Posts Tagged ‘sexual harassment’
This weekend I’m going for my first “dance weekender” which is distinguished from an ordinary weekend by £130 and the addition of the letters “er”. It’s not classy and it’s not cool; it’s at Pontins. I’m dreading three nights on the lumpy mattress of in my “budget chalet,” but not as much as I’m dreading the suppressing my feminist rage for three days. If I never blog again, it’s possible I’ll have exploded in ‘The Chill Out Zone’, look for pieces of my body there.
Ceroc has never scored high on the subtle-understanding-of-gender metre. They provide training and examinations in dance teaching, but their teachers don’t think anything of calling women ‘girls’ and making jokes about how the stranger I’m dancing with wants to grope me. The average punter doesn’t seem to mind, though; in fact, indignities caused by fellow dancers are much greater than with the teachers. I’ve never been felt up by a teacher. I’ve never been pressured to do close moves I’ve said I don’t want to do by a teacher. I’ve never been complimented on imagined weight loss and then had my imagined positive reaction parodied by a teacher. That’s all been fellow dancers. Sometimes I look around the room and think that I’m the only one there to dance, everyone else seems to be involved in a vast, insulting and semi-consensual meat market. At least no one has followed me home from the dance hall in an attempt to start a sexual relationship, as happened to one woman I know. So I don’t suppose that many of their other customers care about the awful way Ceroc handles gender identity issues, and I don’t suppose they’ll change any time soon. Most people won’t even see a problem.
Ceroc weekends operate “gender balanced booking” and use it to attract people to their events. I can see why. It’s frustrating to be at an event where there are twice as many women as men, because you’ll only be able to dance half the time, or less than half, as some women have partners to monopolise. I’ve left early after hours of boredom because of a bad gender imbalance.
There are two ways to deal with the problem. One is to separate gender from dancing role, so that the make up of the crowd doesn’t define the evening. The other is to exclude some women or include more men to balance the numbers. It as the reverse of the problem so many fetish and swingers’ clubs have.
As a feminist, I tend towards the first option. In dances like Lindy Hop, which attract a younger, more liberal crowd, I see plenty of women leading. It happens occasionally in jive, and is usually a symptom of a man shortage. To convince more women to lead and men to follow, we would have to reform the culture of jive. At your first lesson you’d have to be told you can choose to lead or follow, we’d have to change the language of ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ to ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ and take all of the gendered assumptions (whether that’s jokes about groping to comments on men having better spatial awareness) out of the lessons. The whole sexualised atmosphere of partner dancing would have to be dialled back. That would suit me well, as I’m uncomfortable with the assumption that the men I dance with are having a sexual interaction with me—one’s over eighty—and I suspect it contributes to them not respecting my boundaries.
I have to recognise, though, that I’m not like most jivers. There’s a reason it feels like a meat market: a lot of people are there to find sexual partners. I’ve seen the vultures swoop in at the beginning of the freestyle, after the lesson, in their tight dresses and high heels, to flirt with the men. Hundreds of men seem to have awkwardly tried to ask me out, or ascertain if I’m single. I’ve learned to recognise the recently-divorced look, and the look of the nice guy whose friends have told to get out and meet people. They want to dance with people of the opposite sex because most of them are straight. How many hobbies bring you into contact, physical contact, with so many people of the opposite sex over the course of an evening? And if you can’t think of scintillating conversation you can just concentrate on the moves. Do the men who are enjoying this really want the women clamouring to dance with them just to pair off together? Do the women want to forego the chance of meeting someone who’ll sleep with them, so they can dance with their friends instead? It seems unlikely.
That’s the cuddly side of heteronormative culture, straight people who don’t mind gays, but don’t want them getting in the way. There’s a nastier side to it, though. I’ve attended one (non-Ceroc) jive club where an individual was forced to leave because (s)he didn’t conform to the expected gender roles. (S)he wore a dress, and had masculine characteristics. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know whether (s)he was a male-to-female trans woman, a cross-dresser, or any other gender variation. I do know that (s)he wasn’t allowed to take part in the lessons because some men complained they weren’t comfortable dancing with another man. They felt that the finger-tip touch necessary for jive was too sexual. They were happy to do it with any woman in the room, and happy to see women do it together (lesbianism doesn’t count, right?) but not with men. So the people who ran the club saved its male members from such an awful fate.
At what point does recognising the desires of the (straight) majority cross from pragmatism to homophobia and transpobia? I don’t know. I’d be happier, though, if I thought the question had crossed the minds of the people running Ceroc. They explain their gender balancing here:
We made the decision to introduce gender balancing into the weekender market as we believe very strongly that both boys and girls should have the same freestyle opportunities.
Absent a major overhaul of jive culture, this is understandable. What’s less understandable is the wording. I’m not a girl. I haven’t been a girl for nine years, and I’m one of the younger members. This is the sort of language they use throughout the website and literature. There’s also a conflation of “male,” “man” and any other word signifying the individual may have a penis. Take this email they sent me, a woman who has already booked:
All the accommodation for this event has sold out. However, if you are a MALE and have a friend who has already booked an apartment and can accommodate you, then for £99 (per person) you can still come and enjoy this event.
They repeat at the end that the offer is only available to “MALES”.
To try to stop people cheating the system by pretending to be MALE when they are not in possession of a penis, stewards will be checking that everyone is wearing the correct colour-coded wristband (I haven’t got it yet, but who thinks it’s going to be pink?). How they’re going to check? Will men have to strip at the entrance to the dance hall to display an all-important penis? For women, will just unbuttoning a blouse be ok?
I’m lucky, I wear dresses and make up and feel relatively comfortable with my birth gender (as long as people don’t make stupid comments about multitasking), so I don’t think that I’ll be misgendered even though I don’t shave my legs. That gains me admission to a club I don’t really want to be part of, because what happens to the butches, trans people, the queers and the intersexed? Why should they have to justify themselves at a dance event? And who are these stewards to tell me that they know more about my gender identity than I do?
If it really is about dancing, and not about getting straight people laid, than committing to leading for the weekend should have as much weight as having been born with a willy. If it is about getting laid, I’ll stay in Manchester and do it a more cheaply and enjoyably with people who know better than to call me ‘girl’ or use ‘female’ as a noun.
Here’s my plan: next time I’ll go in drag. Who’ll chip in for a couple of natty three-piece suits and a pair of snazzy black and white wingtips? I’ll provide the hat. Not only will I dance better than half of those willy-owners who claim to lead, I’ll look a hundred times more suave. Send cravats!
Last New Year, as I stood in a crowd watching the fireworks and feeling a stranger’s hand squeeze my bum, I made a resolution. I was going to stand up to gropers, harassers, wannabe-rapists and people who refused to read my subtle signals. I wasn’t going to put up with it any more, because putting up with it only encourages them. If I was to become a shrill harpy of a feminist in the process, so be it. I didn’t have a specific plan, just a vague anger towards the people who think my body isn’t exclusively my own.
I should have made a plan. As it turns out, not suppressing my first reaction usually leaves me feeling guilty as well as grubby and violated. A couple of months ago, when a man passing on the street leant close to my ear and said, “nice tits,” I didn’t reasonably respond with, “I object to your sexually harassing me,” but choked out, “fuck off!” at an inappropriate volume. When a man touched me last week, I said if he did it again I’d kick him in the balls. While he didn’t seem too phased, I’m ashamed of myself for threatening violence. If violence is ever the solution to anything, surely it should be the last resort.
None of my readers have admonished me. If anything, those who responded implicitly supported my reaction. The notion that violence is acceptable in these circumstances seems to be widespread, look at the comments on this post, for example. I can see why. There’s a fire in it. The same fire I felt when I first read this:
Lots of women (men didn’t dare comment on the subject) stood up to publically declare: “How revolting, we absolutely must not consider that violence is an answer to rape.” Why not? You never see news items about girls—alone or in gangs—biting the dicks of men who attack them, or trailing their attackers to kill them or beat them lifeless. This only happens, for the moment, in films directed by men. [...] You see how men, if they were women, would react to rape. A bloodbath of merciless violence. Their message is clear: why don’t you defend yourselves more fiercely? [...]
But women still feel the need to say that violence is not the answer. And yet, if men were to fear having their dicks slashed to pieces with a carpet knife should they try to force a woman, they would soon become much better at controlling their “masculine” urges, and understanding that “no” means “no”. I wish I’d been able to escape the values instilled in my gender that night [when I was raped], and slit each of their throats, one by one.
Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory, trans. Stephanie Benson (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2009), pp.36-37.
There’s something very seductive in that. I could write all of my pain on the bodies of men who invaded mine, those who raped me, groped me, squeezed me, prodded me with their erect penises or otherwise made me feel violated and afraid.* In so doing I would send a message to all of the others. Maybe if I’d punched that man on Portland Street, he wouldn’t rub his dick against any more women.
On the other hand, maybe he’d have punched me back, harder, and left me bleeding on the ground. I didn’t reform one rapist even after breaking two of his toes. When I hit a colleague, reacting to a girl shouting, “get this man away from me,” my boss told me I’d done the right thing, then went off to advise the man against carrying out his threat of breaking my arm in retaliation. I’d done a great job at de-escalation as you can see!
I think there are two reasons why, on some level, accept a violent reaction in these situations. One is that it proves you meant “no.” I would be very hesitant to turn up at a police station to tell them about rape or sexual abuse without a scratch on me. I don’t think I would be believed. I’d be even more reluctant to fight back hard, though, because I’d rather be raped and alive than unraped and dead or seriously injured. I guess I’m weird that way.
The other reason is that women are seen as weak. Lashing out at men, they can look like the poor, victimised underdogs going after the baddie and grinding him into the dust. It’s an empowering image. The might of the powerful being used against the weak is not. The flaw in this view (apart from its obvious inaccuracies) is that the violent reaction is only acceptable because we’ll lose. Its premise is our weakness, our vulnerability. I’m allowed to hit him, because it won’t really hurt, he’s tough. If we all started punching men who touched us uninvited tomorrow, I suspect the result would be the same horrible power dynamics and black eyes all round. If it wasn’t, soon campaigners would be calling for an end to the reign of terror, and suggesting solutions for the oppressed underdogs: the men.
I got it wrong last week. Threatening to kick a man in the balls felt like standing up to him, but I was positioning myself to lose. I’ve replayed it in my mind many times since, and I still don’t have the answer. It’s nearly a year since I first resolved to do it, and I still don’t know how to confront the gropers. Do you? Will you tell me how?
*Apart from the ones who made me feel violated and afraid in a good way: Sade, Nietzsche and a few others. You know who you are. You all deserve cuddles and cake.
I just threatened a man with violence, then bought Christmas cards. Well, Season’s Greetings cards, actually, because they’re for the Amnesty Card Campaign and I don’t want to offend non-Christians. I don’t want to offend anyone, me.
Except this man in a tracksuit on Portland Street in Manchester. I want to do a lot more than offend him. I want to punch him in the face and kick him until he cries. I don’t even know his name and I hate him. I’m a more violent person than I knew.
I got up this morning, looked out of the window and wondered if I could bring myself to leave the house. It is one of those days that looks inviting but numbs your fingers and scorches your throat when you go out. I decided to run a couple of errands on the bike and call it exercise. Knowing I would have to put everything in the wash when I got home I put on a pair of lycra trousers which have been chewed at one cuff by my bicycle and a jumper with at least two holes in it. I thought about tidying my hair, but it was only going to be crushed under my helmet. I looked decidedly scratty, but who cares? I was returning library books, and retrieving lost property, not going on the pull.
I got to the cafe where I abandoned possessions yesterday, locked my bike up and the pushed on the doors. It was closed. I harrumphed quietly in frustration and went back to my bike, listening to Linkin Park (yes, Linkin Park, I never pretended to have a sophisticated taste in music) being loud and angry through my earphones. I bent over my bike to coax the lock open. After a few seconds I felt something press—no, poke—against my buttocks. I straightened up, right into the body of a man standing immediately behind me. I jumped, I even made a little, involuntary noise of surprise. Stepping away from the man, I said, at a volume I couldn’t judge because my earphones were in, “what are you doing?” I couldn’t hear his reply over Linkin Park. I jerked them out of my ears and said, “What?”
“Oh, yeah, I was just going to ask you the time.” The man grinned.
I held up my bare wrist, “Sorry, I don’t wear a watch.” I had a few seconds to reflect on the fact that I had just apologised to the stranger who, I realised with gross clarity, had just been jabbing me with his erect penis, before he grabbed my arm and said,
“The thing is, yeah, my mate’s over there,” he gestured vaguely up the empty street, “and I was going to get behind you and do this, right?” He spread his arms and legs wide and thrust his hips forward in an obscene motion, then he laughed.
“Next time,” I said, “I’ll kick you in the balls.”
“Yeah,” he said, “do that!”
I wheeled my bike around and started to walk away. He grabbed my arm again. I wrenched free. “Don’t touch me,” I said, and again, louder and shriller as I reached the curb, “don’t touch me!”
I cycled aggressively, dangerously, and then shot people dirty looks as I browsed for Christmas cards. I turned the volume up loud and listened to Nickelback on the way home. It didn’t help. I feel dirty, angry, and ever so slightly ashamed. I’ve been a professional peace worker. People have spent real money on my mediation training. I’m a fair way to being a pacifist. All that, and after one touch I’m threatening violence. He wanted a reaction and he got it, which makes me angrier still.
I’ve been having violent fantasies for two days. Not the good sort, where I close my eyes and imagine a big strong man who wants to have his wicked way with me, in spite of my insincere protests (note for men: don’t try doing this is real life unless you want a rape conviction). No, these are fantasies of turning to the stranger who grabs my bum in a crowd and punching his face until blood and bone fragments are trickling from his nose. Or driving my knee hard into a groper’s crotch and watching him double up in pain. Bashing the rape apologist’s face into his computer screen witnessing him trying to extract the glass shards from his eyes. I could go on, but I’m sure you’d rather I didn’t.
I’m not a violent person, generally. I once broke two of my ex-boyfriends toes after he hit me and then stood between me and the door, but I feel that was justified. I’m mostly quite peaceable. I’ve worked for peace-building organisations. So the violent images running through my mind are rather disconcerting.
I think I know where it started. Yesterday I was walking along Blackfriars Road, deeply involved in conversation with a friend. A passerby leaned in close and said “nice tits.”
I would love to believe that you are sitting behind your computer screen thinking “what a git!” but I’m a realist, so I will add this information: I had paid the man no attention, and, in fact, was hardly aware of him until I heard his voice. I was wearing an ankle-length skirt and a woolly jumper, no heels, no make-up and no revealing clothing. So whatever version of “asking for it” you can come up with, I’m pretty sure you’re wrong.
It would be lovely to live in a world where men didn’t think it was appropriate to comment on my breasts as I walk down the street, but I’m a realist and I don’t ask for too much. Wherever my personal comfort zone is, someone will always act outside it. Some people are socially inept and some people delight in provoking reactions, especially negative ones, and will do whatever necessary to get one. I know all this, but the comment got to me, all the same.
As these sorts of experiences accumulate, I feel like I’m under siege. Every woman has tales to tell. The comment on Blackfriars Road was so ordinary that the friend I was with didn’t even feel the need to comment on it. Since then, I’ve mentioned it to two women, and both of them had stories of harassment: a man sat next to my friend on a train wouldn’t stop rubbing his leg against hers; another friend has been followed home my numerous men.
Don’t get me wrong, I think flirting is great. I think spontaneous compliments are lovely and I very much enjoy the sensation of a hand stroking my bum (or smacking it, but that’s another story). I even like it when men come home with me. The thing is, I like to choose the men. In general, it’s best to wait for an invitation. If it’s true of calling in for a cup of tea, it is certainly true of grabbing my privates. You don’t need a high level of socialisation to work that out.
I’m tired of men saying “it could have been a misunderstanding” about everything from inappropriate comments to rapes. You don’t need to be highly skilled in non-verbal communication to interpret a woman edging away from you. You don’t have to get stuck in a quandary of “does she want it or not?” for the entire duration of the life of your vocal chords: you can simply ask. The most compelling evidence to show that miscommunication isn’t a relevant excuse, though, is the satisfied smirk on the face of the man on Blackfriar’s Road. I saw him gloat.
Men, I challenge you. Next time you witness, or hear of a woman being harassed, don’t offer possible excuses for the aggressor. There’s no need to be defensive, the woman isn’t using her harasser as a specimen to critique all men. Instead, try to put yourself in her place. There’s nothing a woman can do to defend herself. Even if I had the strength and speed to enact a violent revenge, I don’t really want to do it. I just want to be able to walk down the street unmolested. I have a woman’s body, so there’s nothing I can do to achieve that goal. No matter what I wear, how I act, the gits keep coming. Imagine living with that every day and then, perhaps, praise our restraint.