Today is the third time in under a month that a story of sexual assault by a prominent dance figure has arrived in my newsfeed. That is extremely maddening.
To be clear, I’m not taking a legal stance on whether or not the assaults in question ‘actually happened’, though my personal opinion is that the facts presented seem rather plausible in all three situations. But, that’s not my point today.
My point today is to talk about how every person in our community has an obligation to always ensure they have a willing partner in every sexual encounter they have.
Sexual assault is a very simple definition. It is any sexual contact or behavior that happens without the express consent of the other person.
There is absolutely no excuse for knowingly sexually assaulting someone, male or female. It doesn’t matter if they were in your room. It doesn’t matter if they were in your room, naked. It doesn’t matter if they were in your room, naked, and consensually making out with you. The second you go beyond their consent, it is sexual assault.
Even if your behavior doesn’t meet the threshold of ‘assault’ and is merely ‘harassment’, it is still wrong and inappropriate.
“But I thought they wanted it!”
If you ‘thought they wanted it’ when they didn’t, in 99% of cases you’re either:
- an irresponsible idiot, or
- a liar.
If you’re selfish, you decided that you would take what you wanted anyways, since they didn’t explicitly tell you that they didn’t want it. Since they didn’t say ‘no’, you convince yourself you’re under no obligation to see if they really wanted it. Basically, you knew you might be assaulting them – but your guilt doesn’t kick in because you talked yourself into thinking they were OK because there was no struggle or verbal ‘no’.
If you’re an idiot, you’re so bad at reading body language that, despite all the signs being there that they were not consenting, you decided to do it anyways without getting verbal verification of consent. It’s OK to be bad with body language – but that means you must ask directly and be extra careful to not push people past their limits. In which case, you should not be doing anything physical with anyone unless you get a very, very explicit ‘yes’.
If you’re a liar, you knew they weren’t consenting but are trying to use a ‘loophole’ or a lie to cover up the fact that you know you assaulted someone. Shame on you.
At the end of the day, you still sexually assaulted someone in all three scenarios.
“But some people make things like this up!”
If there are people making this stuff up, stop – now. You’re creating an almost impossible situation for people who have truly been assaulted. If you consented to any sort of sexual interaction, own it – even if it’s a mistake.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way…
Even if there are some people making up some stories, you are not absolved from your responsibility to obtain clear consent. Plus, if so many of the cases do actually rise out of ‘regret’, you should be happy to be getting consent. It’s a lot harder to lie convincingly about something you explicitly said than something that was implied through body language.
Saying “yes” forces a person to take ownership of their decision. This includes in sex. If you refuse to continue until there is an explicit and convincing “yes”, the chances that your partner will make up a story about how you assaulted them plummets. If you’re that scared of (rare) false rape accusations, start taking more steps to prevent situations of ambiguous consent/non-consent.
“But some people play games!”
You know what stops games really fast? Not playing back. If you’re worried that someone is going to ‘change their mind’ and feel assaulted later, don’t play the game. They say no? Stop. The ones who are playing games will change that ‘no’ to a ‘yes’ really fast, once they realize that you’re not going to keep going otherwise.
This includes “I don’t normally do this…” and other variations. If they really don’t normally “do this”, you should find out if they actually do want to “do this”. If they are trying to play coy and you back off, they’ll usually say “oh, no, it’s ok. I want it.”
If you both like playing games, you better make sure you’re able to read body language well. You better make sure that you’re so sensitive to the person’s needs that you know exactly when a ‘no’, ‘stop,’ or other behavior really means ‘no’.
Taking a page out of the BDSM community’s playbook, a ‘safe word’ is one option for clarifying these games.
“But I don’t know if the stories I hear are true!”
Again, I’m not talking about other stories. I’m talking about you. You have an obligation to make sure that every person you are intimate with is consenting. You have the obligation to make sure you know how to tell if your partner is really into it. You have the obligation to say that sexual acts without consent are not OK.
It’s too late to stop assaults that have already happened. But, if enough people change the expected behavior, we can stop (most of) them from happening in the future. Sexual consent should be a concept so clear that it’s inconceivable for someone to ‘misunderstand’ whether the other person did or didn’t want something.
“But I can’t tell!”
If you are clueless about other people’s behaviors and body language that you truly can’t understand ‘what they want’ and see ‘mixed signals’, you shouldn’t try to negotiate consent through body language. You have to ask. Just like if you have bad eyesight, you are responsible for wearing glasses while driving.
If you want to have naughty times without having to specifically ask questions, you better be damn sure that you’re able enough to read body language well enough to get the intention right 100% of the time.
If you think the person you are sleeping with is likely going to resent the encounter or be otherwise unhappy at its conclusion, stop. Do you really want to be the regrettable one-night stand? Do you really want to have people resent sleeping with you, even if it was ‘consensual’ – but with reservations or pressure?
(I sure wouldn’t.)
If you choose to hook up with people through dance, that’s fine. It can be quite fun for all involved. But, be the person who can confidently say all your partners were happy to be with you. That you know each and every partner really wanted you.
“But other people want to sleep with me!”
Ok. So, go find one of them instead. Leave the person who is ambiguous or not really into it alone.
“But they’ve slept with other people!”
If you’ve had sex, does that automatically mean you want to sleep with everyone at the event? (Didn’t think so.)
“But people need to protect themselves!”
Sadly, they do, because there are enough people who are willing to sexually assault someone that it’s a risk. And yet, almost all of us are offended or upset when someone doesn’t trust us right away.
So, there’s a balancing act between “likelihood of assault” and “having fun”. Before we become intimate with a person, we have to decide if that person is someone who will stop if we ask them to. We have to figure out if a drink in a hotel room is a hook-up, or if the purpose is simply because booze in someone’s room is cheaper than bar booze. We have to decide if the private lesson invitation in a secluded area is actually a lesson, or if it’s a way to get us alone.
It’s always a guessing game. It’s especially difficult in the dance community, where many of those requests are, in fact, legitimate. I’ve been invited to rooms to grab a drink very frequently – and almost every single time was without a sexual intention.There was only one time when the purpose was a guise for getting intimate. Upon realizing that I actually thought it was a drink, the person very kindly provided me with the drink and escorted me back to the ballroom.
Sometimes, some unfortunate people guess wrong. They end up with someone they thought was trustworthy and decent, only to find out that kissing means “you must have sex with me”, or “a drink” means “you don’t get to leave my room without giving me a blowjob.”
We can only do so much to protect ourselves without compromising the trusting, open community we have. Sure, we can stop socializing, having sex, sharing hotel rooms, and dancing. We can wear burlap sacks, and only have dry events. But, our openness shouldn’t be the issue – consent should be.
Time for a Change
This needs to stop – on all levels. We need to expect better from our stars and our social dancers. The easiest place to start is by making sure we manage our own behavior, and explaining to our friends that they – and only they – are responsible for making sure they get the full consent of their partner for every sexual encounter.