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The Swing Scene vs. Max, His Friends, and the Swing Scene

May 30, 2017

Please note: This post is entirely about sexual assault in the swing dance community and involves graphic depictions of sexual abuse.

Following the previous sexual assault revelations in our scene, I noticed others, and myself, being left with a lot of questions. These questions were not new. They are the questions that follow every sexual assault report. In an attempt to understand it better, I asked every question possible to myself and tried to find the answers that helped to understand better the situation, especially from the point of view of human rights, logic, and human-behavior, which seemed to me the heart of these matters.

I am not an expert. I am a dance instructor, and a cis White male — one that has had very little personal experience with sexual assault. Coming from this reference point, I cannot speak for victims, or fully understand the many struggles they face. However, as a strong voice in the scene, I felt perhaps sharing the victim’s stories, as well as revealing my personal journey in understanding, was a way to “boost the signal” of this important topic. (And, it should be noted, my personal experience is not the only way of looking at understanding sexual assault. There are many.)

In light of all of this, I have composed this post with the help of a couple of sexual assault experts, and with a great deal of insight from one of Max’s victims, who shared her story and her own extensive work in understanding sexual assault with me. With their help and confidence, I felt I could post this article, but there is much more out there on these subjects — Literature, film, and discussions by experts that cover the much finer nuances of these topics, or offer counter-arguments to ideas expressed here. Please keep this in mind while reading. Though this post might appear to summarize the conversation, its main goal is to further it.

It has been several months since the reports hit, and for many reasons, I was not able to post this until now. Though it might seem out of date based on the specific assault cases, it is never out of date to discuss sexual safety in our community.

It’s long. Very long. But it didn’t feel right to cut anything. Feel free to move to the parts that seem of interest to you.


intro-gavel-graphic-boarder

There is a Lindy Hop instructor named Max Pitruzzella. Many people in our little scene family know of him and know him.

Then there is a Blues and Lindy Hop instructor named Ruth Evelyn. Many people in our little scene family also know of her, and know her. There is the Lindy Hop instructor Tatiana Udry. Again.

And then there are several other Lindy Hoppers with names like Ashley, Jane Doe, Susan Doe, each a woman from a various scene around the world. You might not know them personally, but the people in their home scenes, and the friends they see at workshops, do. And even those represent probably more, possibly many more people in our little scene family.

That’s because Ruth, Tatiana, Ashley, Jane, and Susan have all come out with statements about being sexually assaulted by Max Pitruzella.

So far five have come forward with official statements and, where sexual assault is concerned, the number of public accusations is almost always a fraction of the overall cases. Most of an iceberg is underwater.

There is at least one legal case currently against Max in France. (Where apparently such things are very slow in being processed.) However, in posting their messages publically, it seems to many that the victims have brought a case to the entire swing scene to consider.

It’s important to mention here that when Ruth herself posted an account of her assault, she did so “to protect, not punish.” She wanted to prevent it from happening again. And, as you can imagine, a scene undertaking someone’s punishment gets into tricky territory, possibly involved with taking away human rights. But, in this case, protection and punishment are inescapably tied — if we protect our scene from him, he probably loses his career over the outcome.

In undertaking this trial, however, we are not judging just Max — we are judging each other, our scene as a whole, and ourselves.

Whether we like it or not, this means that every single one of us, as a member of this community, is now a judge and jury, and must decide what actions to take next.

How do we proceed? Here are some thoughts.

Jury & Judge

Exhibits A through E

First and foremost, read Yehoodi’s news post on the sexual assaults here, which is being updated as more information is revealed. Please read as many of the accounts as possible to understand the situation.

The only response the accused, Max Pitruzzella has given, was a post on his Facebook page before he took it down. Facebook’s English translation of the post, as posted by Reddit user Vonschlippe, can be found here.

It’s also good to know a little bit more of the backstory to one aspect of this situation.

Tatiana Udry has risen through the ranks over the last few years to become one of the top level dancers in the Lindy Hop scene. Among the leads she has worked with is Max Pitruzzella. In September of 2016, she posted an unexpected message on her Facebook wall saying she was taking a break from dancing due to overcoming a sexual assault incident. She didn’t name the accuser, and was handling the case with the French authorities.

After more recent accounts came out, a person Tatiana allowed to speak for her said that not only was Max the aggressor, but several of his close friends, including Thomas Blacharz and JB Mino, who are also international instructors, were told of the incidents by Tatiana when they happened, and they reportedly tried to excuse Max’s behavior and downplay the seriousness of it. Following panic attacks and severe anxiety, Tatiana told organizers looking to hire her that she would refuse to work with any of them (including others) due to the experience, and Thomas and JB had a lawyer send her a “cease and desist” letter for defamation of character and for the gigs they lost in her action.

 

How do we know what to believe?

donotdisturbboarder
(Updated 6/1/2017 after feedback)

There are those who desire hard evidence from the accuser before believing and supporting their story — some to the extent that the accused will remain innocent in their eyes until they get what they feel is concrete evidence. I am rarely satisfied by the conversation that then happens between them and others in the scene. Often times, I see little more in the responses than the argument that they “have to believe the victim.”

Just saying they “have to believe” is no argument. (On top of that, it implies the forcing of belief, which is an idea against human rights similar to the forcing of someone through physical means.) These people are truly wondering why, in a world where we are constantly taught that our justice system is based on the idea of innocent until proven guilty, should they make what appears to be an exception in this case?
First off, as Alex Gaw mentions in his well-written and thought-provoking post We Are Not A Government and the Internet is Not a Court — published in the wake of the Steven Mitchell scandal — the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” is arguably a paradox when it comes to a person accusing another person of a crime to their peers:

You can’t presume that the accused is innocent without also presuming that the accuser is guilty of lying. So when some voice of reason online says “Wait a second, shouldn’t Steven be innocent until proven guilty,” they are also–NECESSARILY–saying, “Wait a second, shouldn’t we assume that [the numerous women] who have come forward are lying?”

(It can be argued it is possible to believe that someone is innocent without believing someone else is lying. After all, two people can look at the same situation in very different ways, and have very different stories, and it’s often not as easy as “this one is lying and this one is telling the truth.” As I’m sure every lawyer can attest. But, in the case of an explicitly described sexual assault account like the ones given to our scene — where many of the accused’s actions are clearly described — there are a lot less gray areas. If you believe the details of the accounts of the sexual assaults the victims gave, and understand sexual assault under the law, then it’d be impossible not to conclude the accused is guilty. If you believe the accused is innocent of those actions laid out in the accounts, then one cannot believe the ones making the report are telling the truth or are, in some way, not suffering from a severe delusion.)

At the heart of the point Alex is making is that in an accusation, both parties have equal share. One shouldn’t think that just because someone is the victim of an accusation, they are inherently the only person who is given the benefit of the doubt.

When many people hear of a sexual assault victim coming forward and accusing a high-profile person, their instinct is that the person they admire is being attacked — the first victim they think of is the accused. But here’s the problem: How else is a victim of sexual assault supposed to report the crime? Their very report of being a victim is an accusation. So, when people’s first instinct is to focus on the accused as the main victim requiring attention, it can deny that the accuser is equally a victim. Basically, if one victim deserves innocence before being proven guilty, don’t they both?

One could also argue that one can support a victim in many ways while still withholding guilt of the accused or punishing them. (Obviously, one way they would not be able to support the victim is in believing their perpetrator guilty of committing the crime.) And, in this case, as we’ve discussed, the two — supporting the victims by banning the accused — are interlinked. For the scene’s part, the banning of someone from a dance scene falls more into the support/protect category than it does in assigning guilt and punishment, considering most societies deem sexual assault worthy of incarceration.

(Btw, Alex’s post goes into further detail about “innocence until proven guilty” as a legal construct, and also about why this post’s trial-analogy can be misleading. To think of the scene’s dealing with the assault being like a courtroom trial is misunderstanding the way the American justice system works.)

With all of that in mind, let’s explore further: a specific situation that came up in the recent sexual assault scandal.

When Ruth Evelyn came out with the first public account, it was reposted on a specific scene’s message board. One of the administrators of that board took it down, citing the idea that since it was accusatory without other evidence, it should not be put there.

Let’s give this administrator the benefit of the doubt — let’s say they don’t know either party involved. To them, this seems a simple ethical problem and solution. Person A accused person B of a major crime; we should be very careful with posting such things in our forum if we don’t know the validity of the accusation.

My first argument to this person as to why it can be posted is that, though no one can be forced to believe the accuser/victim’s case, you should always hear it — it’s what we all hope for when we have our own case to give. Furthermore, you as an administrator are not necessarily taking sides by doing so. Just as the accuser has the right to publish their story, so does the accused. Nothing is stopping both sides from being heard in the world of modern social media. If the moderator of that forum did not know the accuser/accused at all, they could fulfill their responsibility to both parties by making sure to also post any of the responses by the accused.

Finally, sexual assault accusations from within the scene are important for dancers to be aware of as many in the scene could experience the same treatment from the accused. We want the scene to be transparent about sexual assault situations. It could even be argued that posting it and spreading the word is a way of giving it due process — those who have had similar experiences with the accused will come out (as has already happened in this case) and those who support the character of the accused and deny the charges will also come out (which, to my knowledge, has not happened in this case — even the predator’s closest friends have come forth with statements implying they believed the allegations).

Now then, let’s discuss why I — neither a judge nor a lawyer — decided to support Ruth enough to repost her account the day she shared it on Facebook (aside from the above reasons). After all, as a person with a strong voice in the scene, there is a great responsibility to use that voice for good, and in this matter, the accused’s career is at stake (more on a better way of looking at this soon). My reposting the account is playing some role in the end result.

Obviously, if such horrible things as sexual assaults are going to happen, we’d all prefer to have the ideal resolution. “Here is my story of being sexually assaulted in a hotel room. Here is the evidence — a video tape of the incident, a microphone recording I left on at the time, and the accused saying it’s all true and they are turning themselves into the police.” As any cop will tell you, reality is rarely this easy. And in the world of sexual assault, when it’s almost always one story against another, we have to look for more subtle forms of evidence and judge accordingly. I felt I had plenty.

Before we look at that evidence, two very important details to always remember is that in general false rape reports probably happen about as often as false reports of other crimes; they are very low. (We discuss this further below.) Truly knowing this when someone brings up an assault helps frame its possibility in a more realistic light. You might be surprised how the fear of a false report overemphasizes its possibilities in the mind, blocking out an open-mind and not giving the person making the sexual assault report their due consideration.

The second is that, just as the accused often have their reputation and careers at stake, accusers always have something at stake as well. It’s totally understandable that people would be concerned and cautious in their actions when a person’s career is on the line. And in this instance, three people’s career (at least) in professional dancing were on the line, and if you only were concerned about one of them — Max’s — take a moment to consider Ruth’s and Tatiana’s careers. Ruth is an international instructor, and even though her place in the scene gave her confidence that her story would be heard, it also scared her knowing she could very potentially lose gigs, friends, and ultimately her career if people didn’t believe her.  Tatiana’s career was already greatly affected by it — she has taken a break from professional dancing in order to process the assaults she underwent. Just like Ruth, her career and reputation has been on the line because of this. Even those who are not professional dancers have important things on the line — their reputation, their dance community, and their health (more on the difficulty of going through reporting a sexual assault to come). When reading a sexual assault report, considering everyone’s stakes, not just the accused’s, is an important way to give the person making the sexual assault report their due.

In the first version of the post, I discussed how, in this specific case, I felt I could trust the character of the accuser as I know it and the agreement of many, many people who supported her. However, after some feedback, I feel it’s important to note this evidence should not be necessary in considering a case. After all, a person of any character is capable of being raped, and, as a possible victim of a crime, they still deserve to have their report considered. A grating personality does not equal a liar, a stranger does not equal untrustworthy.

Furthermore, characters can obviously be deceiving; many people felt surely Steven Mitchell was innocent because they had had good interactions with him. In that sense, my use of character as dependable evidence has some problems.

However, I had other evidence: Ruth told her story in detail, and the details of the story convinced me of it as truth. The telling of such a detailed account of one of their most personal and probably humiliating experience is I imagine one of the most trying aspects of coming out with a sexual assault account — an account which the accuser knew was going to be shared with the entire scene. Such statements are *never* given lightly. Again, I say this to frame it in its most realistic light, so that it can be considered with an open mind and without an over-emphasized fear of a false-statement.

Finally, before Ruth’s post, I had heard second-hand reports of the accused being involved in similar acts before. (And was not given permission to publicize the information outside of discussions with friends.)

In light of all of this, I confidently decided to offer my support to the victim, and to the scene, by reposting their story. However, any one of them on their own may have made me decide to do so as well.

As usually happens with sexual assault, where there is one, there are others, and sadly this case was no different. As of now, five victims have come out with similar allegations.

And, even in a case like this, with as much reasonable evidence as possible in a one-story-against-another case, there will still be some people who don’t accept an accusation. Those who don’t want to believe it enough will subconsciously come up for an excuse not to.

 

What about the problems with socially handling these cases online or in our scene?

(Updated: 6/1/2017 after feedback)

(Previous versions of this article used the term “social justice” as a short cut to “dealing with cases in the scene, often over social media, separate from or instead of going to law enforcement.” The actual definition of social justice is a different concept, and a much broader one covering society in general. That concept can have many definitions, but a basic one, defined by Suffolk University in Boston’s Diversity Services, is “The goal of full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs.”)

A fear many have, including myself, is a fear of the possible negative aspects of handling these cases socially, especially on mediums like Facebook. After all, isn’t this why we have a law enforcement system in the first place? (More on that later.)

One negative aspect of handling these cases on social media is the effect on people’s lives *if* the innocent are accused — socially, accusations tend to travel further and faster than news of one’s innocence, and accusations will stay with someone a very long time. If the accusation is the first impression, it sticks stronger. In trials, juries have to spend a lot of time deliberating both sides and have to declare someone as either guilty or not guilty after discussion with one another. On social media, where everyone is the jury, they get to declare whatever they want whenever they want, whether they’ve read and reflected on all of the material involved or not.

Because of the nature of the beast, we technically don’t know what percentage of reported sexual assault accusations are false. Some organizations have put the number as low as 2%, and the FBI has put the number round 8%, but there are many debates about the numbers, because of the many inconsistencies in definitions, enforcement, and general understanding of sexual assault. According to Caroline Seipp, a sexual assault counselor in Washington DC, rates of false reports of sexual assault crimes are most likely about the same as false reports of any crime: very low. (Part of the reason for this is that sexual assault accusers go through hell. We discuss this several times throughout this piece.)

But the swing scene has slightly different circumstances than the broader structure of a government legal system. Unlike the world of police officers, juries, and lawyers, we are a community full of character witnesses and other victims. If one person makes a sexual assault case against someone else in the swing scene, there are many people usually who know the characters of both people involved, and can use that information to help decide what to believe. If a lot of people suspected an accusation was false, you would hopefully hear about it.

For instance, had the accuser been someone I knew for a fact I could not trust, and the accused someone who’s character I believed upright, I probably would not have reposted the victim’s story, knowing how powerful Facebook can be. I would instead try to explain my concerns.

In any posting I make, I’m relying on the idea that the swing scene is mostly filled with people who are reasonable. I have had some good evidence to back this up following all my years of posting things to the swing scene and the feedback I’ve received. However, like any community, there is also evidence of non-rational people, or perhaps more often, otherwise-rational people who fall into irrational traps when certain hot-button issues are discussed. (For instance, when otherwise rational people try to convince you that “You have to believe victims” is a reasonable answer that needs no further explanation when people are first questioning and processing victims’ stories.)

Another negative aspect of handling sexual assault reports socially is the possibility of “witch hunts,” when people, taking justice into their own hands, begin accusing other people of actions they did not witness, or assigning crimes to simple character traits.

Following the experience of Steven Mitchell’s sexual assault case, I feared this may be a problem — is the awkward-but-harmless guy at the local dance going to suddenly get ousted from the community? Are people who are trying to reasonably question what makes safe-spaces safe going to be shouted down? In an attempt to stop crimes from happening, are some in the scene also going to trample on people’s rights?

There have been a few things that have made me skeptical: I’ve heard vague stories of swing clubs who ban people from coming for having voiced negative opinions about their policies or consent culture. “Vague” is the key word here, I don’t know for sure what happened, and the club could have had very good reasons for barring someone in order to keep their community safe. But on the surface, banning someone from their community’s dance on their beliefs alone, if no actions were involved, is a red flag. I hope that first many conversations were had with all parties involved so that the decision was made to ban someone when it seemed the only way possible to have a successful outcome.

Ultimately, though, I have been pleased with the level of discourse happening whenever people discussed issues related to sexual assault. People were discussing the differences between socially awkward people and predators, they were discussing how to best approach people’s conduct before it got out of hand, they were concentrating on people watching out for each other and prevention.

So, when I chose to post Ruth’s account, I did so confident enough that the scene could handle it without running wild with unhealthy “mob” behavior. However, I don’t have complete trust in the scene just yet. I plead that all of us take seriously our roles in the community when discussing things like this. Always keep the conversation going — before, during, and after any actions are taken about people who’s lives will be greatly affected by the actions we make. And always confront the people involved personally, so that decisions aren’t made that don’t at least hear out other people’s sides.

One other possibly negative aspect of socially handling sexual assault cases is that, until the person is taken to court, they can only be punished socially. This person, who has committed a crime that we have by law dictated punishable by jail time, will not go to jail. Yes, they may lose their profession, but they will not undergo the punishment we as a society have attributed to their acts, nor will they be put in a place where society will be protected from them. This is only possibly a negative, though, based on your view of the justice system. Many argue that, based on the chances sexual assault has in our legal system, calling out attackers in order to protect the scene is the best we have got at the moment. (More on that below.)

 

 

What actually is sexual assault and rape, and how do we decide if something is sexual assault/rape or not?

The difference between “rape” and “sexual assault” can have many different answers based on what state/country you’re in and who you ask. The general consensus, though, is that sexual assault is a term that includes “rape” and any other sexual violation of another person. But even then, what does “rape” mean?

If rape has to exist, it would be easiest to judge if it were always the kind of scene you would see in a bad movie — a sober, physically strong man overcomes a sober woman trying to fight back and screaming for help, and forces her to have sex with him. In such an instance, clearly that is rape. But general sexual assault, like murder and battery, can take many forms, under a lot of different circumstances, and with a scale of degree. (Furthermore, one’s desire for sexual assault/rape to be such a clear-cut concept can ironically keep them from seeing it more clearly when they judge a situation.)

Throughout the history of sexual assault law, many have tried to define “rape.” This makes sense, as definitions help make enforcing law a lot easier. However, this well-intended objectivity has resulted in some extremely subjective definitions. For instance, English common law used to define rape as forced intercourse among non-married people. (Forcing your wife to have sex with you was presumably her duty.)

In 1927, the United States defined it basically as forced sexual intercourse, and that legal definition stuck for a very, very long time. Some people, and even cultures, are still programmed with this idea of rape. That’s why someone might say “If it’s a blow job, it isn’t rape.” What’s missing in this definition is the intention of the crime.

The idea of rape as a crime does not exist because a woman fears specifically someone forcing them to have vaginal intercourse. The idea exists because we all think of someone forcing themselves sexually upon any part of us as a violation of our basic human rights. We don’t define murder as “the shooting of someone in the heart,” because then someone could argue “Well, officer, that’s why I shot them in the head.” Why didn’t the same apply for rape?

This is why, in 2012, the United States updated their definition of rape from its 1927 definition. Under the new law, the United States law defines rape as

“The 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.”

This definition is a huge improvement, and not just because it recognizes one can be orally violated. This definition mentions penetration, no matter how slight. In the past, people could argue that if the person didn’t reach sexual climax, it wasn’t rape — but just because the person didn’t finish or orgasm doesn’t mean you weren’t sexually violated. It also recognizes that someone forcing their hand in your sexual organs also constitutes as a violation. It also recognizes that any person, regardless of gender, can be sexually violated.

But even then, it doesn’t cover all the myriad of ways someone can be assaulted sexually. Ways like groping, unsolicited advances, receiving naked pictures, forcing someone to watch porn, or the grooming of a minor (which is basically programming them to think non-consensual sexual advances are consensual).

Where the degrees of sexual assault come in is extremely tricky. Due to the personal nature of one’s sexual identity and the many possible circumstances of assaults against it, it’s hard to say one act itself is “worse” than another. A person emotionally manipulated and then groped by a family member may be more traumatized than a person raped by an acquaintance at a party. To some, being forced to give a blow job is more degrading than being forced to have vaginal intercourse. Each person has their own scale of severity. All of them, however, share the violation of one’s body sexually.

What is consent, and how do I know if it’s given or not?

Going back to the sexual assault/rape law above, it specifically states “…without the consent of the victim.” Consent is arguably the most important word in this law. And, it is another aspect of rape and sexual assault that many think of as a simple concept — You say “yes,” or you say “no.”

The legal system has a lot more intricate definition. West’s Encyclopedia of American Law explains it this way:

“Consent is an act of reason and deliberation…. Consent assumes a physical power to act and a reflective, determined, and unencumbered exertion of these powers.”

This is why,

“In the context of rape, submission due to apprehension or terror is not real consent.”

(It’s also very important that the law says “without the consent of the victim.” Why is this important? Because it could have said “with the expressed non-consent of the victim.” This would mean that if you want to do something to someone, you can do so until they say “No.” But in phrasing it the way they did, the law recognizes each person’s human right to their own agency — our law implies that before you can do anything to anyone, they have to say “yes.”)

In concept, it is simple. Where it gets complex is human nature; because there are words and then there are actions.

If the victim says “no” and it stops, good for them, case closed. But if the victim says “no” but then they end up doing the action without physically fighting against it, have they now consented? If the victim doesn’t say anything, but they do the action, have they consented with their actions? If a victim seems to consent with their actions without saying anything, but then later claims they didn’t, couldn’t that get an innocent person in trouble?

Fortunately, people’s actions almost always tell a clear story, if we know how to listen, and we as dancers should know that better than anyone. It’s called body language. Most of us tend to know if our partner is enjoying our dance or not — if they’re excited, smiling, and inspired by our ideas or the music, you can tell that in their bodies and facial expressions. If they’re preoccupied, or bored, or anxious, you should be able to tell that too. Yes, it can be difficult sometimes, because people in general don’t like to hurt other people’s feelings, so they might try to disguise the negative ones, but we still argue body language can speak pretty clearly if words are not present. (There’s also our fight/flight/freeze response, more on that below.)

In a Facebook response to the assaults, Spanish dancer Latitia Martin put it like this:

“NO means NO, but there are other ways of saying NO to sexual intercourse.
– Pushing someone away from you, means NO
– Taking your hand out of her trousers, means NO
– Saying “I think I want to go…”, means NO
– A YES that comes after insisting so much to a reticent person, means NO
– If someone is too drunk to drive he is also too drunk to give her consent, being too drunk should always mean NO
– Having sexual intercourse with someone for a while doesn’t give you a free pass to have sex every time you want. If you have to force someone, that forcing means NO.”

To make the idea of consent even clearer, we now have the term enthusiastic consent. If anyone is looking to do something with someone, they should be looking for what is clearly enthusiastic consent first — either in words or in body language. And again, regarding body language, we as dancers should know what that means. When we dance with someone and they are enthusiastically open to what we do, how do they show it? They are fully engaged, they are helping to make it happen and successful, they are matching the energy and purpose we are giving them with their own energy and purpose.

There are many great resources that discuss consent. Some recommended by specialists are the Tea & Consent video and this Everyday Feminism comic.

Unfortunately, most of those who sexually assault people ignore body language on purpose, because it might not tell them what they want to hear. Consent to them often simply means the person not physically fighting back.

Another common mistake occurs when people think that people’s life choices from other time periods, even five minutes before, give consent.

  The classic textbook example is when someone hears of a sexual assault and asks “What was the victim wearing?” They who say this are working with that well-established concept that somehow “consent” and a twisted idea of “she/he was asking for it” are combined — if you wear something that shows off your body, that shows you as a sexual creature, that you have somehow given consent to any sexual action someone tries to force you to. Not only does this mode of thinking make women feel blamed for something that is the fault of someone else, it also is sexist towards men, implying that they are animals who can’t control their sexual arousal. Which gives an excuse for it to the very males who don’t try to control it. (Again there are great resources out there that go into this further. Specialists recommend the TED Talk “Violence Against Women: It’s a Men’s Issue” and the website Men Can Stop Rape)

You could argue that she might have been “safer” had she gone out in a shapeless floor-length onesie made of foam, but you cannot argue that she gave consent for anyone to do what they wanted to her body sexually by wearing revealing clothes.

Something a lot of women (and people with non-conforming genders and sexualities, and people of different races) have experienced throughout their lives, but almost no cis White American and European men have, is what Ruth calls “the time and mental tax of keeping yourself safe.” As a woman, you want to look attractive, but not like you’re inviting assault. You walk around your college campus with a key between your fingers. You constantly try to decide if you need a buddy to go with you to a party, or an escort to your car. And can you trust your escort?  The constant upkeep of this takes energy and time out of every day, and even then, never guarantees safety.

For our readers, we hope that what someone is wearing is obviously an illogical reason to excuse sexual assault. But let’s talk about less-obvious circumstances.

Let’s say you hear about a sexual assault case. Rather than an innocent teenage girl kidnapped from a convent, what if the girl in question has enjoyed recreational sex and had allowed many previous partners to enjoy it with her. Perhaps word went around, justified or not, that she didn’t have high standards. Also, this girl occasionally liked to party, and would allow herself to get drunk. At one party she is flirting with a person who is drinking with her, and that person takes her back to their apartment, where a sexual assault takes place. (It’s important to note that these were not the circumstances with Max’s victims, as their statements show. This is just an example.)

Some people think that every single one of the traits I mentioned — the sexual promiscuity, the rumors that she’d go with anyone, the drinking, the flirting, the drinking — implies consent, even though every single one of those things is about something other than the single moment and decision she was being asked to consent to. It follows, of course, that every single moment of a romance is technically up for consent.

(This, by the way, is the same philosophy we push for in dance — by accepting a dance, a follow does not agree to follow everything the leader does for that dance. Instead, every moment is a question of consent — a follower should be allowed to deny any move regardless of history what came before or after.)

This is a strange thing about sexual assault. If your house was robbed, people usually don’t ask you what you did to deserve it. You have a house; it has stuff. People will try to steal it. They usually believe you right away and acknowledge how bad the loss was, *especially if the thieves took something a lot more valuable to you than to them.*

There are two terms you should know, the first is victim blaming. This is the term to describe the act mentioned above, of blaming a person for traits that are not related to the violation of their human rights as in somehow deserving it or asking for it. The second one is slut shaming which is linking (usually a woman’s) choice to enjoy recreational sex with different partners to her “deserving” to have her basic human rights violated. (I want to stress that the choice to enjoy recreational sex with many partners is anyone’s choice as an adult and can be a mature and ethical lifestyle choice. If you are interested in that concept more, there is plenty of literature on the subject.)

Let’s take a deep breath and, if you’re up for it, look at Ruth’s account of sexual assault to better understand consent. (Warning, this account describes a horrifying situation. I want to note I do not do it flippantly — I hope it will help to explain consent in her story and others like it for those who don’t understand it.)

“He made us both drinks and we chatted. We started talking about music, and dance, he put on a slow jazz song. We danced to it. He started kissing me, and I kissed back- it was a nice moment.” “I kissed back” = CONSENT TO KISSING GIVEN VIA BODY LANGUAGE.

“He took off my shirt, and I hesitated, not sure that I wanted to be going this quickly with someone I really didn’t know.” “I hesitated” = CONSENT QUESTIONABLE DUE TO BODY LANGUAGE. ANY ONE TAKING OFF ANOTHER PERSON’S SHIRT AT THIS POINT SHOULD ASK “IS THIS OKAY?” WHEN THEY SEE PERSON HESITATE, TO ESTABLISH CLARITY. IF YOU ARE DOING AN ACTION TO SOMEONE IT IS YOUR REPONSIBILITY TO BE CONFIDENT IN THE CONSENT TO THAT ACTION.

“Then I noticed his wedding band. I said something along the lines of “Woah, you’re married.” He said, “Yes, but for us it is fine.” I said that I’m not sure that it is fine for me.” He continued trying to convince me that it’s the way dancers are- it sounded like he thought that I was quite young and new to this dance world- when I heard someone at the door.”
“I said that I’m not sure that it is fine for me.” = CONSENT TO GOING FURTHER NOT GIVEN VIA WORDS. THE OTHER PERSON IS WITHIN THEIR RIGHTS TO VERBALLY TRY TO CONVINCE HER, BUT NOTE HOW THIS VERBAL PUSHINESS IS A TRAIT THAT WILL ESCALATE INTO PHYSICAL PUSHINESS.

“I didn’t want someone else to see me with my shirt off, so I ducked into the bathroom. A minute later Max came into the bathroom. I said that I needed to go. When I tried to leave the bathroom he held the door closed, and wouldn’t let me out, keeping the door closed as I tried to leave.” “I said that I needed to go. When I tried to leave the bathroom he held the door closed…” = CONSENT CLEARLY DENIED IN BOTH VERBAL AND PHYSICAL FORM.

“He said that I couldn’t just leave. I started feeling panicked- trying to open the door as he held it shut, but he is stronger than I am.” “I started feeling panicked” = NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENED NEXT, PERSON SHOULD KNOW THAT CONSENT UNDER LAW CANNOT BE CONSIDERED GIVEN BECAUSE PANIC IS NOT IN AN EMOTIONAL STATE IN WHICH TO GIVE DEPENDABLE CONSENT.

“He finally opened the door… He pulled his pants down, and pushed my head down. In that moment I was afraid, I wanted fight back or run, but he is stronger than me, and likely faster. In the months since then I have searched for where I was at fault in that- where I could have done something different. In that quick, terrified moment though, I thought that maybe he would let me go with nothing worse happening if I just gave in and gave him a blow job without fighting back- so I gave in and did it. I was afraid of what would happen if I tried to leave, since he had already kept me in the bathroom. ” = IMPLIED PHYSICAL THREAT BY KEEPING HER LOCKED IN BATHROOM CAUSING FEAR IN VICTIM. CONSENT NOT GIVEN BECAUSE VICTIM WAS NOT IN EMOTIONAL STATE TO GIVE DEPENDABLE CONSENT.

Susan Doe’s account of Max had almost the same blueprint; trapped in a bathroom and fearing Max’s physical strength and temper, she was in a state of mind in which no consent could have been assumed given. Ashley Hill’s account showed she had numerous times said “no.” Jane Doe was most likely given something in her drink that made her incoherent, and thus incapable of giving consent.

It is impossible for me to think that any reasonable person would look at these actions and not see how clearly both each victim’s words and body language denied consent.

Sadly, most of the sexual predators are not reasonable, at least not in the sympathetic/empathetic way most people are. They see reason, but it is a twisted reason that ignores the presence of other people’s rights and feelings. A predator sees consent denied, or questioned, and sees a challenge. A predator doesn’t let hesitating body language stop them. They gamble that they can convince them it’s a good idea by going further.

For predators it is ultimately a power game, and having power over others, either through seduction — or, failing that, brute force — gives them the rush of winning. On some dark level, they may even think the other person bowing to their intimidation is a shameful act that makes the assailant lose even more sympathy and empathy for that person. Predators tend to not feel guilty, because they do not think they have done anything wrong — this may be because they are narcissists, or feel entitled, or have skewed views of women and gender roles, or a lack of understanding consent, or numerous other reasons.

This is why it’s hard to help the worst sexual predators; their reasoning is so wired into what they do.  But it’s important to know good people can sexually assault someone too. 

For instance, what if an otherwise “good” person has a problem with drinking, and occasionally drinks so much that they “black out,” and in doing so lose all ability to control themselves, and not even remember what they did the next day?  Or what if an otherwise good person just doesn’t understand consent fully, and thinks that because they didn’t fight, the other person consented?

For these who may have some of these oversights and inclinations, but can still be reasoned into reflecting on their actions and changing them for better, and have sincere desire to help themselves — these the scene may be able to help and keep in its community, by healthy confrontation and education.

For the ones we can’t change, our best hope is to, as a community, help keep their potential victims safe from them, and, when they are caught, keep them from damaging the scene further.

 

Why do some victims not physically fight back?

freeze

Following the release of Ruth’s account, one dancer wondered why, if a woman is being forced to give a blow job she doesn’t want to give, does she not just bite down? Though I want to make it clear I would entirely support such a course of action, it is nowhere near that simple when we take into account the presence of physical force and intimidation.

This is because, as much as a violation of our bodily, personal, and mental health a sexual assault can be, our instincts feel a violation of our right to a healthy and long lasting life is the primary concern, and they act accordingly.

Physical intimidation

There are a lot of factors to intimidation, but let’s start with simple physical intimidation.

I am 6’2″, 180 pounds, and I go to the gym. I have taken some martial arts, like karate and krav maga and basic self-defense training. If someone Max’s size and build (which is physically smaller than mine) tried to force me to give him a blow job, perhaps I would attempt biting off his dick. (Just hypothetically.) Note I am saying this from the comfort of my safe apartment, and merely have to write it down to make it sound like a truth. Also, for all I know, Max might be very well trained in fighting and even though I’m bigger might easily be able to beat me in a physical confrontation. But, anyway, I might take that gamble in the moment and come out alright.

Speaking of the gym, there is a regular at mine who is 6’6″, 220 pounds, and goes to the gym probably twice as much as I do, based on his alarming number of abs. He also chooses to have a threatening posture at all times, and wears his hood up even when it’s hot inside, hiding most of his face. Being near this guy has reminded me what it feels like to be intimidated by someone’s presence in the same room alone. Imagine if I were in the locker room alone with him, and when I tried to leave, he slammed the door shut and held it there, blocking me from leaving. He doesn’t have to touch me or say anything, he is making a threat and show of physical force. At that point I would realize the door he is holding shut is me.

Now remember, I’ve taken some self-defense classes — just enough to know how little I do know, which is key. If this guy tried to force me to give him a blow job, I can’t picture myself biting down in order to stop it. If I bit down, even if I succeed in ruining his member, there’s a strong chance that next thing that’s going to happen is he’s going to put his hand upside my head, and be so enraged he wouldn’t stop. And because of his strength, he could easily get the upper hand and then there is very little I could do about it.

To me, him rage-beating me within an inch of my life, or actually killing me, is a perfectly realistic possible outcome of me taking that course of action. I love my life, I have a lot more experiences to have, and I’d be damned if I was going to let that guy not only take my dignity and my sexuality for a part of it, but also the rest of the years of my life away from me.

But that’s not the only outcome. Perhaps more likely, he could just take the course of action of finding something even more sexually degrading for me to do that won’t put his penis in any great danger. If you feel the evil you are confronted with, though terrible, is not as bad as the very real possible evil you could have in a moment, than it is reasonable to choose the evil in front of you.

In one of the victim’s accounts, she said — after submitting to orally and manually stimulating him  — that she thanked God she was not raped that day.

The victims of many assaults are under someone who is physically stronger than them, who prove themselves clearly capable of force (such as keeping a bathroom door shut while you’re trapped inside). Even while experiencing great shame, our instincts are just trying to make self-preserving decisions for us.

Predators know this. Either consciously or sub-consciously, they choose victims they are confident they can overpower.

As humiliating as it is to write and publish the visual scene of this happening to me, this is a fiction — imagine people who have actually experienced that and the emotions involved with it. I don’t think it takes a great deal of empathy to see how someone makes the choices many of these women have made, and how hard it can be to reveal those moments to friends and strangers a like.

Non-physical intimidation

Someone doesn’t have to be bigger than you physically to intimidate you. The person can have status — just as an employee being assaulted by their boss could feel lashing back could hurt or destroy their career, someone in the swing scene could be intimidated by the status of one if its highest-regarded instructors.

Another simple tool predators use is a threat, to the victim’s body, to their mental health, to their family and friends, to their lifestyle. With someone who is physically strong, or has status, or has something they can use against the victim, these threats don’t even have to be spoken, they are implied to the victim.

Fight or flight, or… freeze?

Now that we’ve talked about some conscious submissions to intimidation, we have to talk about another very important reason why someone might not fight back. Because their body’s response is to freeze.

Rather than flight or fight, their subconscious instincts stop them from acting at all. Experts argue we all experience this ourselves in small ways, like when we can’t think of anything to say and are literally stupefied for a bit. Though statistics on freezing are only now starting to be explored, most experts agree it happens at some point in a majority of sexual assault cases.

Some experts think freezing is more likely to happen when something about the situation doesn’t easily fit into the victim’s understanding of what’s going on. For instance, if one expects rapist to be a stranger in an alley attacking them, their brains might not understand what’s happening to them when a family member or friend suddenly begins touching them without any notice, and this makes the brain freeze for a moment rather than fight/flee.

But don’t let this lead you to think freezing is a malfunction. Just like flight or fight, it’s a preservation tactic. Feeling that neither flight nor fight is an option, the brain does the only other thing it can think of and shuts down. People who freeze up often talk about how far their mind can wander, which points to the mind trying to take all attention away from the traumatic experience happening. We just need to get through this and it’ll hopefully all be over soon.

Because of our culture’s ideas about sexual assault, this act of freezing can cause a lot of problems after the assault has happened. First off, in a world where we are told to fight and stand up against attackers, and we cheer all the movie superheroes who do, the brain’s decision to shut down and freeze the body confuses victims greatly. It makes them feel weak and helpless because they didn’t do anything. Which can lead to a lot of guilt, shame, and self-blame for not doing more in the moment.

And it makes them, and others, question if they had not given their consent by allowing the assault to happen to them without resistance. This is a common reason why victims might not come out with their stories, because it adds a lot of self-humiliation onto the humiliation given by the assault in and of itself.

With all of this in mind, we hope that you will be very supportive of victims who, either controlled by subconscious forces or making their own choices, decided to freeze rather than fight or flight for self-preservation’s sake. It does not excuse in any way someone choosing to violate their human rights.

Gaslighting

One of the most common and fundamental behaviors predators use to intimidate (and confuse) their victims both during and after the assault is called gaslighting; they make victims question their reality. “You wanted it,” they’ll say. “You consented.” “If you report this they’ll never believe you.” “Your life will be ruined.” They use threats, blackmail, and even sometimes positive supportive statements just to confuse their victim. It sounds flimsy on paper, but there’s a reason why they do it. It works very well, taking advantage of the panicked mindset of trauma and fear.

In Ruth’s account, after Max assaulted her, he sent her a text with the French legal definition of “Defamation.” This implied a threat that she could be punished in French court if she accused him of anything, while also suggesting that she didn’t have any proof — that he hadn’t done anything wrong. Gaslighting.

And the higher the stakes, the more gaslighting works. If speaking about the assault will possibly destroy your homelife, or your career, or someone else’s, part of you wants the gaslighting to be true, to spare the experience of tragedy that will come from revealing the assault. At the very least, you’re much more likely to question all of it.

By the way, this is just one of many reasons why a victim might not choose to go to the police. Let’s discuss a few more.

Why would a victim choose not to go to the police?

police-boarder

Once more going back to our ideal world, law enforcement is the obvious place for victims to go when someone has violated a law. After a reported sexual assault, just like any other crime, one imagines detectives interviewing all involved, setting a court date, and then a court-appointed lawyer getting character witnesses, showing evidence, and then a jury finding the defendant either guilty or not guilty.

When we think about the realities of sexual assault and the difficulty with convicting them, it becomes a lot trickier. Then we see there are many reasons someone might not go to the police.

It can take awhile before a victim realizes they’ve been assaulted

Imagine a real sexual assault, not the bad movie kind. Sometimes involved is drink, flirtation, submitting to intimidation, all those things we talked about being all too easy for people to blame even though they are not at fault for the violation of human rights that is sexual assault. Sometimes — often — the predator is actually nice — until they aren’t. Other times, it involves shock and “freezing up” so that your body doesn’t do anything to fight back, making you feel not only confusion but also shame for not “fighting back.” Furthermore, it sadly often involves friends and family members.

We forget that, in a lot of ways, victims don’t actually want to be victims. They are looking for their personal responsibility, the things they did that they could have done differently — they assume that somehow they had control over the situation and should feel shameful for how it turned out. Predators understand this, hence the gaslighting (explained above). It also doesn’t help that modern culture still has plenty of deep-rooted gender double-standards, where sexual men are “ladies’ men” and sexual women are “sluts.”

Basically, all of these things play a role in processing what happens after a sexual assault. It can take a very long time before a sexual assault victim even realizes they were assaulted. Once they do realize it, they have to ask themselves what to do about it. This is usually met with several different fears.

Fear of acknowledging such a personal experience

Undergoing sexual assault is a very personal experience, and talking about it to someone else, admitting what happened, saying it out loud, is also a very personal experience. Once you talk about it, you relive it to some extent, and the brain has built-in defenses for experiencing trauma — it doesn’t like to do it if possible. Any victim who decides to report knows they are going to experience trauma again. To your loved ones who believe you and recognize sexual assault, you might even, for a while at least, cease to be a whole person in their eyes, and instead be a victim of a horrible crime. Other loved ones might make you feel shame, and guilt, and make you feel blame for the trauma that you have been trying to come to terms with.

This overall reason for why many don’t report the crimes was said very well by An Urban Black on Twitter @jasleene:

Silence is easier and safer than uprooting your whole life.

The comment is part of #WhyWomenDontReport, a series of tweets that try to answer the question for those who don’t understand.

Fear of retribution

Another great fear is fear of retribution. Instructors who assault students either consciously or subconsciously take advantage of this one greatly. After all, by dancing skill alone the instructor is a well-regarded person in the community who almost all the students know of. The instructors are admired and looked-up to. If a person were to come out to the scene about an instructor, they don’t know what will happen — that instructor might talk bad about them and be believed above the victim because the victim is relatively unknown. Furthermore, is the retribution of the other students, who might not want to believe the stories, and look for reasons not to.

Ruth, for instance, only felt comfortable coming out about the experience after she had grown enough in her career as an instructor to feel confident she’d be heard and her well-known character could back her up. She couldn’t help but remember how, during the Steven Mitchell scandal, the assaults didn’t hit home with some people until international instructor Ramona Staffeld came forward as one of the victims.

Fear of retribution is bad enough if the story comes out in the scene; it’s even worse if official reports to the police are filed, and the stakes now involve lawyer fees and prison sentences.

In summary, all victims ask themselves “Okay, I report. Then what happens?” And there are very few clear cut answers to that, and even if it goes as well as it possibly can, it’s going to be very rough.

One thing that hopefully will encourage people to feel safe coming out with their stories of their sexual assaults is that so many of the recent ones were listened to without automatically casting blame or seeking retribution. This is a huge step for us.

According to RAINN (The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), fear of retribution is the biggest reason most people don’t report sexual assault crimes.

The police won’t be able to do much and they can make reporting a terrible experience to go through

According to RAINN, out of 1000 sexual assault incidents, 310 are reported to the police, and only 7 of those reports lead to a charge to a perpetrator. That means only 2% of the sexual assault cases that are reported lead to a conviction. The system is more than twice as likely to convict someone for a regular assault case than for a sexual assault case.

Why is this so? First off, sexual assaults tend to happen in private, so there are no other witnesses to offer testimony, and it becomes a game of one person’s testimony versus another. If the perpetrator is from a different country, there is an even greater feeling of helplessness in the law.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, the trauma of the situation makes it hard to sometimes recall certain specific details, which, as you can imagine, can make cases hard.

But one facet we can’t overlook is the personal experience of what it’s like to file a report on sexual assault to the United States law enforcement.

In our swing scene, two sexual assault victims of unnamed attackers who did seek out the police told their stories. Those stories were posted in the Lindy Hoppers Against Rape Culture Facebook page and can be found here and here. Please read at least one of them to understand what these victims went through in filing a report.

By no means do we want to dissuade those who are attacked from filing reports with the police; for some, it can be an important part of their healing process, and even though our justice system has plenty of problems, those 2% who get convicted are representing the punishment of sexual assault as a crime as a value we want to have as a society.

Why would a victim choose trial-by-social-media?

Our international swing dance community is not the same as our country’s government-regulated concept of “community.” That “community” has an established law enforcement with established rules, for instance, but our international swing dance community does not.

The dance community, to many people, is the community they interact with far more. It’s where most of their friends that they see frequently are, it’s where they spend a lot of their weeknights and weekends, and it’s the chosen family and activity they hope to spend the rest of their lives around. Imagine sexual assault happening to you in that community.

Your desire to let people know about that sexual assault could be because:

You don’t want other victims to be assaulted by that person who is moving freely through the scene. Just as, if you were at a crowded beach and saw a man-eating shark in the water, you would probably desire to let others know there’s a shark in the water. And, if the perpetrator is an instructor, the victim may logically deduce they will have easier access to many victims.

This is what was at the forefront of Ruth’s mind. Remember, she did not want to punish Max — she wanted to prevent his behavior from happening again. Since the perpetrator is using his position in the scene to do this, she decided to put the information directly to that scene.

Most victims express how assault made them stay away from dancing for a while, and from events where the perpetrator was. Revealing a predator is a way of them reclaiming their community. If that man-eating shark hangs around your favorite beach, letting someone know means they can start doing something to keep it away from your favorite swimming area, so that you can return to it.

As we discussed earlier, even when victims go to the police, charges are not levied against perpetrators in the majority of cases. And, in cases of international perpetrators, even less. If the victim’s goal is to find effective justice within the dance community, telling the community about that predator is a logical route. If hunting down the man-eating shark is not an option, then the lifeguards can at least put up a shark net around the swimming area.

What role does power play into all of this?

power-boarder2
Deep down, sexual assault is more about power than it is about sex. Even with the “usually good” person who keeps pushing hoping a “no” will eventually turn into a “yes,” it’s about domination, about getting what you want at the expense of what the other person wants.

Power can manifest itself in an obviously physical way (and does so in many sexual assault situations).

But power can also be an incredibly subtle thing. A great dancer — a person who teaches around the world, is watched with awe when they perform, who walks around event hallways and is recognized by almost everyone there — has subtle, but real power.

That person can use that power without even realizing it — they might not see that they are getting special treatment, for instance, when someone laughs extra hard at their jokes. And, as mastery at a skill and popularity and even fame can be attractive character traits, other dancers might find them physically attractive, despite not knowing their character. An instructor could easily think these things are normal and not realize that their power in the scene is in some way contributing to what’s going on.

Now, imagine how this social power manifests in the realm of sexual conduct. Many high-ranking people who are used to being objects of desire might assume a student consents to their actions, and overlook signs of discomfort and hesitation.

Now, most of us instructors, if we are power-entitled, are the “I wonder if we are allowed to skip the line?” kind of power-entitled. But clearly a few have taken their use of power to an extreme.

Accountability of Predator’s Friends & People Close to Him

friends
Max Pitruzella has had a group of close friends over the years. Many of these friends are instructors, which mean they are around him a lot, see more of his behavior than anyone, and often even share hotel rooms with him, which is where many of these incidents have occurred.

Following the recent accounts of similar sexual assault by Max, (before Tatiana’s post was expressed — see “Exhibits A-E” section above) both JB Mino and Thomas Blacharz posted on their Facebook account that they were shocked by the accounts, that they were very sorry to hear about Max’s behavior, and that they supported the victims. As one of Max’s closest friends, Thomas revealed in his a need for a lot of reflection and a deep regret about not having done more to stop these things from happening.

Overall these posts were “liked” in large numbers by the community, but Tatiana’s subsequent post seemed to reveal that both Thomas and JB had at least to some extent been told of Max’s behavior more than their posts implied, and rather than supporting a victim, they had gone so far as to use legal action in attempt to silence one of them with a cease-and-desist letter.

Comments in both JB and Thomas’s posts noted the contradictions in well-liked comments. One commenter, known as Katie, delivered a particularly in-depth and well-considered reply to Thomas’s post. Among many of the things she said was:

You may have the ability to learn from mistakes and make more positive differences in the world on account of them in the future due to your displayed abhorrence of sexual assault in general, but if you are not given such a chance inside of many parts of the lindy scene, please accept that such decisions reflect the limits of behavior that those parts of the scene want to enforce, and that such decisions are not part of some sort of vendetta from Tatiana or part of some sort of “eliminate everyone who had trouble believing Tatiana” witch-hunt. Such decisions will stem from your own vigorous pursuit of shutting down Tatiana’s attempts to protect herself while continuing to teach.

At this point, you seem redeemable to me, and I wish you well in those efforts, but I ask that you not stake your own emotional sense of “redemption” upon your own reputation within the swing community. That would only do further damage.

Thomas himself “liked” the comment.

In a thought-provoking Facebook message, international instructor Andy Reid discussed his own soul-searching following Steven Mitchell’s sexual assault scandal, and called on Max’s close friends to do the same: “Look hard at yourself. What behavior have you ignored? What behavior have you encouraged? What behavior have you protected? What behavior of his do you share?”

He further added that such things take awhile to process, as they did for him following Steven Mitchell’s scandal. He wanted to make sure they allowed themselves their appropriate time to process it regardless of any pressure they felt to comment.

Was the friends’ main crime ignorance to their friend’s actions? It’s hard to see that when two of them file a cease-and-desist letter against one of the accused. But then we don’t know much about that incident, and what they were thinking when they filed their letter. It doesn’t help that they haven’t explained the circumstances themselves.

Furthermore, there are rumors floating around in the European scene that friends of Max have guarded his door when he brought women home. Such rumors, if true, would of course be major sign of enabling his behavior.

(One term readers of the comments may have noticed springing up a few times is virtue signaling. This basically means saying what you know a community wants to hear, especially either to boost your image among that community, or distract the community from your true actions.)

The way we judge his friends is a process the scene has to undergo, and that judgement will be based on how we process what we already know, what new facts come out about their past dealings in the assaults, how their behavior changes for the future. And, realistically, a little bit of luck, good or bad.

UPDATE 5/30/2017 & 6/19/17: Thomas first knew of this article briefly after its publication. He messaged me with a desire to add some information for the article. After further discussion, I have recommended he do so in the comments section below. 

UPDATE 6/28/17: JB in February later gave a more detailed response on FB that can be read here.

From 2007-2011, and a few scattered times until 2015, Annie Trudeau and Max worked together as each other’s main dance partner. They also were romantically involved for a few years, ending in 2011.

First off, to all you fans of Max’s dancing out there, we’d like to take a second to recognize how much Annie’s dancing made their air steps as good as they were. With her gymnastics training and high level of fitness, she spent their air steps launching herself with a great deal of power into whatever throw was happening, and Max was able to spend her high-flying time giving a blasé “Yeah, I just did that” look to the audience. Of course Max worked hard on his air steps. But we just wanted to point out that she worked incredibly hard to give the visual that often showed-off Max’s leading ability much more than her own work. You know, just mentioning it. (It’s against regulation to have a Swungover post that doesn’t offer any dancing insight.)

Annie released a long statement that openly gave full support to the victims and assured she believed them fully. She then discussed how, during their partnership, she was engaged in a long fight to change the disrespectful behavior she was seeing Max show to herself and others, and how arguments would often erupt because of it. She mentioned how alone she felt at these times, as most people wanted to avoid the arguments, or were so anxious to be his friend that they overlooked disrespect.

In 2015 she learned firsthand of one of the victims’ sexual assault by Max, and was asked to keep this incident a secret by the victim. Annie discusses the conflict that arose of not being able to tell anyone, yet knowing that she would have to teach one last gig with Max, and then see him out in the dancing world without people knowing.

Annie’s response shows a great struggle and vulnerability — she is guilty she couldn’t do more, yet she felt she did everything she could at the time, throughout their partnership and afterwards. She seeks advice on what she could have done differently, and how she could do better for the future, as a leader in her local scene. Aside from being touched by the dilemmas Annie has faced and is facing, people feel it is important to have such a statement given by a teacher and someone so closely affiliated with Max.

The victim thanked Annie for protecting her privacy.

Accountability of onlookers

onlookers-boarder

“I’m not surprised” has been a common response to the recent sexual assault scandal.

Often this response to the news of sexual assault by someone of questionable character might soon be followed by that of guilt. If I am not surprised, should I have vocalized something about his character earlier? Could I have helped stop this kind of thing from happening? By guessing he was capable of this, and not speaking, did I allow this kind of action to take place?”

These are questions that each person must answer for themselves. A few thoughts that touch upon this in general:

First off, “jerk-ish” and “sketchy” behavior are scales, and there’s a line across those scales when people start infringing on other’s human rights. You can recognize someone is a jerk or creepy, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily going to cross that line. However, what could we do if we were suspicious they might be?

Modern westernized culture, which most of us live in, is a non-confrontational culture, especially when it comes to in-person human interaction. For instance, even in NYC — arguably the most confrontational city in America — an entire subway train full of people will sometimes allow a “hard”-looking individual to play their music loudly when it is not only against the rules posted in every subway car, but a sign of disrespect to a car full of people reading, tired from work, or trying to go to the bathroom in peace. We are just not practiced at calling people out.

Add onto this the fears implicit in confronting someone who has power. Call out that instructor’s behavior, will you be ostracized by other instructors or your friends? Will you be forever judged poorly by them in competitions? In what ways will they keep you from your own goals and fulfillment in the scene?

Since most of us don’t like to confront, we are easily swayed by reasons not to, even subconsciously. We see that instructor has friends that don’t seem concerned with their behavior — ok, it must not be a problem. I don’t have to confront them. We see that students are clearly attracted to that instructor, so if they’re going off to hotel rooms with students, it’s probably consensual, and talking to someone about their sex life is really personal and embarrassing — I shouldn’t confront them. We can be so sympathetic that it’s hard for us to assume people’s basic behavior is different from ours — I’m sure they’re good people! I should give them the benefit of the doubt and not confront them.

A simple, and probably extremely common experience is that we just don’t pay attention. I am absolutely, without a doubt, guilty of this. I know because early on it became clear to me that, as much as Max was a talented dancer, he was just not the kind of person I wanted to be around, so I just didn’t hang around him. I more or less ignored his existence except for the occasional times we’d see each other and exchange polite “hellos,” or give congratulations on dancing stuff.

Looking back, this meant that if he was walking down a hallway with a girl, I would have quickly put my attention back towards whatever was in my mind beforehand. If I noticed he was at a party, I would have probably been busy talking to someone I connected with a lot more rather than pay any attention to him.

I looked at a personality that I experienced in small snippets, and my response after judging it was to ignore that personality. What if I had said to myself “Ok, so you don’t want to hang around him. Is that because he’s just different, or because he’s potentially dangerous?”

I probably wouldn’t have been able to answer this question right away. There are a lot of people out there who are aggressive, or super-competitive, or jerks, but they seem to understand boundaries and so I would hesitate to call them dangerous. But, at least in asking that question, I would have investigated further, examining his behavior more closely and asking other people about him. And maybe in doing so, I could have gotten some kind of sign that he was dangerous. (Also, it should be mentioned, Max was plenty of times perfectly nice to me and others. It was more so the actions of his behavior that made me uncomfortable with him.)

Had I gotten evidence that he might be dangerous, what would I have done with that information? I’m not quite sure. Warned other instructors is one possibility, so that they could keep an eye on him. As far as confrontation goes, that’s the easiest. Warned his friends, perhaps? That takes a little bit more awkward confrontation, but still is relatively simple. Talked to him about it? By far the most confrontational choice, but not a bad one to contemplate. After all, perhaps he didn’t realize he was acting dangerously. And how that conversation would go would give good evidence as to how he perceives himself. If he listened and seemed to examine his actions, you’d know there might be a chance he would change. If he dismissed your concerns, you’d know he didn’t question his behavior.

Now then, is it my responsibility to care about Max’s behavior? At the time, I felt it was not. I was concentrating on only surrounding myself by the people that made my life more fulfilling. There is nothing inherently wrong with this.

Now I realize a few things that will change my behavior for the future. The first is that, ultimately, our community has no swing scene police officers who walk around events, looking out for suspicious activity. (Many events now have safer spaces desks, but only a few of them currently have staff that go around and are proactive about keeping an eye on behavior. Even with this in mind, no event can afford to have a staff that is in enough places for enough time to do this as well as the ideal.) Basically, if we want our scene to be a positive environment, and if we hope people will look out for us, we all have to assume that responsibility in some way.

The second thing I realized is how this still relates to my original desire of surrounding myself with fulfilling people: sexual predators keep good people like those out of the scene. We usually have to pay in some way for everything we enjoy and desire in life. If we want roads and subways to help take us places, we have to pay taxes. If you don’t, the roads break down and the trains stop running. The same goes for a fulfilling dance scene — if we want people who are fulfilling to be around, we have to make sure the place is safe for them, that they truly feel welcome to be there. My updated logic still serves that self-fulfillment philosophy, and does so more realistically.

Accountability of the scene and the dance

How has the way the scene works as a whole contributed to sexual assault? The scene has soul-searched this question in great depth since 2015, the year Steven Mitchell was revealed to have sexually assaulted many women seemingly right under the noses of countless dancers for years.

As we have already discussed, the scene has a history of glorifying its instructors, even so far as to call them “rock stars,” which could allow them to get away with different conduct than is expected of the average person.

It’s also noted how, especially before Steven Mitchell’s scandal, the scene has shown signs of being innocent to the point of naiveté. The dance scene as a whole didn’t even start seriously exploring codes of conduct and the idea of safer spaces until after the scandal broke, almost 20 years after the neo-swing craze hit, and almost 30 years after Steven Mitchell first started teaching Lindy Hop.

One common way non-confrontational communities contribute to assault is a concept called the missing stair. The missing stair, coined by blogger Cliff Pervocracy, is an analogy involving a house — in this house is a missing stair that all the people that live in the house know about, and they just jump over it. Guests are usually warned about the missing stair, but you can imagine what happens if they aren’t. In this context, it seems obvious that the solution is to fix the stair rather than live with it and hope everyone is sufficiently warned.

Now imagine the missing stair is a dangerous person in your dance scene. Most people know about the missing stair, and are warned about the missing stair, but of course there will be people who aren’t. If we look at this problem the same way as the analogy, it seems obvious that the solution is fixing the problem, not stepping around it all the time.

Fixing in this sense doesn’t have to mean banning people, and, in fact, ideally most problems can be caught before they become a ban-able offense. Fixing the stair can mean frank discussions with the person, strong warnings, and, if their behavior is bad enough or doesn’t change, throwing them out.

This is a place where we all should look at our behavior. Do we tend to do little more than warn people of missing stairs, or do we try to do something to fix it?

Finally, we want to touch on the dance itself, and how that might play a role in sexual assault. The clear answer here is the pattern of behavior set up by leaders and followers in the dance. To what extent is someone who is a leader getting reinforcement that followers — who are often women — are expected to do what they ask. (I don’t believe this happens very often consciously, but I cannot see how it can’t have some kind of effect subconsciously.)

It will help keep all dancers from reinforcing negative behavior if leaders and followers are constantly made aware of the rich possibilities of the leading and following roles. Everyone should understand how much followers can express themselves, share the dance, and shape the leading they get so that they are never just thought of as “only” followers, but active members in the dance. Ultimately, leaders suggest moves, and followers consent to follow them or not. Just because followers almost always consent to their leads, they should never expect people who choose to Follow to behave that way in other aspects of their interactions. The more we live this as dancers and spread this as teachers, the more it will help keep the dance from subtly contributing to subconscious assault mentality.

Enforcement

We have given a collection of thoughts touching on the general questions, evidence, and aspects of this case. (Feel free to add additional thoughts in the comments below. Please note the rules of commenting on this post: Reasonable, calm, respectful discussion. Anything but will be deleted.) Now then, having weighed the evidence, let’s discuss some of the possible ways we can enforce our moral desires regarding sexual assault as a scene.

Belief


belief
“I believe you” are some of the most important words that can be said to a victim.
(If you actually believe them. Don’t’ lie.) I’d venture that most victims fear people won’t believe their most personal and vulnerable and potentially shameful story. Add on top of that that they know fully well their own and another person’s relationships, career, and overall reputation are on the line.

Do not just assume it is implied by simply saying “I support you.” Belief and support are different enough concepts that victims will appreciate very much both “I believe you and I support you.”

Finally, something I began adding to my responses to the victims was “I’m so sorry you had to undergo this in yours and my scene.” I chose the clunky “yours and my scene” over “our scene” to reinforce that it is the victim’s scene as much as it is mine, as much as it is anybody’s.

Another important way to show support is the act of empathy, or trying to put yourself in another person’s situation by imagining their circumstances and what the situation must have been like for them emotionally. This takes time and mental energy, but it can go a long way towards understanding what they went through better, especially when you have never experienced a situation like it personally.

Consider not just sitting on your belief or simply expressing it (though, again, that’s very important for victims), but letting that drive your decision to change your behavior or take some action. Consider making a list of ways you will do so.

Support

As we mentioned, telling a victim you believe them is a strong first step towards supporting them. Another way of supporting them that is very important is remembering they are a complex human being with a full personality. Fight the urge to see them as “SEXUAL ASSAULT VICTIM” in big letters in your thoughts.  When they have revealed themselves as a sexual assault victim, they are talking about one instance in their lives that, yes, caused them a lot of trauma, but don’t make it worse for them by ignoring all the other aspects of their person. It can take practice, but talk to them and treat them like the friend they always were or could be. If you only know the person casually or through mutual friends, don’t even bring up the situation around them, even if it’s to compliment their bravery or tell them you support them. Reserve that kind of communication for email/messenger — a place where they can confront it if and when they desire. If you truly feel the need to mention it in person, do so privately, quickly, and have a new conversation topic ready for right after.

Some of the victims expressed explicitly other ways those in the scene can support them. Ruth, for example, said:

Organizers, please stop hiring this man, who has sexually assaulted me and other women. Instructors, please stop working at events who hire him.
Dancers, please stop attending events where he is on staff. Please join me in preserving the magic of our dance communities.

The main goals of these wishes is to keep a predator away from potential victims and uphold the moral principles of the scene to be a welcoming place.

Next, as organizers and attendees, understand your safer-spaces. This is another concept you need to understand. Notice we didn’t say “safe spaces.” That’s because it implies that human beings have control to make a space completely safe. They don’t. We use the term safer-spaces to remind us of that. Know what you can and can’t do with them. Is there a place you can report something to the local dance or workshop you’re in? If so, what will they do with that report? What will happen?

There are questions floating around about what to do about Max’s friends. A few instructors and promoters refuse to work with them due to what they feel is a unacceptable levels of complicity in Max’s behaviors and aggression against one of the victims. Others, who don’t know much about their roles in the sexual assaults as a lot of it has not been, and may never be, publicized, are waiting to see how these instructors change their behavior and show they can be safe and supportive as ambassadors of the dance.

Protection

protection
International instructor Andy Reid wrote in his Facebook post: “To many people, Max comes across as an arrogant, pompous ass. It is important to remember, going forward, that not all abusers seem as repugnant as Max. Some, like Steven Mitchell (another man who used his position of power in our dance scene to abuse women), come across as kind, friendly, generous and harmless people. Not all abusers are as abrasive as Max, some are emphatically charismatic.”

I want to extend this same sentiment to the idea of evil itself. Our ideal scenario is the evil in the black cape and handlebar mustache — the evil that is obvious and clear. But these obvious evils gain power by the sneakier evils of friends not holding each other accountable to the small actions that betray predatory and assaulting behavior. Or allowing sexist actions to go unchecked. Or not trying to fix the broken stair.

Several people in the scene have expressed that they are happy to serve as big brother/big sister to those in the scene and always be someone they can go to if they are being followed, harassed, or have been assaulted. (I myself am more than happy to do so, btw.) This idea is a good one in general, but everyone should keep in the back of their mind that even this noble gesture is a tool that a predator could use to their advantage. Just make sure your offering big brother/big sister is worthy of your trust.

A common way events and dances offer protection is by having a safer-spaces desk for people to report if they have had any bad interactions. But some events even do one-better: their safer-spaces staff who proactively move around the event and interact with students, checking in on people’s comfort and looking out for predatory behavior. I’ve been to events before where the promoters went so far as to have their safer-spaces staff give training for their teachers and volunteer staff.

Finally, for a few days when the sexual assault stories first came out, I had a strange fantasy pop into my head about a one-on-one fight with the accused, and showing him what it’s like to feel overpowered. Whether I won or lost the fight, I realized how much I would lose either way, in the grand scheme of things, by initiating a fight as a statement. Because it’s trying to use physical force to make an argument. I’d be using infringing on his human rights to make me feel better about him infringing on someone’s human rights. Physical force alone is no worthy argument.

As far as rehabilitation goes, it’s very hard to help the worst sexual predators, since their reasoning is so wired into what they do. Our best hope is to help keep their potential victims safe from them, and, when they are caught, keep them from damaging the scene further.

What we can do is help those who may have some of the inclinations of predators, but can still be reasoned into reflecting on their actions and changing them for better. This will sill take confronting them, their friends, and onlookers when we notice their behavior is dangerous.

Words

It’s extremely important to never underestimate the power of words. Even the most subtle use of words affects the underlying cultural current.

For instance, we live in a time where it is relatively common to hear the general public use words and terms like “bitch,” “man to man,” “man up,” “grow some balls,” “pussy,” “like a girl.” In the swing scene, I most often hear people say these things in a joking manner, which is trickier than an aggressive one — but the fact of the matter is that if you don’t know everyone in your audience intimately, you don’t know if they understand it is a joke.

You might even say these things completely ironically because you realize how ridiculous they are in a culture with plenty of powerful women and weak men. But in such cases it’s almost always best to make sure you know each member of your audience will appreciate that you’re joking, and in what way you’re joking. (I love jokes of many different types, but only a fraction of those would I share with strangers or acquaintances. Some jokes I would only say around four or five people, because I can trust they know me well enough to understand the spirit the joke was spoken in.)

I think we have all had an experience with a person who makes a sexist joke, and then laughs it off, saying “I’m just kidding,” but there is something about the situation that makes you think “I don’t think you were kidding as much as you say you were.” Other people have had an experience with a person saying a sexist joke, and even if the listener did think the joker was kidding, it still made them upset to see something they consider very serious be made trivial. Since you probably don’t want your joke to come off in either of those ways, filtering yourself is an easy fix.

I am a big proponent of people working to have thick skin and enjoying complex humor. But I also understand that context and audience is everything. If I were a comic making a joke to an audience that paid for my point of view and knew my taste in jokes, I would say very different things than me as a member of a dance scene and in a conversation that could be overheard by people that I want to make sure feel welcome in the scene.

Actions

action
Words are so powerful that we sometimes let them substitute for actions. It is SO EASY to say that Lindy Hop is supposed to be a welcoming scene, to say that the spirit of the dance is to express joy, tolerance and sharing, to have a tattoo of Frankie Manning smiling — but actions truly hold the key.

Whenever you hear someone say this kind of stuff, look back at their actions — are the people who say this cliquish? Do they do stuff like allow equal participation in conversation among students and teachers, among different genders, among their friends and strangers? Do they use language that upholds sexist ideas? Do they deliver inside jokes that go unexplained? Do they give undeserved attention to people based on status, beauty, or youth?

All of our actions model behavior. All of us learn how to act based on the general behavior of the people around us, a great deal of it subconsciously. When I ignored people like Max rather than surveyed their actions more closely once there was the possibility they were a dangerous person, I modeled that same behavior to other people.

One thing we do want to model is an open-dialogue. So many like-minded people can get one-sided about an idea, and, before they realize it, they have ironically given their ideas about safer spaces a rigidity that leaves some people feeling ostracized for questioning that rigidity, or asking what safer spaces really means.

Consent is such a widely discussed idea in sexual assault now, but really apply it to everything. Ask someone’s permission before you post a picture of them online. Before you borrow someone to try out a move, ask their permission, or look for obviously consensual body language as you approach them with your hand out. Think about your own desires — what things should people ask your consent for before they do it?  Give that right to everyone.

Finally, learn how to confront. Early. And gracefully. Ruth herself has this advice for dancers and organizers: When someone first show signs of doing something that makes someone uncomfortable, talk to them privately, or in such away where no one is likely to stare.  Say something along the lines of “I know you don’t want to make people uncomfortable, so I want to tell you about something that is making me/people uncomfortable.”

When she has done this before, the person has asked “Do I need to leave?”

“No, you don’t,” she responded. “Now that we’ve talked about it, if I see you do it again or if I hear of you doing it again, I will ask you to leave.”

Very few people want to be creepy. Assume the person you’re talking to doesn’t want to be. Don’t wait until they become the missing stair that everyone tries to avoid.

All too often we wait for uncomfortable behavior to be dramatic before it’s confronted by others, whereas if we assume people don’t want to be creepy, we can use that belief to help get to people sooner. “Benefit of the doubt belongs at a much earlier stage,” Ruth said.

 

SUMMARY

In summary, here are some actions you can take that will support change in our scene. We welcome and hope others will post their further recommendations in the comments section of this post.

All dancers:

First and foremost, enact these changes in every aspect of your life. That will make your behavior change more quickly and normalize it across all of your actions.

Look out for each other. Report it if you see something that doesn’t seem right.

Call people out on behavior that seems unhealthy.

Practice consent on the smallest levels, always asking someone to dance and accepting any “no” politely because it’s a perfectly acceptable reaction.

Keep having calm conversations with those who have different opinions or questions about sexual assault and safer spaces. Chances are they have reasoning behind their beliefs, and deserve to have that reasoning acknowledged and addressed.

Instructors:

Call out fellow instructors on behavior that seems unhealthy, and/or behavior that you think would give instructors a bad name.

Reinforce consent in all of your classes, in all of your teaching language. Even seemingly strange stuff, like making students practice saying “no” to a dance, and accepting it normally. This will take thorough exploration of your language.

Put in your contract that you will not work with instructors you believe have committed sexual harassment, assault, or have helped the support of such predators in ways that have shown malice or a grave lack of responsibility. We know this is difficult, as you may lose some much needed gigs. But, after having read the cases and considered the implications of supporting their conduct, consider this a small tax towards the moral integrity of the scene and yourself.

If you find yourself at a gig where these dancers are, make it your job to constantly survey their behavior rather than ignore them.

Promoters:

Keep going with the safer spaces work you’re doing. To give an example of what one scene has done, check out Dogpossum’s post about how her organization tackled creating their safer spaces and are working for the changes they desire to see in the scene. Think of how you can be active in safer spaces rather than reactive — have your safer spaces staff on the lookout for predatory behavior, and check in and socialize with the attendees. For further information on how you can make your dance spaces safer, contact Irena Spassova  and/or Megan Bowen at Meganleighbowen@gmail.com. They have been on the front line of developing Safer Spaces and swing dance events.

Use the announcements you give at dances and events as an opportunity to educate your attendees on the behavior expected of them. “This week, before we get back to the DJ, we’re going to quickly talk about how we prefer you ask for a dance at our events, and how you have the power to say ‘no’ if you desire.” Doing this consistently will allow you to reach the constant stream of new students and old regulars who aren’t caught up on the expected behavior.

Make sure all reports are responded to quickly and thoughtfully.

Don’t rely only on yourself for this help — work with a group of advisers and specialists to tackle every aspect of your event safer-spaces process, and every report that comes in.

Sexual assault counselor Caroline Seipp created a document for DC’s the Jam Cellar and DCLX that links to places people can go to find professional help with any sexual assault experiences they encounter. You can see it here.

Keep in contact with other promoters to get updated information of safe spaces and reports of violations.

Consider having people sign a social contract at your events so they know what’s expected of them. The act of signing one’s name to something empowers them to uphold it better.

Do not hire instructors you believe have committed sexual harassment, assault, or have helped the support of such predators in ways that have shown malice or a grave lack of responsibility. If you are unsure of their behavior but are suspicious, hire them with the caveat that you will be keeping a close eye on their behavior and paying close attention to feedback from students and staff.

 

NOTE ON COMMENTS: We ask that in this post’s comments, all arguments be made in respectful ways without relying on emotionally driven language to mak ean argument or attacking others personally. (Though it’s certainly understandable if emotions are a part of responses.) If you are not able to do so, please do not comment.

Due to a busy schedule we will not be able to manage the comments section closely, so we ask commenters to police themselves and others. We stress the former so that hopefully the latter will not be needed.

A huge depth of gratitude in this article is given to:

Ruth Evelyn an international swing dance instructor and advocate for sexual assault education. Ruth greatly helped in editing this piece with very thoughtful feedback. Aside from her direct quotes, she offered powerful words for inspiration such as “to protect, not to punish” and “he was nice, until he wasn’t.” 

Caroline Seipp, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and the Director of Youth & Children’s Services at a non-profit agency in Virginia which provides crisis counseling, advocacy, and crisis response to victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Chelsea Lee, Swungover’s editor and always a trusted voice in its articles.

Jessica Miltenberger, Kate Hedin, and Jerry Almonte community members and scene leaders who reviewed this post and offered feedback before publishing.

Tatiana Udry for allowing Swungover to share her story.

Ashley, “Jane,” and “Susan”, for telling their stories.

30 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2017 12:33 am

    I think you’ve meant to include the word “not” in the first line of this paragraph just over about half way through (please delete this comment once you’ve fixed the typo or seen it as it is totally irrelevant to the discussion, I just did not readily see another way to tell you and I don’t want anyone misquoting you or something):
    “Now, most of us instructors are the “I wonder if we are allowed to skip the line?” kind of power-entitled. But clearly a few have taken their use of power to an extreme.”

    • Bobby permalink*
      May 31, 2017 12:47 am

      Thank you, I tried to rephrase the sentence more accurately.

  2. Maki permalink
    May 31, 2017 3:46 pm

    Thanks for this clear and well thought out post. To broaden up the perspective i recommend to check out how the buddhist societies in the US deal with cases of sexual abuse. The parallels are overwhelming: both scenes are small, have high ethical values, have idealized teachers, are passionate about what they are doing and so on. They also had this sublime assumption that *things-like-that-don’t-happen-in-OUR-community*. Furthermore they underwent the same processing stages.
    Check it out:
    https://www.lionsroar.com/openletteronabuse/

  3. Bobby permalink*
    May 31, 2017 4:46 pm

    I wanted to mention an update. Following discussion of this post in reddit (link below) I have chosen to update the section on “Innocent until proven guilty.”

    Here is the updated version:

    ———————————–

    First off, as Alex Gaw mentions in his well-written and thought-provoking post We Are Not A Government and the Internet is Not a Court — published in the wake of the Steven Mitchell scandal — the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” is arguably a paradox when it comes to a person accusing another person of a crime to their peers:
    You can’t presume that the accused is innocent without also presuming that the accuser is guilty of lying. So when some voice of reason online says “Wait a second, shouldn’t Steven be innocent until proven guilty,” they are also–NECESSARILY–saying, “Wait a second, shouldn’t we assume that [the numerous women] who have come forward are lying?”
    It can be argued it is possible to believe that someone is innocent without believing someone else is lying. After all, two people can look at the same situation in very different ways, and have very different stories, and it’s not as easy as “this one is lying and this one is telling the truth.” (As I’m sure every lawyer can attest.) But at the heart of the point Alex is making is that in an accusation, both parties have equal share. One shouldn’t think that just because someone is the victim of an accusation, they are inherently the only person who is given the benefit of the doubt.

    When many people hear of a sexual assault victim coming forward and accusing a high-profile person, their instinct is that the person they admire is being attacked — the first victim they think of is the accused. But here’s the problem: How else is a victim of sexual assault supposed to report the crime? Their very report of being a victim is an accusation. So, when people’s first instinct is to focus on the accused as the main victim requiring attention, it can deny that the accuser is equally a victim. Basically, if one victim deserves innocence before being proven guilty, don’t they both?

    One could also argue that one can support a victim in many ways while still withholding guilt of the accused or punishing them. (Obviously, one way they would not be able to support the victim is in believing their perpetrator guilty of committing the crime.) And, in this case, as we’ve discussed, the two — supporting the victims by banning the accused — are interlinked, and it is unavoidable. For the scene’s part, the banning of someone from a dance scene falls much more into the support/protect category than it does in assigning guilt and punishment, considering most societies deem sexual assault worthy of incarceration.

    Finally, in the case of an explicitly described sexual assault account like the ones given to our scene — where many of the accused’s actions are clearly described — there are a lot less gray areas. If you believe the details of the accounts of the sexual assaults, then it’s hard not to believe the accused is guilty. If you believe the accused is innocent of those actions laid out in the accounts, then how can you believe the accusers are telling the truth or are, in some way, not suffering from a severe delusion?
    ———————————————————–
    And here is the original:

    First off, as Alex Gaw mentions in his well-written and thought-provoking post We Are Not A Government and the Internet is Not a Court — published in the wake of the Steven Mitchell scandal — the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” is a paradox when it comes to a person accusing another person of a crime to their peers:

    You can’t presume that the accused is innocent without also presuming that the accuser is guilty of lying. So when some voice of reason online says “Wait a second, shouldn’t Steven be innocent until proven guilty,” they are also–NECESSARILY–saying, “Wait a second, shouldn’t we assume that [the numerous women] who have come forward are lying?”

    Your initial response may be “But the accused is the victim of the accusation — doesn’t that mean they deserve the fairness of innocence until proven guilty?” Putting aside for a moment that there is a much more important possible victim to be concerned about here, there is also the problem that how else is a victim of sexual assault supposed to report the crime? Their very report of being a victim is an accusation. So, in this instance, thinking of the accused as a possible victim is paradoxically denying that the accuser is also a possible victim. If one deserves innocence before being proven guilty, don’t they both?

  4. Ellen Huffman permalink
    May 31, 2017 10:03 pm

    The most valuable part of this article is the end where you list actionable steps people can take to create safer dance events. You have a useful perspective on this since you are a professional instructor who sees many, many different events around the world.
    As for the rest of it, why did you write it? You clearly spent a lot of time on it, but why? There are many other resources written by experts that more clearly and more accurately explain sexual assault, rape, and consent. There are plenty of accounts and records of those accounts (e.g. Yehoodi) already published. Why not signal boost those articles? I truly believe you think you are helping, but at the very least all you’ve done is take up space in a conversation about women’s experiences. At worst, you’ve rationalized the disbelief of sexual assault victims and normalized a play-by-play examination of their accounts to decide whether consent was actually given.

    • June 1, 2017 4:20 am

      Your comment pretty much sums up my own discomfort with this article. Props, Ellen.

    • Brian permalink
      June 1, 2017 9:51 pm

      @ Ellen Huffman

      Bobby White wrote the article for my benefit, and yours, and for the benefit of a whole lot of other people. Other than criticize him, what have you done? You mention resources, but haven’t included links to any of them.

      To quote you, “all [Bobby has] done is take up space in a conversation about women’s experiences.” This isn’t just about women. Conscientious men are very much troubled by these situations, too. And, we may need to write, talk and read about them. Don’t diminish us for doing that.

      SEXUAL ASSAULT BOTHERS MEN AND WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING TO STOP IT!!!

      Bobby’s article is thought provoking. I’m glad he wrote it. And, I’m glad I read it, from beginning to end. I hope he adds to it, and writes more.

    • Peter Hetherington permalink
      June 6, 2017 6:20 am

      Hi Ellen, I think Brian’s update at the top goes some way to answering your “why” question, so I just wanted to say that I found the whole article very useful because it collects together the whole topic in a way that other resources, including Yehoodi, have failed to do adequately. If people in my local scene ask me “what was all that about”, I will feel infinitely better sending them here than to earlier more jumbled resources. As an educator in consent, I agree there are other very useful resources on that topic beyond and outside of the swing dance community, but context is queen when it comes to embedding information, so again – this is helpful.
      But quite aside from that, to your comment on taking up space in a conversation about women’s experience, a key point for me is Ruth’s involvement, editing and belief in this article. As a victim, she is again making her voice heard through this article. In that context I find your questioning of its value St best crass, and at worst silencing of a victim’s voice.

      • Peter H permalink
        June 6, 2017 6:42 am

        I clearly meant Bobby, not Brian. Happy to correct.

  5. anon permalink
    June 1, 2017 12:46 pm

    Hi Ellen, I can’t answer your questions, and you make your point well. I just wanted to pipe in and say that I did find this article helpful. Is it stupid that some people need sexual assault to be broken down and analyzed this much in order to understand it? Probably, but I am one of those people. I never question other women when they come forward with their stories of sexual assault, but for whatever reason, I still severely struggle with believing myself–that I didn’t play a part in making myself a victim of sexual assault. I find analyses like this one very helpful. Are there experts on the matter out there? Absolutely. And I don’t think Bobby is saying he is one. Sometimes I read articles by experts, but they don’t pop up in my Facebook newsfeed. I wanted to read this article not because I thought it was written by an expert, but because it was written by a writer whose analytical and inclusive style I generally like–and it pertains to the community I am a part of. How people reach an understanding of what victims go through is different for everyone, and I’m glad you and dogpossum are actively helping by stating that people should be educating themselves with other sources.

  6. Jane Doe permalink
    June 1, 2017 12:55 pm

    I think he says his reasons in the start of the article. And in doing so he has also helped me as well. I was assaulted and raped at a dance weekend, withing the last two months. I filed a police report. I’m trying to process the many things that have happened. I’m trying to process the fact that I am canceling all my swing dancing gigs and canceling the competitions and weekends I had planned to do with this person, who was my partner.
    I would like to press charges. But there is the subject of money. There is the heartbreaking conversation I’ll have to have with my Mom about the fact her daughter was raped. There is the fear that I will not be believed. Most of my life these days is sitting in bed staring at walls.

    Swing dance was and has always been my escape- and I now am afraid to go because of seeing him. He has continued dancing at the same venue with a new partner. He even greeted me the last time I went- a time when he knew I’d be there teaching. Perhaps it’s perspective, but the play by play actually helped me more than anything. In my mind I want to say that maybe I was at fault. According to my counselor, the number one question women ask ourselves is, “Was it rape? Is what happened to me rape?” so breaking it down actually answered a lot of my own personal demons. (Why didn’t I fight more? Why didn’t I argue more? Why didn’t I try harder?) The explanation of gas-lighting (Look, nothing happened, I’m here at your own venue saying hello, and you’re making a big deal over nothing) is also helpful. All these things help.

    I am sharing this, I think, to make the point that this event has had a lot of attention because of the names involved. But it sadly and outrageously common.And since I have been watching the things said by own dance community about the women involved here… good and bad… I have to say, the thought of coming forward publicly feels like giving a million strangers permission to judge you for the rest of your life and to never be seen in the dance world as your name, but rather as Victim- something else which was kindly addressed here.

    It’s okay if there’s different opinions, but I personally thought this was helpful. Certainly there are other articles and sources that explain these topics. But this is from the perspective of the Swing Community and as pointed out, Bobby has a voice there. People listen here, where they may not other places.

    Thank you for writing Bobby. It’s given me some clarity for my next steps.

    • Mariel Adams permalink
      June 4, 2017 4:59 pm

      I am so sorry this happened to you, and I hope that you are able to find support and care within your community. I believe you and hope you are able to heal and rejoin the dance if/when you are ready ♡

  7. Bobby permalink*
    June 1, 2017 3:34 pm

    I have updated the note at the top of the article with the following, which I think is best if it’s stated outright rather than implied:

    “I am not an expert. I am a dance instructor, one who has had very little personal experience with sexual assault. In light of this, I have composed this post with the help of a couple of sexual assault experts, and with a great deal of insight from one of Max’s victims, who shared her story and her own extensive work in understanding sexual assault with me. With their help and confidence, I felt I could post this article, but doing so does not make me an expert. There is much more literature out there on these subjects, literature by experts that cover the much finer nuances of these topics, or offer counter-arguments to ideas expressed here. Please keep this in mind while reading — though this post might appear to summarize the conversation, it’s main goal is to further it. ”

    (THIS HAS BEEN UPDATED AGAIN; SEE BELOW)

  8. Anon permalink
    June 2, 2017 11:03 am

    Honest question: would this article be considered an example of virtue signaling?

    • Bobby permalink*
      June 19, 2017 7:55 pm

      (I wasn’t ignoring your question;

      I just thought, considering the question, it was more appropriate if someone other than the author replied.)

  9. Jane Doe permalink
    June 2, 2017 3:56 pm

    Down the street at 6th ave skating place there was a problem like this. A guy named John comes off as super friendly, curious, a bit ‘special’, no one would think he’s even capable of such a thing. But has another vicious side. He invited me and a friend to his house at one time, then made multiple attempts to corner me, tried to get me into a room alone. I’m sure of what he was doing because a weird different disposition came on his face rather than the friendly mask he always wears. I can recount that feeling same as when someone closes the door on you, you want to freeze! Long ago some of the skaters made a fuss because he does this to everyone, but it didn’t work. He didn’t care and comes all the time trying to get girls to his house so I can’t come back, he’s always after me to come over. Thanks for writing this article.

  10. Quietly Surviving permalink
    June 4, 2017 11:40 pm

    Thank you for posting this. It’s especially helpful to see a little information about why those subjected to sexual assaults and violence don’t always “fight back.” Let me add that those of us who have survived or been victimized are often already socialized into a form of compliance that often disables us from acting. When an overly intoxicated Steven Mitchell repeatedly complimented my breasts, repeatedly pressured me to remove my jacket so he could see them, repeatedly tried to pour me drinks (I do not drink), and repeatedly tried to get me to blues dance with him (at 4 am), followed by weeks of Facebook messaging trying to cajole me into visiting him in CA, I did not “fight back.” I said no repeatedly and hoped that my ride would show up so I could leave the party. Having been subjected to forms of sexual violence at earlier periods in my life, I had come to see myself as the sort of woman who gets abused. And I had been socialized to “be nice.” How could I “be rude” to the instructor of my dance event? Someone everyone seemed to be in awe of and to respect?

    Needless to say, none of the men who overheard him and saw him pressuring me said one word to him, not even ‘stop – you’re being an asshole’. Perhaps people reading your post will begin to see themselves as people of action and courage, with the ability to intervene, to protect, and to change.

  11. June 7, 2017 10:52 am

    If you are making edits to your article is good to use S̶t̶r̶i̶k̶e̶t̶h̶r̶o̶u̶g̶h̶ to let us know what have beed deleted and what have been added :)
    Also: any comments from Thomas?

    • Bobby permalink*
      June 7, 2017 3:14 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation. Probably wont’ adopt that at this point for a few reasons: (1) Some of the edits are additive — entire paragraphs — so strike-through won’t help show much there. (2) Strikethrough, especially on large edits, can make your copy harder to read. (Though I could see a case made for doing it en mass, like striking through a few paragraphs so it looks obviously intentional rather than like a returned essay from your teacher.) (3) Already having done some editing on this piece, it would probably be disorienting/ confusing to readers to change now.

      So for now, I am going to keep listing notable updates here in the comments section and keep the above having the goal of being the best version of the essay. I know there’s a responsibility to make sure I’m not misleading readers — I will try to make sure to add the original text if it seems necessary to do so. Most of the time I explain the edit that happens in the actual text: “In previous version, I said [____], now, though,…” as a way of explaining the changes.

      I have not had a chance to mention the updates I have made the last few days, and finally described those below.

      Regarding Thomas,I do have a possible update on that, but it’s a lot of information I’m going through. I’m trying to get it prepared ASAP.

  12. Bobby permalink*
    June 7, 2017 3:00 pm

    UPDATE (6/7/17)

    A couple more updates may be on the way and, if so, will be in the article soon. There have been three other notable updates since the last mentioned in the comments:

    — We received feedback that using one’s character as evidence in believing can be dangerous. Anyone of any character is capable of being sexually assaulted, and they deserve to be heard; Basing evidence on character could keep victims from coming forward if they feel they have to be known to have a voice; Clearly, there are people that appear to have good character who are still capable of sexual assault.

    We are still updating the article throughout to reflect this danger better, but language has already been changed in the areas that focus on this concept.

    — It was brought to our attention that some events HAVE had active safer spaces staff walking around and being proactive in making sure people are comfortable and looking for dangerous behavior. Though we in the scene can all be responsible for doing so, it is a great step some events have taken to make their safer spaces proactive rather than just reactive.

    For further information on how you can make your dance spaces safer, contact Irena Spassova at irena.spassova@gmail.com and/or Megan Bowen at Meganleighbowen@gmail.com. They have been on the front line of developing Safer Spaces and swing dance events.

    — It was brought our attention we were using the phrase “social justice” incorrectly in the article. We have changed references to it and clarified the meaning of social justice.

    We feel these changes were either additive, or are explained well enough in the article that we have not felt the need to supply the original text here in this update.

  13. June 8, 2017 3:00 pm

    THANK YOU: Your write up was very informative and appreciated. Warning signs and more can be expounded on by others. We posted this on the FB “The Harlem Swing Dance Society” page, and will be doing a blog article on emotional bullying and abuse

  14. Bobby permalink*
    June 8, 2017 3:43 pm

    UPDATE 6/8/17

    After some discussions and processing I felt an update to the introduction was necessary. I finally have had an opportunity to do so.

    ——————————–
    The Update:
    ——————————–

    I am not an expert. I am a dance instructor, and a cis White male — one that has had very little personal experience with sexual assault. Coming from this reference point, I cannot speak for victims, or fully understand the many struggles they face. However, as a strong voice in the scene, I felt perhaps sharing the victim’s stories, as well as revealing my personal journey in understanding, was a way to “boost the signal” of this important topic. (And, it should be noted, my personal experience is not the only way of looking at understanding sexual assault. There are many.)

    In light of all of this, I have composed this post with the help of a couple of sexual assault experts, and with a great deal of insight from one of Max’s victims, who shared her story and her own extensive work in understanding sexual assault with me. With their help and confidence, I felt I could post this article, but there is much more out there on these subjects — Literature, film, and discussions by experts that cover the much finer nuances of these topics, or offer counter-arguments to ideas expressed here. Please keep this in mind while reading. Though this post might appear to summarize the conversation, its main goal is to further it.

    ———————————
    The previous introduction (see comments for details):
    ———————————

    I am not an expert. I am a dance instructor, one who has had very little personal experience with sexual assault. In light of this, I have composed this post with the help of a couple of sexual assault experts, and with a great deal of insight from one of Max’s victims, who shared her story and her own extensive work in understanding sexual assault with me. With their help and confidence, I felt I could post this article, but doing so does not make me an expert. There is much more literature out there on these subjects, literature by experts that cover the much finer nuances of these topics, or offer counter-arguments to ideas expressed here. Please keep this in mind while reading — though this post might appear to summarize the conversation, its main goal is to further it.

  15. swinghaiorchid permalink
    June 9, 2017 7:17 pm

    I find this article well-thought-of and thorough and is extremely helpful at both personal level and public level in handling issues in the scene. With permission, I’d like to translate it into Chinese.

    • Bobby permalink*
      June 19, 2017 7:40 pm

      Hey there, sorry I haven’t been able to get back to you until now!

      If you believe this will be helpful, we certainly will not stop you from translating the article. Especially now as it has been updated to the form it will probably have for awhile (until new feedback is given that will lead to further updates.)

      However, because these ideas are so nuanced, and involve quotes and shared stories from other people, and because I don’t have any way to check the translation, I would ask that you put at the front of the article somewhere, a link to the blog in its original form, and a note saying the translation is with the permission of, but not endorsed by, the author Bobby White.

  16. Bobby permalink*
    June 19, 2017 7:51 pm

    UPDATE: 6/19/17

    Thomas first knew of this article briefly after its publication. He messaged me saying it was not fair I didn’t hear his side of the story, and desired to add some information for the article. After further discussion, I have recommended he do so in the comments section.

    Though this may be the last major update in this article for awhile, we will constantly consider feedback and update the article accordingly. Thank all of you readers for your feedback and for helping keep Swungover real.

  17. James Thompson permalink
    June 20, 2017 6:07 am

    To the author, Bobby White,

    Not knowing Max, or any of his accusers (or knowing of them) I think I can give an objective unemotional reaction to this blog posting. First, I read the account of Ruth accusing Max of sexual assault on Tomas Blarcharz’s Facebook page. I know Tomas from his teaching with Alice at a workshop a few years ago. The one thing I can say with certainty from reading the account is that I believe the behavior was inappropriate.

    You lost me when you discuss the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” part indicating that a person must believe one or the other is lying. As a juror, sitting and watching a trial, you must believe that the defendant is innocent until you believe he has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I’m not a lawyer, nor am I a member of the bar. I have taking courses in law enforcement prior to my engineering degree. I’ve participated in legal proceedings, both civil and criminal. My participation in criminal legal proceedings involved witnessing an assault and making myself available to testify. In a related proceeding, I was involved in a court martial as a witness and victim of an assault. My participation in civil proceedings was an attempt to remove the president of the board of directors for my HOA. Because he caused the HOA to have no legal standing in court, I also had to represent the HOA, successfully, in front of a deputy director of the board of industrial relations in the state of California.

    When I began reading your description of the legal definitions of rape, and consent, I began to wonder what your credentials are for giving legal advice on what’s considered rape, assault, and consent. I saw nothing in your bio on this blog to indicate any sort of expertise in criminal or civil law. Yet you seem to be a self appointed prosecutor in this case.

    No individual can bring criminal charges against another person, only the state can do this as a violation of a criminal law. The assault I witnessed, the victim did not want to press charges and informed the police he had no idea why he was attacked (repeatedly kicked in the face). The victim, the defendant, myself, and two other witnesses received subpoenas to appear in court for the matter. The prosecutor had determined there was enough evidence to bring this case to trial. If it were determined there wasn’t enough evidence to bring to trial, the charges would likely be dropped. Lack of evidence does not equate to innocence. Even after going through a trial, if a jury fails to convict and returns a “not guilty” verdict, that still does not equate to innocence. I believe a guilty verdict can only be returned when the jury is convince beyond a reasonable doubt. In the assault I witnessed, the case never made it to trial. The defendant made an agreement to plead guilty to one of the charges while another was dropped, justice was served.

    An individual can file a case in civil court, claiming damages. It seems, from what I have read, that only one of the women are consulting law enforcement and no one is seeking civil relief? It is actually possible to believe that inappropriate behavior occurred between two people without needing to determine one is telling the truth and the other lying. Communication is not exact. Holly Weeks writes about this specifically addressing “The Gap Between Communication and Intent”, in her article “Take the Stress Out of Stressful Conversations”, republished in Harvard Business Review, copyright 2013. Though there is a possibility that one is lying and one telling the truth, but the third option is that both actually believe what they say based on their understanding of what occurred and how the law relates to it.

    You backed away from the “social justice” label on what you are trying to accomplish, which I agree. The more appropriate definition, as defined in Websters, is vigilante: “a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate); broadly : a self-appointed doer of justice”

    Honestly, I don’t know what happened between Ruth and Max. A married man inviting a woman alone to his room is inappropriate. A woman going to a room alone with a man she “didn’t really know” is just as inappropriate. None of us were in the room and I prefer to reserve judgement against either of the two.

    You obviously want to “fix” the issue going on here. But by effectively black balling those being accused based on a group’s collective response to the accusations is merely a vigilante justice system that would encourage those accused to take civil action for damages. I believe there is an alternative means of “fixing” this issue going forward that would involve seeking legal advice to draft a template contract where the instructors being hired would agree to certain standards of behavior. By accepting the contract, the instructor would be agreeing to some sort of appropriate restitution. This “social vigilantism” that you describe will have unintended consequences to the Lindy community. I don’t know what sort of contracts are made between organizers and instructors currently, but perhaps this is what needs to change.

  18. Bobby permalink*
    June 21, 2017 2:04 pm

    A note to those wishing to translate this piece into other languages:

    If you believe this will be helpful, you are allowed to translate the article.

    However, because these ideas are so nuanced, and involve quotes and shared stories from other people, and because I don’t have any way to check the translation, I would ask that you put at the front of the article somewhere:

    (1) a link to the blog in its original form, and saying it is possible the article will be updated with new information.

    (2) a note saying the translation is with the permission of, but has not been reviewed by the author Bobby White.

  19. June 24, 2017 12:45 am

    Hey Bobby, perhaps a note on State vs. Way and how it might affect rape cases in North Carolina would be appropriate? I realize that the precedent itself is thirty years old, but I was not aware of it until seeing articles about a recent case in which it came into play, and I suspect that is true for most people reading this. For (media, not official) reference: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/43y99g/men-legally-allowed-to-finish-sex-even-if-woman-revokes-consent-nc-law-states

  20. Bobby permalink*
    June 28, 2017 8:42 pm

    UPDATE: 6/28/17

    It was brought to our attention that JB gave a post going into much deeper insight on his thoughts in a FaceBook post. We added that link into the article.

  21. August 6, 2017 11:51 am

    This is clearly a case of TLDR.

    But the whole point of this post is listen and believe and to HELL with the presumption of innocence.

    My point of view on this is that the community should remain neutral, in any way. Like all good thing, it is not easy to do, that is what differentiate real virtue and virtue signalling.

    https://logicallead.wordpress.com/2017/08/06/mistake-of-politicizing-the-community/

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