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 include 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, blind-folds, 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
- In 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 process of consent when needed.
- Put up your hand up 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 in 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. This 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 why unwanted touch or actions that break community agreements are occurring in the first place. And whose responsibility are these occurrences? They fail to address that boundary setting is a messy art form that ebbs and flows depending on resources you have at any given moment and the possible power imbalances involved.
Boundary setting vocabulary can be an important part of creating safer, braver spaces. Having a well-understood and shared boundary-setting vocabulary in a community and practicing this cuing works to bring clarity to relationships and group dynamics. Learning to speak my “no” was a fundamental aspect of developing into the person I am today. 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 this message 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, right in the moment, 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 can result in responses that 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 could put a person in a position of risk to their being or their livelihood and they may not assert a boundary to save themselves. 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.
Even as I write this, I find myself falling into old patterns of thought. I think to myself, “boundary setting is an imperfect art that is susceptible to power imbalances and shifting resources. That is the reason it should not be relied on to prevent assault”. But then I tell myself to stop and offer this reframe: even if boundary setting was a perfect artform 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. Apart 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 boundary-setting skills of attendees to keep the group safe. A therapeutic regressed state occurs when sensorial experiences, interoception (the perception of sensations from inside the body), 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 towards 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 upon our duty to care for the community, we can create the best chance for safer braver spaces to flourish. And then, yes as a subsequent point of action, teach your community or event attendees 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. This is for anyone who has the experience of being victim-blamed for the occurrence either directly or indirectly, or through the style the 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 act and they are responsible for it.
Steps and Advice for Sexual Assault Prevention at Relational Movement-based Events
If having (name specific situation in your event i.e. dancing with a lot of touch, being in a practice where people are asked to close their eyes or be blindfolded, nudity, sex positive spaces or having oil on your body) causes you to not follow (insert name of relational-movement event) guidelines or to not act within consent then we ask that you not attend this event.
Steps you can take to strengthen your ability to follow event guidelines and to stay within consent practices.
- 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 your following of consent practices and event guidelines is going.
- Educate yourself on consent culture and practices before attending the event.
- Read through the event guidelines several times and ask organizers questions if you are confused about any aspect of the guidelines.
- Take a consent workshop before attending.
- Learn to recognize states of intoxication, regressed therapeutic states and/or trauma responses, and act with responsible care for the other when you see someone in such a state.
- Wear clothes to the event that will help you stay grounded in consent practices. This might be a favourite, bright soft fleece shirt that helps you feel grounded in care for the 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 (insert name of relational-movement event) 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 who 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 you 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 in 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 fell in love with contact improvisation (CI) 21 years ago and has been involved in the CI community ever since. She has choreographed over 40 dance works and been nominated for 5 DORA awards. She has taught in the George Brown Dance College dance program for the past 21 years. Kathleen has a learning disability that throughout her life causes writing to take 4 to 8 times longer than for the average person. It is one of life’s great surprises and mysteries for her that despite the struggle she developed a love of writing and is a published author. She has a Master’s in Expressive Arts with a minor in Psychology. She had a psychotherapy practice for 17 years which she recently left to peruse her art career full time. She has a passion for functional movement and is a teacher candidate for the Axis Syllabus. She is the director of REAson d’etre dance productions a not-for-profit contact improvisation-based dance company that produces the Contact Dance International Film Festival, dance-theatre productions, and a weekly dance jam in Toronto. Being on the autism spectrum she also identifies as being neuro-atypical and works to educate the world about neurodiversity.
1) Therapeutic regressed state is an idea that Leslie Heydon brought up with me as I was writing this blog post
2) Kathleen’s writing is influenced through deep conversation with Leslie Heydon who in Kathleen’s experience has a brilliant articulate thought process around emotion, creativity, dance, touch, and consent. Through conversation together Kathleen has arrived at a new understanding of complex situations and been better able to parse out and understand the points she wants to make in her blog writing.
Drawing of naked personal 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 ASAULT THEM
- USE THE BUDY 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 trust of someone you want to assault. Consider telling them your plan to assault them. If you don’t communicate your intention the other person they may take it as s 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 “accidently” you can give it to the person so they can blow it on you.
- Don’t assaults people!