If you keep up with the lindy hop community at all, or have Facebook friends who do, or are in any way connected to it, chances are you know about Sarah Sullivan’s brave, well-written, and honest account of her extremely damaging relationship with Steven Mitchell, an international instructor and friend to many. If you haven’t read it, as well as at least a good portion of the comments, do so now. Be warned that the main story and many of the comments discuss sexual assault in various forms. Some are more detailed than others, and some are more extreme, but they’re all terrible and deserve our attention.
I’ve been struggling a little with my role in this. It’s a big deal, something about which I feel strongly, something I want to do something about, and yet I am very aware that this isn’t about me. I want to make sure that I’m not needlessly adding noise to an already noisy line, especially at the expense of women’s voices. But Wednesday morning, I was watching the panel conversation on creating safe swing dance spaces, and Gina Helfrich said something that offered me a way to help. It seems like everybody in the scene is getting caught up in this conversation, and many of the participants are talking about this sort of thing for the very first time. Naturally, many seem confused about the terms getting thrown around. One of the things that really stymies meaningful discussion and education is that the words themselves are familiar, but people don’t understand what they mean in context and don’t bother to look it up I know I’ve been guilty of that before. So I thought it might be helpful to provide a list of terms unfamiliar to those who are new to discussions about sexual assault and women’s issues.
If you don’t talk about this stuff a lot, or if you still don’t see what the big deal is, this post is for you.
Note: Some very knowledgeable and generous friends read this and gave me their input. Nevertheless, any mistakes, inaccuracies, or poor descriptions are my own.
- Rape Culture
- Sexual Assault
- Witch Hunt
I’ve seen this phrase throw off a lot of people when they encounter it for the first time. I mean…obviously we don’t live in a rape culture. It’s not like every Tuesday we go out, get hot wings, and rape people. But rape culture doesn’t refer to something as obvious and easily defined as that. If that were the case, we could just end our night after the hot wings and chalk up a win for social justice. Rape culture is more implicit, and is defined by Geek Feminism as “a term used to describe the normalization of sexual assault in a society.” To put it another way, rape culture is an aggregate of all the things in a society that make rape more common and acceptable. Some examples of behaviors that condone, normalize, excuse, or encourage sexualized violence are:
- Victim blaming – saying that a survivor of rape asked for it, or didn’t do enough to prevent it
- Trivializing assault – saying that boys will be boys or men are animals and there’s nothing to be done
- Jokes – telling or laughing at a joke in which the victim is the object of humor
- Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
- Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
This is far from an exhaustive list. Once you start scrutinizing common behavior it’s easy to think of examples that contribute to rape culture. The hard part in the beginning is wrapping your head around the concept of rape culture at all. Let’s try an example from the scene. Many of the commenters on the Sarah’s blog have brought up the issue that you should never say “no” when someone asks you to dance. During a back-and-forth about rape culture on Facebook, a commenter brought up a very common situation, in which a woman says “no” to a dance, and the man asking rolls his eyes. An eye roll doesn’t seem like a big deal. It might be hard to see how one could make the leap from rolling eyes to sexually assaulting someone, but think about this: In many scenes it is customary, or at least common, that men ask women to dance. Lately that’s been changing, and many teachers (myself included) deliberately tell their students that everyone should feel comfortable asking for a dance, but that’s a new and ongoing shift. In any case, many people enter the scene already having baggage about how men and women are supposed to interact at dances. It’s often the women of our scene who are put in the position of accepting or refusing, so a culture that discourages saying “no” disproportionately affects women. Now about the eye rolling. The woman brought this up as her readiest example, so clearly it happens a lot. A dissatisfied or dismissive response to someone saying “no” implies a feeling of entitlement. That someone owes you a dance, and it’s wrong that they withheld it. Finally, a social dance is obviously something we do with our bodies, so that sense of entitlement involves a woman’s body. So we see that frequently men are reacting in a dismissive or dissatisfied way when their entitlement to a woman’s body is undermined. These men are not monsters; they are regular, probably-nice men, who have been enculturated into a swing world where this is considered normal. Regular, probably-nice men feeling entitled to a woman’s body. That’s rape culture.
Obviously rolling your eyes at someone isn’t the same as sexually assaulting them, but when we think of it in the way I just described, and scrutinize other behaviors in a similar way, it’s easy to see all the small bricks that pave the path to assault, and suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a big leap; it’s a million small steps that we don’t even realize we’re taking.
This is another really tough one, and the only reason I’m including it here is that it is sometimes brought up in discussions about rape culture. As with rape culture, this one is difficult because we think we know what it means. But just like rape culture isn’t about all of us collectively engaging in rape, patriarchy isn’t about a bunch of old, white-wigged dudes smoking their pipes and deciding which states to acquire from the French next. I’m going to spend a little less time on this, because it is a little more peripheral to the main discussion. Also because it is fluid and loosely defined, just like the word “feminism.” Put simply, patriarchy is an unjust social system in which women are oppressed because they are women and men benefit because they are men. Men are empowered and women are disempowered based solely on gender identity. For examples of patriarchy in action, just turn your attention to overrepresentation of men in virtually all positions of power or prestige and to gender-based pay gaps.
I swear this is the last of the really tough ones. After this it’s smooth sailing. I include privilege because the talks we’re having in our community are in some ways revolving around ideas about authority, idolization, and prestige. While these concepts aren’t synonymous with privilege, they are related to it, and it’s likely to come up in conversations about assault, rape culture, and especially about patriarchy. Again, I won’t spend too much time on this, because I don’t see it being used heavily. Do note, however, that this is a really tricky concept for a lot of people, and I strenuously recommend that you read up on it elsewhere.
Privilege is used to describe a set of unearned advantages (or lack of unearned disadvantages) enjoyed by a group. Usually a member of a privileged group is unaware of the privilege they possess. Privilege is something that can apply to many different groups: white people, men, straight people, rich people, cisgendered people, etc. The idea of privilege is often difficult to accept by members of a privileged group who have experienced significant adversity (i.e. poor white people often have difficulty with the concept of white privilege). Checklists are often used to help members of a group understand the privilege they possess. Examples of white privilege which may appear on a list include being able to turn on a television and see people of the same race widely represented, or seeing people of the same race in images of historical or religious significance. Privilege does not imply fault; you didn’t ask for it, and you’re not actively trying to make other people’s lives worse. It just means that there are things you’ve never had to think about that other people struggle with daily. You don’t have to feel guilty, but you do have to work to eliminate unjust privilege, which is based solely on identity.
Seriously, read this:
Like I said, smooth sailing. Rape as a legal term is defined differently depending on the jurisdiction. For the sake of this discussion, it should be okay to go with the FBI’s definition (warning: this definition is graphic):
Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.
As an example of how it may vary from place to place, the state of Texas adopts the spirit of the FBI’s definition, but adds:
The sexual organ of another person, without that person’s consent, to contact or penetrate the mouth, anus, or sexual organ of another person including the actor.
Broadening the definition in this way has the effect of including men in its protection.
Sexual assault means unwanted sexual contact that stops short of rape or attempted rape, though as a legal term, some states use it interchangeably with rape. The United States Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women defines it as “any unwanted sexual contact or behavior without the explicit consent of the recipient.” Under this definition, rape is a type of sexual assault. Sexual assault includes sexual touching and fondling. An unwanted butt grab is sexual assault.
Since the definition of sexual assault is so broad, the crux of many discussions about it tends to be the concept of consent. Many writers about sexual assault and rape culture argue that one of the main contributors to rape culture is a failure to educate people (but especially men) on what consent really means. Consent doesn’t mean that someone didn’t say no, or that they didn’t fight, or that they said yes after being persuaded. It doesn’t mean getting someone drunk enough to say yes—it’s also generally accepted that someone is incapable of giving consent when they are intoxicated. Consent is there when the recipient has the capacity to decide whether they actually want it, decides that they really actually do, and communicates it in some clear way. An important concept is “enthusiastic consent.” The only time you should be sexual with someone is when they are obviously enthused about being sexual with you. Laci Green explains it better.
Watch this video:
In the context of sexual assault, coercion means using manipulation against someone until they give in. When someone is coerced, they may say “yes,” but not on their own terms. Coercing someone into sexual contact means there is not consent, and is therefore sexual assault. Coercion can include threats of violence, wearing someone down by asking repeatedly, intimidating someone, blackmailing, guilt-tripping, abuse of authority, and other tactics that rob someone of the space to say “no” freely and comfortably.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines abuse as
“a repetitive pattern of behaviors to maintain power and control over [someone]. These are behaviors that physically harm, arouse fear, prevent [someone] from doing what they wish or force them to behave in ways they do not want. Abuse includes the use of physical violence, threats and intimidation, emotional abuse and economic deprivation. Many of these different forms of abuse can be going on at any one time.”
The forms of abuse listed there are not exhaustive. There are many, many ways to abuse someone. The point of abuse is power and control. Using isolation to control someone is abusive. Using one’s authority in a community in order to control someone in ways outside the scope of one’s position is abusive. Doing it in order to initiate sexual contact that would otherwise have been refused is sexually abusive.
Grooming is a term that’s being used a lot in our scene’s discussion of sexual assault. It’s not an unfamiliar word, and its meaning in this context isn’t counterintuitive. Still, it might be helpful to have a definition of grooming in the context of child and adolescent sexual abuse, especially because many people have questioned why parents or other adults didn’t intervene to prevent the assaults that occurred. Young people are targets of grooming, of course, but so are their adult caregivers. Grooming tactics are directed at both the target and potential barriers to the target, gaining trust and access. Abusers don’t only target very young children, either. Adolescents are also potential targets. Grooming steps include:
- Identifying and targeting
- Gaining trust and access – Predators may offer the person special attention and engage them in ways that gain their friendship and trust. In Steven’s case, offering private instruction or encouragement was a common element.
- Playing a role in the target’s life – A predator may manipulate the relationship such that they seem to be the only person who understands the target, or exploit empathy by convincing the target that they are the only one who understands the predator. The second case reinforces a feeling of being “needed” by the predator. Steven was a prominent instructor and mentor. In Sarah’s case, he confided in her in a way that made her feel special and needed.
- Isolation – Removing the target from their surroundings ensures that others cannot witness abuse. It also means that the target may feel more vulnerable and less likely to assert themselves. Steven isolated targets by offering private lessons in remote places and by going for walks.
- Secrecy – The predator reinforces the special connection with the target by saying people wouldn’t understand or would be unhappy. Communicating privately and admonishing against telling anyone makes the target feel trusted and important. Some predators may threaten the target in order to maintain secrecy. Steven told Sarah that nobody would understand and that they had to keep their relationship secret.
- Normalizing sexual subjects – By showing pornography or talking about sexual subjects, the predator normalizes sexuality between predator and target, laying the groundwork for future advances. Steven asked Sarah if she was a virgin, then asked why when she said yes.
- Rule breaking – For adolescent targets in particular, an abuser might allow or encourage rule breaking, such as smoking, drinking, using drugs, or viewing pornography. Steven snuck Sarah alcohol even though she was underage and other adults didn’t want her drinking.
- Initiating sexual contact – Sometimes the predator starts by touching in ways that are not overtly sexual and may appear to be casual, but are part of a strategy to break down inhibitions and desensitize the target. In the context of dancing, there is already so much innocuous touching that targets may be more at risk of desensitization and more likely to accept as normal touching that otherwise would have been alarming.
- Controlling the relationship – Predators rely on secrecy to operate without consequences. Steven controlled the relationship by telling people they were “fucked up” when they resisted, and by convincing them that it was their fault. Doing this made them less likely to speak out.
Gaslighting is a term being used a lot in this discussion, and is an important part of any conversation about abuse. The word comes from a stage play called Gas Light, in which a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the gas-powered lights in their house and then denying that anything is different. Gaslighting is an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, memories, perceptions, and even sanity, which gives power to the abuser. There are many gaslighting techniques that an abuser might use:
- Withholding – pretending not to understand or refusing to listen
- Countering – questioning victim’s memory of events, even when they are accurate
- Blocking/Diverting – changing the subject or questioning the victim’s thoughts
- Trivializing – making victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant (“Why are you upset about a little thing like that?”)
- Forgetting/Denial – pretending to forget what actually happened or denying things like promises
It’s important to understand that while these are classic techniques for an abuser to employ in order to maintain control, it is possible for people entirely outside the situation to be complicit by gaslighting. An event organizer who dismisses someone raising a concern by saying “You’re crazy, he didn’t mean it that way” is using the gaslighting technique of countering. In the same situation, saying something like “Oh, don’t worry about that, he’s just awkward” is using the gaslighting technique of trivializing. If someone raises concerns about their safety or comfort with you, it’s important to listen with an open mind and trust people’s instincts.
A predator is defined by Merriam Webster as “a person who looks for other people in order to use, control, or harm the in some way.” I bring this up because I want to distinguish it from the word “monster.” A predator is someone who is human, and may be likeable or good in other ways. A predator is not necessarily a criminal. Steven Mitchell is a human being who was, prior to Sarah sharing her story and beginning this discussion, respected, liked, and admired. Many people’s lives are better for having him around. He was a teacher and a colleague and a friend to many. He is also a predator. He hunted women, often young women, in order to control them and use them for sex. Obviously some of them were harmed. It is also obvious from the commonality among their stories that Steven had techniques that he used repeatedly, that he wasn’t particularly interested in their level of interest, and that he was reluctant to give up the hunt once he’d begun. Steven’s actions were not the result of being bad at love, or awkward, or lonely. Steven’s behavior was deliberate and predatory. His motivations for acting that way may very well involve being bad at love, or awkward, or lonely. But it doesn’t matter. Steven certainly doesn’t need or deserve our empathy as much as his survivors do. The reason to keep his humanity in mind is not so that we can forgive; rather, it is because there are other humans that we know, like, and admire who may also be predators, and we need to try to notice it before something else goes terribly, terribly wrong.
Last one. Many people who see themselves as a voice of reason are offering tepid and reserved acknowledgement of survivors’ stories, while cautioning the community against engaging in a “witch hunt.” Just so everybody’s clear, a witch hunt—when it’s not actually about witches—is a campaign against a person or group holding unorthodox or unpopular views. The McCarthy-era hunt for communists was a witch hunt. Castigating Steven is not tantamount to a witch hunt. His actions are not being criticized because they are unpopular or unorthodox. They’re being criticized because he systematically abused his position in the scene to take advantage of people and damaged them in ways that people who haven’t been through the same thing will never, ever understand. He’s being criticized because his actions are morally outrageous. Having a conversation about safe spaces and how to protect our community members from predators is not a witch hunt. We’re not rounding up the misfits and freaks and executing or exiling them. We’re trying to figure out how to identify behavior that contributes to a culture which allowed Steven and others to act this way for years without being called on it. It’s a necessary part of our responsibility as scene leaders, and it’s something we should have done long ago.