I was inspired to write this post after reading a tongue-in-cheek list of how to prevent sexual assaults, which instead of the usual focus on the potential victim, had a list of points focused on the person who may feel predatory urges. This list sarcastically mocks the assault prevention tips that people are given on a regular basis that includes not wearing provocative clothing, only going out with a safety buddy, how to get out of bad situations, crossing your legs while sitting, refraining from having alcohol, putting your keys between your fist as you walk in case you need to stab someone to defend yourself, etc.
This got me thinking about the guidelines of a Dance Jam I recently attended in which much of the advice was placed upon boundary-setting. I thought, what if I did a similar reversal on the boundary advice that is often given at Relational Movement Based events? I define a Relational Movement Based event as a group event that involves any mix of relational communications through touch. This can include dancing, blindfolds, closed eyes, sensory play, oil, nudity, sensuality, and sexuality.
The advice typically goes as such:
- Learn and practice saying “No” both verbally and non-verbally
- At the moment something occurs that you do not like, let the person know.
- Learn cueing to let someone know their touch is unwanted such as removing someone’s hand from your body with a clear headshake “no”.
- Tap the person persistently if they are doing something you do not like.
- Move to verbal processes of consent when needed.
- Put up your hand if you need support so that a facilitator can come and help you
- Wear clothes to the event that do not invite unwanted touch. This one is often an unspoken guideline that at-risk groups collectively just know about.
- If you are not able to assert your boundaries at the moment something occurs, you should not attend the event. Or you can attend but are asked to limit your participation by doing things like moving to the side of the studio or moving into solo practice.
These tips may be overtly written in the guidelines or be an unspoken understanding that a group communicates through their tone, words, and actions.
The guidelines most often fail to ask the question of why unwanted touch or actions that break community agreements are occurring in the first place and whose responsibility these occurrences are? They fail to address that boundary setting is a messy art form that ebbs and flows depending on the resources you have at any given moment and the possible power imbalances involved.
Boundary setting vocabulary can be an essential part of creating safer, braver spaces. Having a well-understood and shared boundary-setting vocabulary can bring clarity to relationships and group dynamics. Learning to speak my “NO” was a fundamental aspect of developing into the person I am today. And I did learn my “NO” through the practice of contact improvisation, although the process was not a smooth learning curve.
If the predominant focus is placed solely on a person preventing themselves from being assaulted without consideration of other aspects, it inevitably risks becoming victim-blaming and exclusionary. If you read between the lines, the message is that if you can’t defend your boundaries perfectly every time and right in the moment something occurs, then something is wrong with you. You are not cut out to be at the event. Also, if you get assaulted, it is 100% your fault for not defending your boundaries since you are the gatekeeper for whether an assault happens.
Power imbalances in our society will inevitably show up at Relational Movement Based events even though organizers may strive to create a space in which people are empowered to assert themselves. They show up because that which is in society is already embedded in our practices whether we admit it or not. These power imbalances may be based on race, disability, class, leadership roles, gender, past trauma, etc., and make asserting one’s boundary challenging at the moment unwanted touch occurs.
Unwanted touch can happen quickly without time to process and move to establish a boundary. In such cases, asserting one’s boundaries effectively is not preventative but simply helps stop further harm from being done.
Some people may also be well-practiced in using techniques that work to swing the power imbalance in their favour, making it less likely someone will assert their boundaries.
Neuro-divergence may also bring challenges to asserting boundaries in the moment due to slow processing speed in relation to touch.
Regressing into past trauma is another state that can make asserting a boundary not accessible.
In some situations, asserting a boundary can cause risk to their being or their livelihood. In these cases, they may not assert a boundary to save their lives or career.
Also, the project of learning to clearly communicate boundaries in the moment is a work in progress for all of us with an ebb and flow depending on how well-resourced we are at any given moment.
I think to myself, “boundary setting is an imperfect art that is susceptible to power imbalances and shifting resources. For this reason, it should not be relied on to prevent assault. But as I say this to myself I realize I have fallen into old patterns of thought that blame the victim. I stop and offer myself this reframe: even if boundary setting was a perfect art form in a perfect world, it is still not meant to do the job of preventing sexual assault. Boundary-setting skills work to create honest healthy relationships. Separate from this, it is the job of all community members or attendees at an event not to assault others.
At events that, by their nature, are likely to induce a therapeutic regressed state it is especially vital that organizers not rely on the boundary-setting skills of attendees to keep the group safe. A therapeutic regressed state occurs when sensorial experiences, interoception (focus on internal body sensations), and a feeling of safety take you back to the sense of being a baby swaddled in a caretaker’s arms. It is often not possible for a person in a therapeutic regressed state to quickly assert their boundaries to prevent or end unwanted touch. I have seen newcomers to Contact Improvisation jams enter such states due to the fact that their body-brain is not used to the level of touch they are experiencing. Therapeutic regressed states also tend to occur in eyes-closed or blindfolded events, especially when facilitators guide people toward interoception (1).
Rather than focus predominantly on boundary-setting skills to maintain safety, I believe guidelines for Relational Movement-based Events can place the onus on participants’ responsibility to care for their community. Focus, as well, can be placed on the group’s commitment to stay within the frame of the event guidelines and consent practices such as following people’s “yes” rather than waiting for a “no”. I believe when the focus is placed on our duty to care for the community, we can create the best chance for safer braver spaces to flourish. And then, yes as a secondary point, teach your community shared boundary-setting language and skills and the reasons why peoples’ ability to assert boundaries can ebb and flow.
I have written this post not just as a “hey-let’s-turn-the-tables-for-a-minute” example! I have written it in hopes that reading these Steps and Advice for Sexual Assault Prevention can be a healing balm for anyone who has been assaulted at a Relational Movement Based event and experienced victim-blaming either directly or indirectly, or through the style, in which event guidelines were written.
Your assault is the fault of the person who stepped past consent culture and/or community agreements to take from you. It is their action and they are responsible.
Steps and Advice for Sexual Assault Prevention at Relational Movement-based Events
If (name specific situation in your event i.e. the level or touch, being at a blindfolded event, nudity, sex-positive spaces) causes you to not follow our boundary guidelines or to not act within consent then we ask that you to not attend our event.
Steps you can take to strengthen your ability to follow event guidelines and to stay within consent practices.
- Educate yourself on consent culture and practices before attending the event
- Take a consent workshop before attending.
- Read through the event guidelines several times and ask organizers questions if you are confused about any aspect of the guidelines.
- Attend the event with a safety buddy who is well-versed in consent practices. They can check in with you and you can be accountable to them in terms of how well you are following consent practices and event guidelines.
- Learn to recognize states of intoxication, regressed therapeutic states, and/or trauma responses, and act with responsible care for a person in such a state.
- Wear clothes to the event that will help you stay grounded in consent practices. This might be your favorite, bright and soft fleece onesie pajamas that help you feel grounded in care for your community.
- Bring something like a smooth rock that you can hold in your hand that stands as a reminder of community guidelines and consent practices.
If you think you are up to the task of following our guidelines but at some point in the event you find yourself in a situation where you feel that you might be at risk of breaking the community agreements or doing something not within consent, we recommend that you work to protect the boundary of others through the following actions:
- Move away from the center of the group towards an area where solo practices are occurring and engage in a solo practice.
- Clearly and definitively remove your own hand from someone’s body if you feel your grasp might be reaching past event guidelines and consent practices.
- Tap your own body to remind yourself to follow consent structures and the event guidelines.
- Vocalize or verbalize to yourself the statement “honour the event guidelines”
- Open your eyes (metaphorically if you are at a closed-eye or blindfold event) and have a good look at yourself and the group. Ask yourself, “how can I honour and take care of this community that is taking part in this vulnerable and beautiful event?”
- Raise your hand to get help from the facilitators. They will come over to check in with you. This might take a few moments depending on where you are in the space and how long it takes for them to see your signal for help.
If you are not able to create support structures for yourself to help you stay within consent practices and be respectful of event guidelines at the moment urges might have you do otherwise, we kindly ask that you not attend this event.
This event is only for those with an understanding of consent practices and our community guidelines, and who have the personal resources internally and externally to honor group agreements and to care for others.
Kathleen Rea danced with Canada’s Ballet Jorgen, National Ballet of Canada & Tiroler Landestheater (Austria). She fell in love with contact improvisation 22 years ago & has been involved in the community ever since. She has choreographed over 40 dance works and has been nominated for 5 DORA awards. Kathleen has a learning disability which means writing takes 6 times longer than average. It is one of life’s mysteries that despite this struggle she loves writing and is a published author (The Healing Dance). She has a Master’s in Expressive Arts with a minor in Psychology. She is a certified teacher of the Axis Syllabus and Buteyko Breathing. She is the director of REAson d’etre dance, a Toronto not-for-profit dance company that is contact improvisation based and produces a weekly jam, a Film Fest, and dance theatre productions. She has autism & works to educate the world about neurodiversity. She developed the well-read REAson d’etre dance Dance Jam Guidelines (download here) which over the past 20 years have influenced consent culture in the contact improvisation worldwide community. She also is the founder of the Contact Improv Consent Culture Blog. Kathleen Rea’s Demo Reel
Drawing of a naked person who holds a large sign in their hands that covers most of their body except for their limbs and neck. We can’t see their face. There is a light green background with watercolor-type shadings
The sign lists sexual assault prevention tips as such:
- Don’t drug people’s drinks in order to control their behavior
- When you see some walking by themselves leave them alone
- If you pull over to help someone with car problems remember not to assault them
- NEVER open an unlocked door or window uninvited.
- If you are in an elevator and someone gets in DON’T ASSAULT THEM
- USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM! If you are not able to stop yourself from assaulting people ask a friend to stay with you while you are in public.
- Always be honest with people? Don’t pretend to be a caring friend in order to gain the trust of someone you want to assault. Consider telling them your plan to assault them. If you don’t communicate your intention to the other person they may take it as a sign that you do not plan to rape them.
- Don’t forget: you can’t have sex with someone unless they are awake
- Carry a whistle! If you are worried you might assault someone “accidentally” you can give it to the person so they can blow it on you.
- Don’t assault people!