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A friend linked up Gay Alcorn’s Guardian post ‘Helen Garner’s The First Stone is outdated.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

Can you just fucking step up and do something GOOD, for once, lindy hopping men?

So, we’re continuing to wade on with the work on sexual assault and harassment in the dance world. There have been great strides made. By women. At this point, men are continuing to offend at the same rate as before, men are covering up and enabling other offenders, whether deliberately or by neglect, and almost all of the work on codes of conduct, safety committees and cultural change is done by women.

Even more significantly, women are doing all the emotional labour of convincing men we need these things. There are still plenty of men in the international dance scene who don’t think we need codes of conduct (when your mates stop raping us, we won’t need a list of rules that say ‘don’t rape us’), think we should leave all this to the police (when the cops and legal system actually prosecute and punish offenders, we won’t need to police this shit ourselves), and think we should just leave all this to ‘common sense’ (when men actually have the sense to see that raping and harassing women isn’t ok, we’ll actually accept that they have any sense at all).

At this point, years after Bill Borghida was jailed for possession of child pornography, two years or more after some very brave women outed Steven Mitchell as a violent sexual offender and pedophile, a year after more brave women outed Max Pitruzella as a violent rapist and offender, and as every day we see more and more women reach out for help from anyone who shows even the smallest hint of empathy, women are still doing all the goddamm work.

And here’s the deal: men are still doing all the goddamm raping and assault. Yes, there are some women who offend. But at this point, I’ve come across dozens of male offenders in the past two years, and only two women. And those women’s offences were far, far less severe than the things men have been doing to women dancers.

Yes, all men. All men are responsible for their own behaviour and for the behaviour of their male friends. But they aren’t stepping up and taking on that responsibility. In this sense, men are failing to do community, and women are doing all the labour. Maybe we should just ban all men from lindy hop events. At this point, that seems the only way to put a stop to all the sexual violence.

But some people actually quite like having men around. So, men, if you want to prove that you actually deserve a place in our communities, you’re going to need to step up.

Yes, there is some emotional labour for YOU to do.

We’ve done a pretty good job of getting women up and engaged with safe space policy to deal with sexual harassment and assault. And they’re engaged as agents of prevention and response, rather than as ‘potential victims modifying their behaviour so they don’t provoke men into raping them’.

But we don’t have many men involved.
We’ve tried a range of strategies, from the ‘most offenders are male, so you need to step up’ offence, to the ‘we need you to be there for us’ to …. well, all sorts of things.
Getting organised as allies, and as actively engaged in preventing sexual assault is straight up emotional labour: thinking and planning, using empathy, working to discourage other men from offending, reducing micro-aggressions, dismantling less overt elements of rape culture.

And we’re just having no luck.

I don’t want to micromanage …work. I want a partner with equal initiative (ref).

So now we need real strategies for getting men to get involved. Because the women on committees and so on are bloody tired of this shit. We’re basically now 100% responsible for responding to and preventing men from raping women.

Things I’m having some luck with:
– pushing the ‘we are looking out for each other’ line, and having short examples in our PR copy, our speeches, etc etc (eg ‘see someone looking crook? Offer to sub in for them for a break’).
– coming at it indirectly in class by having all students learn and practice asking their partner ‘does this feel ok?’ and then being constructive (rather than defensive) with responses.

But this is not moving fast enough. And I’m just too tired and busy fielding emails from frightened women, producing documentation, and looking after my own health to actually do all the work for men too. Can you just fucking step up and do something GOOD, for once, lindy hopping men? Because I’m beginning to despair of you.

What are some useful suggestions for getting men to do this sort of emotional labour? Because unlike neglected house work, neglected violence kills people.

Korean safe space policies

One of the things I like most about Seoul is the culture of visual information. ie signs with pictures. It draws on comic book culture, but also reflects, content-wise, Korean communitarian ethos and values. So informational signs like this one from the subway focus on individuals doing the right thing not for their own safety, but for the safety and comfort of others. Many of the signs also emphasise on younger people’s responsibilities to older people. It’s a really great discursive tool for peeps to have at hand.

Another thing I really like is the way the Dance Safe peeps in Seoul have used these practices to do some pretty impressive stuff. Here is one of the posters I saw stuck up outside SwingTime Bar in Seoul, above one of the benches where everyone sits to change their shoes (Seoul dancers change shoes before they enter the studio space). So, perfect placement.

The poster itself is solid gold. It has a light hearted, charming feel very much in keeping with Korean visual educational media texts. It uses animals rather than ‘women’ or ‘men’ symbols, which means it avoids gender binaries and norms. Even though I don’t read Korean, I can still get the message.

Dance Safe are a group of Korean peeps (men and women!) who’re working super hard to raise awareness about personal safety, sexual harassment, and mutual respect in the biggest lindy hop scene in the world. This is no mean feat, as the sheer scale of the scene means they need a zillion posters, pamphlets, and people involved. They’re doing some fund raising (with the support of various local organisers) to get $$ together to cover their printing costs.

My media studies/cultural studies brain is super interested in this project. This is almost exactly the sort of work I did in my Phd: how do dancers use media texts within a community so focussed on the body?

These guys are doing things that fascinate my academic brain, but also my activist brain and event organiser brain. How, _how_ are they pulling off this stuff?! I see some racist bullshit coming out of the English speaking lindy hop world about ‘Asian’, and ‘Russian’, and ‘French’ dancers, accusing them of not understanding ‘safe space’ ideology ‘because of culture’. But in my experience with dancers from these countries and other NES scenes, the activism is as exciting and engaged – if not more so – than the English speaking world.

Part of me thinks we need a conference to get all of the safe space activists in dance together to share this sort of information. How exciting!

Why is there so little space for women in jazz music?

This article asks Why is there so little space for women in jazz music?

All the reasons there are so few women in jazz are as you’d expect:

  • sexual harassment and assault discourage women (duh)
  • male band leaders find new players for their band via informal social networks, which are fostered in post-gig hangs, peer networks, etc
  • there are few role models for younger women
  • male players openly encourage young men rather than young women
  • the culture of jazz gigs themselves discourage women
  • incidental gendered language (eg the ‘guys’ in the band; ‘doesn’t she look lovely’ to women on stage instead of ‘isn’t she a fucking gun’) makes women feel invisible.

If we’ve managed to get completely change the culture of DJing in Australian lindy hop over the past ten years, surely we can change the culture of jazz bands.

How? Same way. Cultural change, structural change, discursive change.
a) Change the everyday culture of jazz gigs (avoid gendered language, use female historic figures in art work),
b) Change work practices and labour conditions (eg penalties for sexual harassment and assault; discourage aggressive, blokey environments; fair pay for fair work; clear agreements and contracts),
c) change uses of language and ideas in discourse (eg watch the way MCs introduce women musos, and the language used in PR).
I think one of the most important elements in changing the culture of live jazz would be to openly address issues of alcoholism and drug abuse in the scene. Because blokey jazzbros who behave in blokey dodgy ways when sober are more likely to be dangerously dodgy when drunk. And those social networking spaces which are essential to professional networking which rely on excessive alcohol abuse will be opened up to people who have to get home to kids and day jobs.

More specifically:
– Band leaders should actively seek out female musicians.
ie not just take the first hand they see waving. They should hunt down good women musicians and put them on their ‘call list’, so they have good names when they’re putting together a band for a gig.

– Women are far more likely to be responsible for domestic labour in their homes and relationships – child care, cleaning, cooking, bill paying, holding down day jobs, etc. So band leaders should allow more flexibility in gig specifics. eg call with more notice so women can book baby sitters; not require long post-gig debriefs and hangs; encourage gigs and social hangs in parent-friendly hours. And they should do things like give women more time to rearrange domestic labour (doing the grocery shopping or laundry, attending children’s school events, etc) and untangle themselves from paid work, etc.

– Male musicians should take responsibility for each other.
They should police each other’s language and behaviour for sexual harassment and assault. eg call their mates out for sexist jokes, for harassment; have a code of conduct for their band and for their gigs (and enforce it); actively _encourage_ respectful treatment of women (both in person and in talk and ideas).

– Male teachers in jazz education should actively encourage girls. They should be mindful of the language they use in class (gendered pronouns?), the examples they use from history, the way they talk about and to girls and boys in class. They should reward collaborative behaviour between students, and discourage aggressive competition.

– Quotas.
Gets women into groups. And once women are there, the simple fact of their presence encourages more women. No, it won’t lower the standard of music. You think all those bros in bands are as good as they think the are, and not just some ordinary musician who’s benefitted from unequal hiring practices? You can guarantee the women you hire are twice as good, and work twice as hard as any bro. And if they’re not, they’ll change their shit up until they are.

– Gig promoters and managers should request bands hire women musicians (not just vocalists), and offer financial bonuses to band leaders who have women in their bands. Straight up.

– Male musicians should ask each other, very loudly “What have you done to change shit today?” They should brag about the fantastic women in their bands. They should GO TO WOMEN’S GIGS and be openly supportive. They should ask women for advice about music and playing.

Not everything I believe is true.

I’m still thinking about the the issues that came up in the teaching dance fb group.
Specifically the importance of fixing meaning.

It’s nice to advocate for the idea of gender or identity in dance as fluid and defying a fixed meaning. The sentiment that ‘anything is true’ is very appealing. But I’ve been thinking a lot about how having a fixed, authoritative meaning is important for radical or resistant politics. Of course, if this idea of fixed or essential identity is used by dominant ideology, by patriarchy, it doesn’t go well for queer folk and people of colour.

I would like very much to quote some of the comments and attribute sources from this fb discussion, but I’m not sure how these people would like their words used out of context, so I’m going to have to go all stealth on you. Sorry, and I’ll add names and attributions on request.

There are two points of view which really caught my eye. One of them was raised by a friend who is a little/lot/enough genderflex, and who posited that the leading and following are not as distinct as we like to insist. This was in response to this piece Why Leading Is Not More Difficult Than Following, and How to Make It True from the always-dodgy-and-a-little-bit-shit clickbait site Joy In Motion. That piece has been giving me the living shits.
This friend’s post began:

Regarding the “leading is not harder” article, ambidancing pedagogy, leading and following being different skill sets, and whether we should use lead/follow as nouns or just verbs.
I think I think about all this really differently, like super differently*. I completely agree that leading (as a verb) and following (as a verb) are different skill sets to learn, practice and use, but I really struggle with the conflating of skill set and role within the dance – the rigid assignment and division of these skill sets by role.

And it continued with some really great thinking and passionate points.

In sum, the key points were:
– leading and following are abilities/skill sets
– these skills aren’t welded to the role or lead or follow; they are transportable
The implicit ideology at work here (which all the people in that fb group are familiar with if not on board with), is that leading and following aren’t innately gendered, but are practically gendered by cultural context.

So this position can be read as an argument for skills/qualities being culturally associated with specific gender roles, but not innately gendered or associated with leads or follows.

Not a particularly controversial point, and it’s one I agree with.
I’ll say here, though, that this is as far as I’ll go on this one. I know there are people who argue that the role of lead and follow are essentially the same, and that we then just negotiate who does ‘some leading’ and ‘some following’ within each partnership. I don’t 100% dig on this, just as I don’t 100% dig on much of the ambidancetrous discourse floating about, particularly within the blues and fusion scenes.

I personally feel that within lindy hop, as a dance out of history, there are specific biomechanic, structural, and role-related qualities which defining leading and following. So while a follow may initiate a move or rhythm, I believe that ‘leading’ – being a lead – is about initiating and suggesting movements. The individual lead may enact this potential in different ways – from the leader who really asks the follow to do as they ask, to the leader who assumes a more open role of suggesting movements or shapes or speeds that the follow then chooses (or chooses not to) execute.
I believe that the acts of leading and following are different. And within lindy hop, we give those ‘leading’ elements to the leader role, and the following elements to the follow role. These have been historically gendered, but I am not on board with any bullshit about women being innately ‘better’ at following or men innately ‘better’ at leading. That’s patently not true.

My own physical understanding of leading is that it is not like following. I believe leaders in lindy hop have a different relationship to the beat than follows. They tend to be closer to the beat, while the follow is a little behind. By the nature of ‘following’. Though of course decent jazz dancers can adjust and play with this relationship to time and the beat. And should!
here are various characteristics of led and followed movement that mean the lead is often the pivot point or centre of a smaller point of rotation than follows (though obviously not always). As an example, the follow and lead move around a shared pivot point, and when things are working well, both move equal amounts. But many traditional or ‘heritage’ lindy hop moves or figures use the lead as a physical pivot point.
Leads often do more movement on a vertical plane, and follows more on a horizontal. I feel a bit shaky on this one, as this is purely a regional cultural thing, or specific to particular historical dancers. eg Jewel McGowan’s swivels rotate on a horizontal plain, while Frankie Manning’s swing out often uses a very vertical layout where he kicks back behind him. But it’s hard to pin this one down, as we can immediately think of a hundred exceptions to this rule. I wonder as well if the way we operate on vertical and horizontal planes is more informed by the biomechanics of particular lifestyles and particular cultural agents and individuals, than by some essential physics. In other words, we all live such individual lives and lifestyles with such unique bodies, and so few of us operate at our physical peak or potential, that our dancing cannot help but be individual and defy grouping at a very essential level.

Specific leads like Frankie Manning use the space within the reach of their own arms as ‘their space’ on the dance floor that they share with their partners, and while they are aware of and work with their partner’s body and reach and limits, this ‘space’ is primarily defined by the way the lead suggests and initiates movement within that specific range. The space might move across the floor, but is defined by that particular person’s body, range of motion, step size, gait, etc etc etc. When things are working well, it fits the lead and follow well, and a lead makes adjustments to their dancing and space to accommodate the follow and their creative expression and physical presence.

But let’s set all that aside. This is all stuff that I’m wading through in my own brain, mostly in relation to my own dancing. I have been lindy hopping for twenty years now, and I don’t suck. But I am certainly not operating anywhere near my physical peak, nor do I make best use of my body’s potential. I don’t train, I don’t care a heap about technical accuracy, and I tend to be driven my music and improvisation than by making an effort to refine what I do. So I tend to dance in a way that gets the job done for me, now. So the way I lead now is not the way I led when I was 23. I’m older, fatter, less fit, and more ornery now. But I’m also a better dancer now, and more efficient in my movements (because lazy), and I have pilates and yoga and lots of other experience under my belt.
But in my experience, following uses my body in different ways than leading. I have a different connection with the ground in each role. And most importantly (and elusively), my muscles and unconscious physical responses are completely different when I lead and follow. So if you look at my body and the way my muscles are engaged or look ‘in neutral’ as a lead vs as a follow, they’re completely different. I find that if I work on one role intensively, avoiding the other, I get much better at that role. And my unconscious reactions change. If I then swap bak (especially if I’m going from leading to following), my following tends to suck a bit. I tend to take the initiative more, initiating movements in a way a follow doesn’t. Because it interrupts what the lead is doing.
So I don’t know if my opinion on all this is just anecdata limited by sample size of one human’s first hand experience.

Which is exactly my point. Each human’s experience is the most important thing in their world.

So when my friend makes their point about leading and following being skills rather than innate qualities, they are mapping their own lived experience onto lindy hop. And that is vitally important. To make that statement is so, so important. Because it is a lived expression of their sense of self and of identity.
And there is nothing we can say that can make that untrue, or to disprove that.

So while I might go on and on about how leading and following are completely different, it doesn’t make my friend’s points any less true.

And I quite like that. I find it quite exciting to hold that idea in my head: my ideas can be 100% true at the same time as my friend’s somewhat contradictory ideas can also be 100% true.

This gets even more interesting when we look at a reply to this post from a black American woman. She and my friend discuss this issue in the most civil, most interesting conversation. They have fundamentally different understandings/experiences of identity, but they are listening and discussing. And both understand that these two different approaches are both valid and ‘true’, may conflict in theory, but in practice can quite happily live alongside each other on the dance floor.
Here are some excerpts from the second person’s responses:

I can’t disagree more. They are roles for a reason. Just because I have a voice as follow doesn’t make me “leading”. It means I have voice. Equal but different voice. Being able to do both is valid but saying they’re are no rules only dancing is not how this dance works. There are fundamental ideas of what makes a dance in black culture and how our culture shows up in them. Changing that is creating a new, and valid, but different dance.

The roles are tied to what you do in the world. I would never disrespect my partner by doing their time and ignoring my responsibilities as a follow.

If you take that out, it might as well be a dance from a different culture and therefore different rules and values. Aka a different dance

I dance both roles equally and teach with out gender (mostly blues now but hey). I have found most people who desire to share movement initiation either 1 feel like bored/limited in following and want to affect the dance more or 2 they are trying to upend the “follow is passive” concept. But both issues stop existing if you approach the rules in the cultural context of those who created it. I love all that comes with leading and all that comes with following. But I feel no need to mix them. My teammate/partner has that covered in this dance. A dance with different values and my feelings change

This is how I got to that post Muddling through thoughts about ethnicity and dance and gender. Alex had chimed in to say “I think there’s a lot of room for reasonable people to disagree on this”. And I agree with him. As I was writing that previous post, I was struck by just how comprehensively my experience and understanding of lindy hop is informed by my experiences as a white middle class woman living in urban Australia in the late 20th and early 21st century. I could see the privilege just leaking out of the screen each time I wrote ‘we’ when what I should have written was ‘me.’

For me, lindy hop is, ultimately, a discourse. It is a place and site and act of discussion and negotiation of ideology – ideas about the world. And some of those ideologies do not play well with others. In my brain, the part of me that did all that work on discourse analysis and models of public discourse for my phd, it’s ok for all these ideas to swirl about. It’s ok for me because being able to float along with conflicting ideas is a marker of privilege. My own lived experience isn’t disavowed by a genderflex understanding of leading and following.
But for a black woman, dancing today, a dance that developed in the social spaces of her people, her community, has gender and roles informed by that community. Because making these differences and distinctions disappear is an act of colonialism. Of oppression. It is exactly the sort of work that slavery did to suppress black culture on plantations and in domestic servitude. So I cannot and will not argue with a black American woman who is telling me what lindy hop is and means. I won’t even say “I can accept that and still hold my own beliefs, even in they disagree.” I simply have to shut up and accept this story about the way things are, this truth. Because it is a radical act of allydom to stop telling your own story, and to stop occupying public discourse. To cede it to the words and stories of another.

I think that this is the best bit. At the same time as I take this position, I can also believe that the genderflex approach to leading and following is true. Because I believe that when we dance, when we tell these stories, we make it true. And we need to keep telling and retelling our stories, which change and grow as we do. So if I want to believe my own ideas about dance, I have to get out there and dance them. And when I’m teaching – which is the key part of this whole thing – I have a duty and responsibility to remember the black history of these dances and tell these stories. Which is why I don’t think we should abandon the original names of historic jazz steps. Why I think we should namecheck OGs.
So when I teach, I let students figure out how they want to think about these issues. I can set them up with information about how to find out more about ideas – who to talk to about black dance history, which OGs were dancing when and were – but I definitely won’t tell them how to think about it.

At the end of the day, though, I think that genderflex and black American stories about lindy hop have much more in common with each other than with the dominant white patriarchal stories about lindy hop. They are both operating from positions of resistance, and lindy hop is very good for resistance and transgression.

More power to you all, sisters.

Muddling through thoughts about ethnicity and dance and gender

A very interesting discussion happened on fb recently in the teaching group.
The issue of gender and power and the nuances of leading and following was examined and tossed around in detail, in a very respectful, constructive way. One of the key points that came up was raised by a black American woman: this dance has real history and meaning. The gender roles and relationships at work in the history and material of lindy hop were real and meaningful to her, not just arbitrary social constructions from another culture or time. Because we were all working within a discussion of teaching – the transmission of ideas between individuals and groups, within relationships of power and knowledge – who says what is very important.

This lent the discussion a really important and useful edge, and it’s an issue I’ve seen come up in other feminist talk when ethnicity and intersectionality are recognised. For white women throwing off traditional european gender identities is empowering, but for this black woman, recognising and valuing black American gender identities is empowering. This is, of course, a very very… ESSENTIAL point in a discussion of identity and gender in postcolonial spaces: we have different values and goals. And it important for powerful white dancers to remember that they are speaking and writing and dancing from a position of contemporary and historical power.

When we are talking about cultural appropriation, to say “I want to lead in lindy hop, but I want to change the gender dynamics because they are bullshit” without any historical context, is problematic. For a black woman to say, “No, this is what this dance MEANS and MEANT,” is very important. It is essential that white dancers stop and listen. They may disagree, but the act of speaking up and defining what dance means is central to activism. As is the white response of ceding the floor and listening to black voices. With dance, where, as Tommy Defrantz said, under slavery, “serious dancing went underground, and dances which carried significant aesthetic information became disguised or hidden from public view. For white audiences, the black man’s dancing body came to carry only the information on its surface (DeFrantz 107). Stopping and listening to the story of meaning is part of making reparation for cultural appropriation.

This is why we need to not only engage with the dance, but with its history. And it’s important to remember that black women are not homogenous: different women will have different ideas and responses to the way gender is and was negotiated in black dance both then and now.

Me, I like this topic because it can’t ever be ‘settled’. We can’t ever be done and just forget. We should remember the darker parts of history, we should celebrity tenacity and creativity. It is a discussion in constant motion, as we respond to each person and each culture and each moment in history. We have to be agile. Intersectional.

Anyhoo, this is what I wrote in that thread, after a bit of thinking and listening.

I’ve been thinking and talking about this issue a lot. And I agree with Alex. There really is room for people to disagree on this issue. I think of it as more that because each of us is different, and come to the dance with different baggage, we’ll approach the dance in different ways. So, for example, a woman might really like following, and really enjoy working with leads who define quite strong shapes and structures. And that’s ok. The bit that’s worrying is when one particular approach becomes orthodox.

Having said that, I also think that while we’re enjoying one approach, we need to be actively engaged with, and respecting other approaches. We need to recognise and interrogate our own relative positions of power. So when I say ‘we’, I mean ‘we who have the power to speak, the status to have our opinion valued. I’m talking to white dancers. We need to state who we are, and where we come from, and how this affects our engagement with the fruits of another culture. I don’t want to just say ‘anything goes’ and ignore the history of oppression and cultural infringement of lindy hop and black cultural history. I want to keep that in mind: as a white woman in a postcolonial nation, I need to keep saying to myself: you are a visitor here. Pay respect.

And more importantly, we need to be continually referencing the history of this dance. And for me, that means, respecting the cultural history – the peeps – who developed these dances.
I think of it a bit like recognising the traditional owners of country: we actively say “I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this country, [name of country] Land, the [name] people.” And having an aunty or elder do a welcome to country is important: it gives you permission. Seeking welcome (ie permission to enter a country) is important. Not just for respecting current custodians of knowledge, but also to recognise and seek resolve for historical misdeeds.

I transfer that model to dance. I want to acknowledge the custodians of this knowledge (ie name check our OGs regularly, and name check our dance steps and their history). I want to make active payment for the use of this knowledge (whether by respect or donating money to various funds). I want to remind myself of my own privilege, as a white middle class woman living in an urban centre, engaging in a dance which came to me from an other culture and time.

So this way I feel I can adapt this dance (ie a cultural transmission or appropriation which is functional and not fucked up), but also ask, rather than demand.

For me this helps me straddle the ‘historical preservation/contemporary cultural relevance’ tension.

…I do think, as a dancer myself, that doing all this name checking and asking permission and acknowledging who I am, and my own social and cultural power, I give myself a way to be a better dancer. If I am honest with myself, and if I approach the dance with humility, but also belief in who I am, I can be more creative. I can do better art.

I don’t want to ‘be Frankie’; I don’t want to appropriate his space. I want to ‘be Sam’, and dance and be as me, inspired by the OGs, but not limited to imitating them.

DeFrantz, Thomas. “The Black Male Body in Concert Dance.” Moving Words: Re- Writing Dance. Ed. Gay Morris. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 107 – 20.

White man discovers his experience of the world is not universal

Andy Reid recently wrote this on fb:

Lindy Hoppers: Many of you came to the dance and found a comfortable space where you could spread your wings. You found a place where you could be geeky, nerdy, techy, punky, introverted, extroverted, or whatever. You could be any of those things feel like you belonged. For many of us, we wouldn’t be the people you are now if we hadn’t found a place like this were we could be boldly ourselves. Beautiful, isn’t it?
This is NOT the experience for everyone who comes to this dance. In this case, this is not the experience of many LGTBQIA+ who have come across this dance scene. We are pushing people away. It takes courage to be “out” in this scene. Some utopia.
In the past few years, the illusion that our dance scene is a place free from the dangers of the real world has been shattered. As a result, we’ve done a lot to listen, learn and are making worthwhile changes. Also, we took our heads out of our asses. We can be proud of that. It’s beyond time to do the same here and realize that this haven that we found, is absolutely not a haven for everyone. We have to realize this and change, just like we shown ourselves capable of doing.
We need to open the doors – fucking wide. We need to shout “I see you. You are not invisible. You are welcome here”… just like others did for us. If (part of that) that means we make gestural changes like changing names of cheesily named dance contests, go for it.
But, far beyond that, I suggest you to take a moment to lightly and politely ask someone different from you about their experience in the scene. If they feel like sharing, you’ll learn something. If you think you don’t know any LGTBQIA+ folks in your local scene, either you are wrong and they are hiding (that speaks volumes) or your scene is tragically homogenous (also speaks volumes).
In the comments, I will be posting statements from different LGTBQIA+ people in our dance scene. Straight (and straight-ish) friends, before discussing this with your other straight (and straight-ish) friends, read some of these – including the comments, some of which are profound – no joke.
It takes effort to try to see the world through other people’s eyes, but it is immensely worthwhile.

This is what I started writing in reply, but didn’t leave on fb:

Nice vibes, Andy. And I dig your post.
Here is my rant.

I’d probably rethink the pronouns, because your call does not rework the status quo or question power:”We need to shout “I see you. You are not invisible.”

As though it is only through being recognised by the straight white male gaze that the other becomes real.

The lindy hop ‘we’ already includes peeps who aren’t straight, white guys. The lindy hop ‘we’ is already queer, black, trans…. everything _as well as_ straight white men. The LGTBQIA+ folk in our scenes ARE ALREADY SPEAKING. Maybe the straight white masculine world of lindy hop should _stop_ speaking for a second.

I’m also a bit suspect about “politely ask someone different from you about their experience in the scene.” Are we outing people now? This ‘asking’ is still an act of managing the public discourse. Why is it everyone else’s responsibility to educate the straight white man? Why is it everyone else’s responsibility to make sure the straight white man is looked after? AGAIN?

Maybe you should be quiet and listen and watch for a while instead. Because WE ARE ALREADY SPEAKING. Maybe you should watch for a while, before asking. See when a man gropes a woman on the dance floor, then tell him to quit. Hear when a straight man makes a bullshit gay joke, then _not laugh_.

So perhaps your call should be, “Hey, straight white guys. We’re the numerical minority in this community. So we should ask why we hold the majority of positions of power and influence. Maybe we should cede our place to the rest of the community. Also it’s time for us to stop talking.”
The lindy hop world is not that special or unique: it is within and a part of the wider community in which it lives. Of course sexism and homophobia and racism are here. Because it is in our wider lives as well.

This is how this will have to work: the most powerful people in our communities will need to give up some of that power. That includes the power to ask questions and speak. And they’re not going to be too happy about that.

I’ve also been struck by some of the comments like this from (straight white male) dancers: “In the past few years, the illusion that our dance scene is a place free from the dangers of the real world has been shattered.”
I was especially struck by the recent ep of the Track where Gordon Webster spent quite a bit of time telling us how shocked he was by the Steven Mitchell issue. He recounted some heart warming stories about the safety of the dance scene, and how surprised he was to discover that things Have Changed.
And I got really really angry. YES POWERFUL WHITE GUY, THE WORLD IS A PRETTY SAFE AND LOVELY PLACE FOR YOU. Your being able to leave your envelope of cash unattended, and without any accountability IS A MARKER OF YOUR POWER. Your being able to set aside the responsibility of paying your staff before you go off and get on stage IS A MARKER OF YOUR POWER. Your leaving the door staff to sell your CDs and make change from your band’s pay IS A MARKER OF YOUR POWER.
It wasn’t because ‘the scene is a utopia’ that that envelope of cash didn’t go missing. It’s because you are a powerful, influential person. And it’s good to be king.

I was especially angry about his reluctance to believe that HIS friend could possibly be dodgy as fuck. When even I, who’d only met Mitchell once or twice and live in another hemisphere, could tell he was a pain in the arse and well dodgy. He didn’t see the problems with Mitchell, because they didn’t affect him directly. He WASN’T LOOKING FOR THEM.

The rest of the dance world (who aren’t straight, white, or male) were already quite sure that the dance world wasn’t a utopia.

News at 5: ‘white man discovers his experience of the world is not universal.’

Because the women, POC… pretty much most of the peeps who aren’t representing hegemonic masculinity in our scene know that it’s not a utopia. And we’ve always known that. And we’ve been talking about it for years. Hell, even Norma Miller’s been shouting it at people for years, and not even she’s been listened to!

Dance invitations are asking permission to touch

Asking someone to dance is also asking them, implicitly, if you can touch their body.
If you insist that we must always say yes to all dance invitations, you are also insisting that we can never say no when someone wants to touch our bodies.
Because we live within patriarchy, where men occupy positions of power and privilege, and women’s bodies are considered objects for male desire, we are talking about women giving permission to be touched by men.

It is important for us to make it clear to all dancers that they can say no to any and all invitations to dance, with no excuse or reason.
Because we do live within patriarchy, women and girls are trained to avoid conflict. They are trained to say yes and nod, whether they mean it or not.

So we must also allow women and girls time and opportunities to practice saying both yes and no. Giving and withdrawing consent.
We must also allow men and boys time and opportunities to practice saying yes and no, and to practice being denied something they want.

This last is, of course, most important. Women are not the problem in sexual assault and harassment. It is men and their behaviour. So men must learn to ask, to accept refusal gracefully, and to relish and take conscious pleasure in the acceptance of an invitation.

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:
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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.