Why we should talk about sexual assault in dance.

I was just thinking about why women telling their stories about being assaulted or attacked or harassed in the lindy hop and other jazz dance scenes is so important.
It’s about consciousness raising.

In an old school feminist consciousness raising group, women would speak about their experiences. They would just tell each other about the things that had happened to them.
The assumption was that their experiences were important, and unique. Worth listening to and sharing.

Kathie Sarachild … noted that the pioneering feminists had initially thought to use consciousness-raising as a way to figure out what their next action would be. They had not anticipated that the group discussions themselves would end up being seen as a radical action to be feared and criticized. (link)

I’m always surprised by the aggression in people’s responses to suggestions that we might actually talk about, let alone do something about, male sexual violence. But I shouldn’t be: it is a profoundly powerful act.
Women should be quiet. We should do as we’re told. Because we are overly emotional and can’t be trusted to be strong and capable. So many things in our day to day lives tell us to shoosh and sit down.

You’re too fat! Too uncool! Your hair is weird! Your skin is bad! Don’t draw attention to all that!
Don’t draw attention to yourself on the train (you’ll get hassled)!
Don’t wear a short skirt (you’ll get catcalled)!
Don’t ask too many questions (you’ll be seen as needy)!

Stop! Don’t! Think twice! Question your choices! Question yourself!

We’re encouraged to doubt ourselves, and that doubt keeps us in our seats. It makes us want to be invisible.

We’re also encouraged to believe that sexual assault is something that strange men do to women on the street who aren’t careful.
But it doesn’t. It usually happens in our homes, and is perpetrated by people we know.

But because women’s voices are drowned out by film, television, popular music, books – patriarchal discourse – women assume their own experiences are an aberration. Unusual. Probably their own fault. If those things even happened at all. ‘Gaslighting‘ is a particularly horrible way of making women shut up. People tell these women that what they’re talking about isn’t true, and didn’t happen. And women believe them.

So when women do speak up – just as Sarah and those other women did – it’s consciousness raising.
It tells other women that their experiences aren’t (sadly) unique.
It tells other women that they are not alone.
It tells men that they can’t get away with their actions in secret; women won’t keep those secrets for them.
It tells men that their friends, family, and partners – not strangers – are hurting women.

Because it’s the secretiveness that enables male crimes of violence.

Carol Hanisch said that consciousness-raising worked because it destroyed the isolation that men used to maintain their authority and supremacy (link).

This is why it’s not only important to speak up, it’s important to speak up in public, and to speak to other women.

But.
Once these women have spoken up, it’s our job to take the baton. We can’t ask them to do everything: this one thing that they have done has taken monumental strength and bravery. We owe them a response that is as brave and coherent as action.

A half-arsed report on our sexual harassment responses

[note]This was a post on the facey, which I’ve started writing up here.[/]

Remind me to write up a report on how our new reporting and preventing sexual harassment and accidents process went at LBW.

Short version: it worked.

Mid-length version: we put together a door handbook, reporting forms, and a process for reporting incidents. We ‘trained’ managers in the process, and we let volunteers know about the process via the handbook, email, and in person talk.

Long version: how online discussions, reports of assaults made by very brave women and girls, and getting angry and upset led to the development of policies, of material codes and rules, and then practical processes and documents. A success story.

Things we needed:

  • An online version of our code of conduct, easily accessible from one click on event website, and well publicised on facebook.
  • A brief paper version of the code printed on the back of the event program which was packed into registrants’ envelopes.
  • A full version of the code printed and put into the event handbook.
  • Paper incident report forms in the event handbook.
  • A process for making reports (including a quiet place to do the, who should do them, and how, etc etc).

Most importantly, we needed good will from all the volunteers, staff, and managers. And that was the easy bit. Everyone was really keen to make this work, and really just saw this as an extension of our Swing Dance Sydney rules:

  1. Look after your partner
  2. Look after the music
  3. Look after yourself

What a lovely group of people.
This is by no means a finished project, but it’s actually turned out to be a very interesting and productive one.

13344581_10153611377823483_2930802524378605505_n

Packing the code of conduct (on the back of the program) into registrants’ envelopes.

 

 

 

13315547_10153611381933483_5111295868712487877_n

A first version of our event handbook, which contains lots of things, including: event program in plain text, door count sheets, cash count sheets, incident report forms, code of conduct, guide to identifying wrist bands, various paper signs, etc etc. All in one central folder.
There were two copies of this handbook, and each has a plastic slip on the front for adding notes or action items when handing over shifts or responsibilities.

13315680_10153611382133483_8751312588924837771_n A first draft of our incident report form, which drew on examples provided by lots of useful people who work in places that have decent reporting processes for accidents, etc.
These forms are in our event handbook.

 

13339482_10153611382288483_6080499492564714442_nThe longer version of our code of conduct, in paper form. It explains what counts as sexual harassment, and s.h. is just part of the ’emergency’ and ‘incident’ part of the handbook, after what to do if there’s a fire.

 

13319936_10153611382293483_5897772960599469148_n The paper version of our code of conduct on the back of an event program. Which is available at the door at events, in registrants’ rego packs, and as a promotional item distributed to venues in the week or two before the event.

Having it so readily available is an attempt to normalise this sort of talk and material. So ordinary that everyone has read it.

 

[Note] That was the original post. Then there were some comments. Here are some of them.[/]

Tal Engel: Can you elaborate on the phrase “it worked”? Are there any incidents you’re comfortable discussing where the system came into play?

We had no reports (thankfully, but also – maybe we had incidents but no reports?), so I can’t talk about that issue.

But I think ‘it worked’ relates mostly to the ‘consciousness raising’ part of the exercise, to quote old school activism. So by having lots of people involved in the process, from stuffing envelopes to handling a handbook, we gave people access to the code, and to the process. We demystified our process, but we also demystified sexual assault and harassment a bit. I hope.

I also wanted to make it clear that these things are _all_ of our responsibilities, and something that happens in our public places between friends, not in dark car parks by strangers.

It also ‘worked’ as a practical skills development process for me, and for the rest of the group. So actually putting together a handbook took some practice and real thinking – far more than I had expected. And it took several drafts to create something more accessible. Still needs work I reckon.

It also worked as a way of engaging all the staff in thinking about events as community spaces, where problems (whether they’re someone needing a bandaid, or someone needing a quiet place to sit and talk) are solveable.

…I think one of the most effective parts of this whole process was the online discussion of this process on our facebook event page.

I just matter of factly laid out the deal. But this also dovetailed with the way I engage with people on the event fb page: prompt replies to queries, but professional in tone. I also use my real name and face on event pages (rather than the event’s home page ID), so that our events have a ‘face’ and a name behind them. This makes it easier for people to see who they’re ‘talking to’, but also says ‘hey, I respond to your concerns’, which hopefully sets up an example of how I might respond to reports of assaults.
More importantly, this public talk in a public forum also addresses the lurkers, who are the vast majority of readers. They might never post on the page, but they read how I engage, and see what I do.
I’d really, really hope that this also normalises modes of discourse for this topic. ie just as having other women leads in your scene encourage other women to lead, having someone addressing these issues clearly, personally, and professionally might also encourage similiar responses.

What I really hope is that people will do as I do when I go to an event: see the best stuff other people do and then copy shamelessly in an attempt to be as good at it as they are. So hopefully people will see what I did, steal the good bits, and improve on it all, fixing the bits I’m not good at.

13087454_10153541191933483_297896331261212459_n Related to this ‘putting a face and name to an event’ stuff, is having badges for volunteers. It’s something for volunteers and staff to know when they’re on duty (you take it off when you’re off duty), but it’s also a clear way of identifying staff (and you need to tell punters about this). If I had more money, I’d have done Tshirts :D

I’d add that this wasn’t a particularly difficult process. It just took a while. And we had to approach it as an iterative process: where you don’t just do it and then, boom, it’s finished. You see each version as one step in an ongoing process.

I think that it was very important to be very angry and determined to do this. If I hadn’t be so angry, and if I hadn’t wanted so much to look out for my peeps, I probably would have given up ages ago.

I think this process makes it very clear that a simple code of conduct squirrelled away on a website is pretty much useless on it’s own.

Some of the most important parts of this process were:

  • Having a lateral power structure (rather than a top-down power pyramid dynamic thingy), where everyone had a role to play, and power to do things and make decisions – from volunteers and people making reports to musicians and managers. To me, this is THE most important part of this process. If it’s just a boss ‘saving’ women, then we’re not changing anything; we’re reinforcing the status quo.
  • Getting people involved by asking for help, by posting about my sticking points on fb (eg posting that I needed a reporting form but had no clue where to start gave me a bunch of useful comments and messages, plus actual examples of other people’s forms).
  • Letting go and letting other people do stuff.

[note]After some other discussion, I got to this point…[/]
What I’d really like to do is get together with other organisers and peeps at some weekend event to talk through what we do and what they do. There’s already a very healthy network of people sharing ideas, but I want MORE!

[note]This is the bit I want to emphasise. I’ve learnt most from seeing what other people are doing. And I want MORE of it.[/]

As an example, I learnt a lot from talking to Ben Beccari about handbooks and practical emergency response stuff. He’s doing a Phd in disaster response, so he’s kind of mad skilled. I also talked to people like Liam Hogan about how the SES does stuff here. And I had examples from friends of reporting strategies (I’d better not name them in case it’s meant to be confidential :D ). I also followed up ideas with my femmo stroppo mates (like Kerryn, Zoe, Kate, Penni, Tammi, Liah, Naomi, Daniel, and MANY more) for their suggestions and ideas, which came from their big brains, and also their experience as activists at community and local levels.

…I keep adding names, but there are too many. So many people had excellent ideas.

[note]end[/]

So, that’s what I have from that post.
I’ve written about what we’ve been doing in a few other posts already:

*1. I think a code of conduct is important because it sets out your goals and ideals in plain language. I go into why codes are important in this post.
2. ‘Cultural change‘ is about changing the way we do things. The way we think about teaching and teach, the way we think about learning and learn, the way we think about social dancing and social dance, the way we think about partners and treat our partners, the way we think about ourselves and treat ourselves. All of this stuff changes what we do and think about what we do. I like to mix feminism with historical example: I have clear political goals, but I want to use and stay true to the creative and practical examples of the swing and jazz era.
3. Developing strategies for practical change means confronting men about their behaviour, training staff, and banning offenders. But in a thoughtful, organised way, not a random, ad-hoc way. Our practical actions (what we actually do) must be guided by solid thinking and a sense of consequence. We need to be safe, we need to confident, we need to be organised.

**In this one I wrote this paragraph, which really sums up my whole purpose:

There have been some scary moments, but, for the most part, it’s actually been a very exciting and positive experience. Sitting down and thinking about what we want to do, and talking about the good things we want to see has been very exciting. It makes us feel good. This is what activism is about: you start by getting angry. You do some learning, and then you start doing things which make you powerful.

***One of the most important parts of dealing with sexual harassment, is women having the confidence to speak up. To speak in public. Male perpetrators rely on women and girls being too frightened to speak up and challenge them. To tell people about the things that men are doing. They threaten women and girls into staying silent, and they rely on broader social forces which discourage women to keep them quiet.
When those women first wrote about Mitchell’s violent criminal acts on this blog, one of the responses was that they should have made private complaints, spoken to the police, been more polite. More careful.

Their speaking up was very important. Very, very important. And this is one of the reasons I’m not entirely for male feminists. I think that the very act of speaking up is a political act, and one of the key parts of being a feminist. We are told sit down and shut up. And when we stand up and say no, we are doing a radical thing.

And this is where I’ll end this post.
We have to speak up. A private email or private discussion between a woman and her attacker or an organiser is an extension of the conditions that made that assault possible in the first place. We are supposed to push issues of sex and interpersonal violence between men and women into the private sphere. It’s not supposed to be appropriate for public discussion.

In simpler terms, I know that if I send a private email to a man who is a sexual offender or one of their offenders, he’s much more likely to try to bully me, frighten me, attack me. I do my talk in public now, because it’s safer. I want witnesses. Just as I don’t ban or warn offenders in person unless I’m in a public place with plenty of witnesses.

And I know this, because it happens. So I say: speak up. Be sure you have buddies to get your back, but speak up. And by buddies, I’m saying ‘sisterhood is powerful’. This is what that expression means: when we work together, women and girls are far more powerful than most men would like to think. We can protect each other and ourselves.

And after all, that’s what all this is about: women protecting themselves and each other.

Just start with believing her

The Perception Gap: Women Half As Likely to Believe Women and Men Have Equal Opportunities in the Workplace

Perceptions of gender inequity. With special mention of Lake Wobegone, aka town of Prairie Home Companion.
Unsurprisingly, the people who benefit from inequity are less aware of it than those who are disadvantaged by the status quo. I see clear links with the way men are less aware of sexual harassment in lindy hop than women, and so more resistant to changes to the status quo to prevent it.
aka the ‘it doesn’t happen to me, so it must not be true’ factor. aka the ‘I do not possess empathy’ factor. aka the ‘ffs factor’.

(props to Gina Helfrich for the link).

…I’m also thinking that one of the key issues in responding to sexual harassment, in this context, is that men simply have to believe women when they report sexual harassment. I know men who say ‘I want to hear his side of the story first’. As though it doesn’t really happen unless a man observes and reports it. As though these men need a man (ie someone exactly like them) to report and explain it. Because it is so far beyond their own lived experience.

But I’m struck by how unwilling men are to just believe a woman when she says that X assaulted her, or that she was harassed by Y. They ‘want the other side of the story’, as though this side isn’t enough.

And I always think in response, “Yeah, because that guy who tells his story is totally going to substantiate her report. ‘Yep, totally raped her, she’s 100% correct’.” I can tell you what the other side of the story will be: he will deny it, he will accuse her of lying or exaggerating or being too sensitive or attention-seeking, and you will believe him. Because you simply can’t imagine this being true, and you have no personal experience with sexual harassment, and you don’t ‘see’ it in your everyday.

When you say ‘I need to hear his side of the story’ or ‘he has a right of reply’, you are actually saying, “I don’t believe that what you are saying could be true. I don’t believe you. I think you are lying.” And you look for that ‘other side’ of the story to substantiate and echo your own experience and ‘common sense.’ Because this woman sounds ‘too emotional’ or ‘kind of nuts’ or ‘over the top’ or ‘alarmist’. So you can’t quite believe her.

Just believe her. Start there. Perhaps your own experience of the world is not universal after all?

Why we need codes of conduct and sexual assault response strategies

I believe that our dance community is generally well behaved, and I am not sure we need a codified response. Just be respectful to everyone, respect their space, dont abuse your position, much the same as in everyday life. Dancing gives no extra rights to misbehave. But we are all adults, right?

I get people like the thought of a code of conduct because it makes people feel better but all i see is another paper in a system that should be a far more simple system of either make that person leave, call the police that’s against the law common sense.

I feel that as a bunch of adults we as a community should not need a code of conduct to dictate that we obey the law.

These are a few quotes from recent online discussions about sexual harassment policies. They are taken out of context. My aim here is to show the language that’s used to defend these positions. These are actual examples of quite common phrases used in these discussions.

The number of people publicly saying ‘we don’t need codes of conduct’ or sexual harassment policies in lindy hop is increasing, the further we get in time from the stories about Stephen Mitchell. I’m not entirely sure what their motivations are. But we can read these statements as suggesting, ‘I don’t think rape and attacks are important enough to change the status quo.’ I wonder if their opinions would be the same if people were being knifed or bashed or kicked. I don’t think they realise that rape involves physical pain and violence, as well as intimidation and threats. Sexual harassment or grooming of girls and women by predators involves systematic intimidation, threats, isolation, and manipulation over a long period of time. Or perhaps they simply don’t think violent attacks on women are important.

There have been a number of high profile rape and assault cases in the international lindy hop scene over the years, and sexual harassment is an ongoing issue. The consequences (besides horrible stuff happening to our friends) include drops in class numbers and event attendees (ie financial consequences), and a loss of community knowledge (ie social sustainability declines as people with experience leave). And yet many dancers are still reluctant to take clear, positive action to improve the safety of their friends and peers.

We need to be more proactive in preventing and responding to this issue, because men in our dance community don’t seem to grasp the fact that raping women and girls is not ok. Offenders know that their actions are illegal, immoral, and disrespectful. Offenders also know that no one will call them on their behaviour. They do these things with no real-world consequences. They know that other men will not challenge their behaviour. They know that women feel alone and vulnerable.

Me, I’m done with that bullshit. Reading all those accounts of girls and women assaulted by Steven Mitchell and other men, I was galvanised. I am an organiser. But I am also a human being, who cares about her friends. I simply can’t look away or pretend this isn’t happening. Does this make me braver than the men who don’t speak up? Probably. But I can’t do this on my own. Codes of conduct are about collective responses: we work together to look after each other.

My focus now is on the way men don’t call other men on their behaviour. Calling out offenders is left to organisers, and to women. As the comments I’ve quoted above suggest, there is an assumption that sexual harassment is a problem for organisers and women, and no one else. Me, I think it’s a problem we should all be looking at. Most particularly men, because it is men who commit most of these offences. Interestingly it is when I call out men for not stepping up that people get angriest with me. Because, I think, this is the matter that most destabilises the status quo. Or as we femmostroppos like to say, this is the point at which we address patriarchy in the most explicit way.

Why are codes of conduct important?
You may choose to have a ‘statement of intent’ or a ‘manifesto’ or a set of ‘rules’. This document or blob of words is not implied or hinted at or common sense. It is a clear and explicit statement of your values, and your limits.

Codes of conduct are important because they:
a) Are a public symbol telling people that your organisation is not ok with sexual assault and will act on reports;
b) Make explicit implicit or implied ‘common sense’ standards and rules. So that we can actually be sure we all have ‘common’ (or shared) values and ‘rules’.
c) This then gives teachers/employees/contractors within the organisation a set of clear guidelines: what are our ‘goals’? What is our position on this? This then guides future policies and actions;
d) It gives students and punters a clear outline of what the organisation’s policy is;
e) Give you an ideological guide for developing policy;
f) Give you a clear list of ‘rules’ to set in your agreements with contractors like musicians, DJs, and teachers. Basically, I say “by working for me, you agree to read and abide by this code. If you can’t agree with it, then you do not work with me or attend my event.”

b is especially important, because the vague or implied ‘common sense’ rules (instead of explicit rules) are used by offenders as an excuse – eg “I didn’t know it wasn’t ok.” It’s also increasingly clear that some men and women simply don’t know what constitutes sexual harassment. So women don’t know that they can trust their instincts, and men don’t know that what they’re doing is sexual harassment.

My code of conducts make it very clear: if you can’t agree to not rape people, you are not welcome at my dance or in my community.

Since our organisation Swing Dance Sydney instituted a code of conduct and clear oh&s policies, dancers who identify as queer or trans, young women, decent men, have said that they feel welcome at our events, or at the least the idea of our events makes them feel welcome. Basically, we are making our events openly hostile and uncomfortable for male sexual offenders, and much friendlier and more welcoming for everyone else.
Our events are also much better as a result of all this work. We’ve just put on better events because we’ve had to think through how we look after people, how we develop and design guidelines and practices, and then we implement and communicate them to workers. This means that there are fewer fuck ups in the program, fewer technical errors, and less general bullshit. Because we’ve gone over these bloody things so many times we’ve caught most of the common problems and fixed most of the crap.

I don’t think codes are enough on their own, but they are important. I have adopted them for all my events, in both paper and digital forms.

But I have also developed:
1) Practical strategies for responding to complaints (eg banning offenders, then training staff to respond when those banned offenders turn up at events).
2) In-class teaching strategies to effect cultural change (ie making it clear that sexual harassment is not ok; skilling and powering up women to give them confidence; teaching men how to touch women with respect).
3) In-person strategies for talking about our code (eg I do speeches at our events that are both funny and important).
4) Skills for dealing with offenders myself.
5) Policies and training that skill up our volunteers and staff so they can step up.

I have already has SERIOUS and marked responses to these policies. I have banned serial offenders. I have responded to women’s complaints/requests for help. I have skilled myself up in confronting frightening, aggressive men. I have dealt with musicians, DJs, and dancers who sexually harass.
Our classes are much better, and we’ve seen students developing good lindy hop, the confidence to improvise (and not micromanage their partners), and we see great social dancing.
I have learnt how to address and teach follows in ways that actually articulate what following is. None of this ‘just follow’ crap for me. This has helped me and my students see how follows (and implicitly, women) are not just objects to be moved about by leads.
Our door staff are more confident and capable. Our musicians are more engaged with us as people (not just punters). And the parties are heaps more fun.

Our events are better. I think that this is the most important part: by taking greater care with one particular issue, and for one particular group, all our punters are better taken care of. Our events and projects are simply better, because we have had to think through these issues and implement strategies. It’s pushed us to become better at what we do; we don’t just continue to do things as they’ve always been done. I actually think this last point is the marker of working with an ambitious, motivated group of people. And they put this sort of energy and focus into their dancing too, which makes the dancing so much better as well.

Relatedly, the ‘common sense’, or ‘we’re all just decent people’ discourses that inform labour relationships (DJing, teaching, volunteering) within the lindy hop world often facilitate exploitation. The implicit hierarchies of power enable exploitation (and sexual harassment), but do not necessitate the reciprocal duty of care and responsibility that goes with formal declarations in other hierarchical social systems.

Basically, the ‘we’re all decent people’ and ‘common sense’ approaches haven’t stopped sexual assault and harassment in lindy hop. They’ve enabled it. So either we change it to help people, or we let things stay the same and accept that we are enabling rape.

more about safety

Screen-Shot-2016-02-18-at-5.46.41-pm I’ve been fussing over what to put on a paper version of our code of conduct to have at all our classes and parties. Until I realised I could just use the ‘back’ of the Jazz with Ramona program I developed.

SORTED.

When I get more time I’ll break up the text a bit or add some amusing line drawings or something.

btw, I’m fine with people using the content from this document.
BUT it is far more important to develop your own, so:

  • It reflects the culture of your organisation,
  • You actually understand and really believe everything in the document (ie haven’t just cut and pasted something out of obligation).
  • It works well as part of your broader safety strategies – how does it relate to your online policy document/page? Do all your staff understand it, and have they been trained in (and know how to) apply it? Do YOU know how to use it when you have to actually ban/warn/press charges against offenders?