different pots, right?

I’d also like to think that the ‘spirit of lindy hop’ is to take care of each other, to stop and listen to a band and watch a solo, really enjoy the company and conversation of a new friend, to buy a friend a drink, or lend an ear to someone in need.

I’m really uncomfortable with this ‘that is the spirit of lindy hop’ talk. We are all different people, and we do things in different ways, enjoy different things. I don’t want to have this one, singular, and disturbingly evangelical ‘spirit’ of lindy hop.
I want ‘Sam’s spirt’ which involves dancing like a fool, DJing sometimes, being the butt of musicians’ jokes, meeting new friends, designing flyers, reading about jazz history, looking at Australian modernist art, talking about labour relations, making applique banners, swapping photos of historic buildings, listening to CDs with friends, learning about mic stands…. lindy hop brought me all this. I think all these things are important.

And I do think that a scene that thinks the ability to dance non stop for sixty million hours is the highest human quality is a danger. That’s how we got people like Steven Mitchell and Max Pitruzella exploiting this ethos.

This conversation is continuing on faceplant right now.

But I think it’s worth summing up the key issues:

– teachers having terms and conditions
– some teachers specifying their social dancing time/pay
– other teachers and dancers feel this is ‘not in the spirit of lindy hop’
– I feel that this ‘spirit of lindy hop’ rhetoric is an ideological tool ripe for exploitation (to mix a metaphor). The nebulous ‘spirit’ of a community disappears diversity, and discourages solid, clearly written contracts oand terms of agreement.

– some teachers and organisers feel that agreements and contractors kill the ‘spirit of lindy hop’.
– I strongly disagree: clear contracts and agreements are a useful tool for avoiding exploiting workers, and they empower disempowered people.
– some people feel that social dancing is the ‘true’ spirit of lindy hop.
– I feel that it’s just one part of being a lindy hopper and lindy hop culture. I feel that valorising this quality is what led us to the bullshit power dynamic that enables gross exploitation and abuse of less powerful people by more powerful people.

A key point, here is that I want to reframe this as a discussion about labour rights and relations. Unions and collectivism are a useful ideological and practical tool for countering the ‘artistic individualist/ mysterious creative spirit’ rhetoric that is often used to justify exploiting workers, or to avoid transparency in work practices. We have clear proof that this avoidance of legit industrial practice contributes to and enables sexual assault and harassment and exploitation in the lindy hop community. To the point where if I see an organiser or teacher actively arguing against contracts or agreements, I am deeply suspicious. I suspect serious misconduct.

I’m very uncomfortable with some dancers’ resistance to the idea that lindy hop is, and can be a ‘business’. The people most critical of this concept seem to be those who have gained social and cultural power from lindy hop. So we see high profile teachers and some organisers using this argument. I smell bullshit here. I also see no problem in making a business of lindy hop. In fact, formalising arrangements and being financially responsible and sustainable is one way to avoid injustice. We have models to avoid hardcore patriarchal capitalism in lindy hop business, and there are quite a few very good dance businesses around the world which use them.

And look. It’s fucking hypocritical so say that it’s not in the spirit of lindy hop to run a dance business, when you benefit financially, socially, and personally from being employed by those businesses. So fuck off with that bullshit.

I also want to introduce more discussion of cultural and business law and policy into this discussion. Yes, this stuff tends to exclude people. And that’s exactly my point. Learning about these things empowers us. As I said in reply to another person’s comment:

I guess I just don’t think teachers’ social dancing is any more important an issue than all the others that go into running an event. This isn’t going to be a popular opinion, but while who you hire to teach is very important, the teachers are just one element of the weekend. And can be replaced.
In fact, an event often _needs_ to change up its teaching line up to continue to attract attendees. And that’s why teachers need to stay competitive as workers and artists: they need to be good at what they do, improving their skills, and acquiring new skills (including how to conduct themselves professionally).

The much more important things involved in running an event are:
– is the event financially sustainable (ie are you going to be bankrupt by running it)?
– are there enough people to actually run it on the weekend?
– do you have venues hired?
– do you have music hired – DJs or bands?
– are people safe at your event (eg do you have cables run safely, is the building sound, do you have fire escapes – do you have an OH&S policy?)

So I put whether or not teachers social dance into the ‘teachers’ conditions’ folder in my head (and literally in my computer), which is just one of many other folders. Teachers’ working conditions are no more important than volunteers’ working conditions, or musicians’ working conditions, or DJs’ working conditions, or the sound engineers’ working conditions, or my own working conditions.
So I can a) only allow teachers a certain amount of time, and b) I can’t help but see common issues across all the contractors’, workers’, and volunteers’ folders.

Basically, and this is something we’ve been talking about in the lindy hop scene for a few years now, teachers aren’t magical fairy artists. They are creative workers and employees, _as well as_ artists and humans and inspirers and mentors. So they deserve no more or less time and attention than any other person at the event.

This issue may vary between different countries, but here in Australia our government policies are fucking over the arts. This is having material effects on the lindy hop scene:
– our community venues are getting more expensive and harder to find (because they are govt funded and maintained), and private venues are EXPENSIVE, but also restricted by new laws (like the lockout laws, and noise restrictions);
– our musicians are going overseas (because the arts grants and school music programs which pay their bills have been cut so severely);
– agencies like APRA, PPCA and so on (which administer copyright and music licensing) have fewer funds for outreach and support for smaller organisations;
– visas increase in cost each year, and require a lot of skill and knowledge to secure, because our govt is slowly closing its borders to anyone who’s not white and middle class;
…and so on.

All this means, that if you want to run a weekend dance event, you have to run it as a legit business. Because there aren’t enough funding or resources to run events on the cheap.
If you _do_ want to run your business as a non-profit, you really need to get your act together and learn a lot about tax law, business registration and administration law and so on.
Either way, you need to be a bit savvy about cultural and business policies and laws. It’s hard work.

A lot more goes into running a dance weekend than booking a teacher. And if we want to be able to invest the thousands of dollars hiring a teacher requires, we have to get our shit together. We have to run this professionally.