Myths to Break Down: Moving Toward Ethical Communication and Ethical Sexuality in CI

Hi all, this is Richard. I’m pleased to introduce guest blogger Sarah Gottlieb, who has been thinking about topics related to contact improvisation, sexuality, consent, and rape culture, and who will be sharing some of those thoughts on my blog. This is the first of what may be several articles from Sarah. Now Sarah:

Hello! I’m Sarah Gottlieb and I’m a CI practitioner/teacher who invests a lot of time thinking about ethical sexuality. I’ll just start out by saying that I am a queer survivor of multiple forms of sexual violence and that this affects my relationship to my body, how I experience social relationships in dance spaces, as well as my approach to facilitating CI.

Talking about ethical sexuality is how I survive CI, and since that’s the case, I find myself regularly engaged in such conversations. About a year ago, I began a collection of written responses to what I consider to be erroneous or unfounded beliefs commonly held in CI circles, called “Myths to Break Down.” Some of them are come-back fantasies: things I wish I had said, or in some cases felt awesome about saying. Others are less dialectical, and function as opportunities to explore in depth some of the more complicated aspects of ethical communication and sexuality in CI.

These thought pieces are intended to be contributions to ongoing conversations. I welcome feedback, continued discussion, and hope to have a productive impact on the work that is already happening within the CI community.

Happy reading, respectful dancing!

Love

S

 

#1: It makes people uncomfortable to talk about boundary setting and sexuality right before dancing together.

There is an idea that talking about boundaries, sexuality, or ethical communication in opening circles is an awkward way to build the kind of relaxed, trusting environment necessary for CI dancing.

But for many people, intimate experiences such as dancing contact improvisation feel better if the facilitators have explicitly addressed ethical sexuality. For example, when as a facilitator I’ve confronted why we shouldn’t take advantage of CI’s innately intimate qualities to catalyze romantic connections, I’ve had many people—first-time jammers, beginners, and veteran dancers alike—tell me they were relieved to hear someone voice their concerns. The fact is, issues related to sexuality are for many people the source of concern and confusion about CI.1

Resistance to this discussion is problematic because CI is an inherently social form, and therefore should take into account how we affect others, even if addressing those effects could be uncomfortable.

Actually, I know this is a radical statement for some people, but to me contact improvisation includes developing social responsibility. And so part of being concerned with how we affect others means that we talk about ethical sexuality, boundary setting, and power dynamics.

What I’m proposing around consent, sexism, and ethical communication is actually not such a radical extension of the form. CI already develops skills related to consent and ethical communication. The concepts of listening and shared agency in a dance are considered fundamental. This shared agency is re-negotiated throughout the course of a dance. It seems logical that we would extend those skills into a larger realm of social consciousness that takes into account sexuality, sexism, and power.

When facilitators and practitioners are silent about these issues, it becomes an unconscious yet harmful expression of privilege2. Maintaining a distance from the topic is not possible for people who must constantly set sexual boundaries while dancing (perhaps the majority of women and queers). Myself, I had no choice but to learn how to dance CI in ways that helped me set sexual boundaries.

Furthermore, the failure to address boundaries, consent, and sexuality leads to the false notion that CI is inherently “safe.”3 While CI spaces can be nurturing, they are not inherently safe. Promoting them as such perpetuates a damaging impression that assumes that all students/practitioners have inherently equal power in a dance.4.

 

#2: It’s okay to massage me after we dance.

A response to romantic hands after dancing

Some dances resolve in a sort of post-coital lull, a moment when the shared energy generated by a dance continues to play and swing around our resting bodies.

Sometimes I have no interest in this moment. It’s too intimate. Too sexual. Sometimes it feels icky or overwhelming. Sometimes I’m embarrassed to be in public. Sometimes I feel self-conscious about the image being projected into the room by my body lying in the corner breathing with another.

But it’s also true that at times it is wonderful to ride a dance down, allowing my nervous system to find its still point before disconnecting from my partner. This resolution can be beautiful, medicinal—part of the magic that I love about contact improvisation.

However.

When that calm moment becomes a platform to offer pleasure, or seek to bond in a romantic way, this is transgressive. I’m speaking to a collective YOU: a conglomerate of so many people over the course of years. Let me be clear, our physical intimacy in that moment isn’t really personal. Dances that reach a level of physical or energetic intimacy are not by default sexual, romantic, or emotional to me. I’m not presuming anything about your feelings. I’m not creating a narrative. So please, don’t let your hands make assumptions.

It is not ethical to interpret CI as permission to touch my body with sexual or romantic intention. To avoid ambiguity, the best thing to do is to ask for verbal consent before massaging or caressing me.

 

#3: Saying “No” is easy

If you think that saying “No” to unwelcome sexual touch or behavior is easy, you are wrong.5

I’ll be honest, I get really frustrated when a conversation about ethical sexuality becomes focused on dancers learning how to say no, leave a dance, or better protect themselves against unwanted sexual/ sexually-charged/ sexually-ambiguous attention. This emphasis on educating people about how to appropriately respond to unwanted sexual touch after it happens, versus developing a deeper understanding of the underlying dynamics that create instances of sexual violence in CI, is problematic. (This isn’t the subject of this post, but before offering further reflections, I think it’s important to state upfront that people are responsible for not transgressing others’ boundaries with their own sexual agendas, and for developing awareness about sexual consent.)

And while consent and boundary-setting are important skills, the idea that at any given moment one can just say “No” to even subtle sexual advances is simply uninformed.  To begin with, people talk about saying “No” as if it’s this neutral thing—someone does something and you say yes or no. But it’s not. Saying “No” is a response to having had your boundaries crossed, and it’s a way of re-establishing power or control over a situation in which you are no longer safe, or when your safety has been compromised.

Saying “No” is not setting a boundary, it’s re-establishing a boundary

Sometimes discussions about establishing boundaries miss the fact that boundaries are primarily negotiated nonverbally. People don’t actually move through the world verbally negotiating their boundaries in every interaction.

When we dance contact improvisation we also assume that most negotiations will occur through touch and physicality. We assume that all parties are invested in responding to the physical cues of their partner or partners.

Often we think of saying “No” as setting a boundary. But that only becomes necessary after nonverbal boundaries have been ignored, missed, or misunderstood. Saying “No,” either verbally or nonverbally, is not setting a boundary, it’s re-establishing a boundary after it has been transgressed.

When a sexual boundary has been transgressed the act of re-establishing that boundary can have an especially significant emotional cost.

The experience of saying “No”

The leap from dancing to verbally saying “No” is not easy. That just needs to be understood. For me it goes like this:

  • First, I have to recognize that I am feeling uncomfortable. Since I am socialized as a woman, with the expectation that I should be able to easily make emotional accommodations and put others before me, I usually brush that feeling off a few times before I accept that it is strong enough to deserve attention.
  • Then I have to check in to make sure that the source of my discomfort is someone else, and not my own headtrip or gas.
  • Then, I swell with a mixed sensation of disappointment, dread, and anxiety (as well as fear, rage, or any other cocktail of heightened emotions which could be related to the specific details of the current experience, past trauma, a response to other factors about the environment, etc.).
  • Next I have to calm myself down using strategies developed over the course of a lifetime fending off unwanted sexual advances. I charge myself with assessing the situation carefully, pinpointing the nature of the pressure I’m experiencing. I remind myself that I don’t need to understand my experience fully or justify it, and that the mere fact of feeling a transgression is valid. I remind myself that I deserve to stop it immediately.
  • At this stage, I also do a lot of subconscious caretaking. I get concerned for the other person, feel guilty for the possibility that they might feel uncomfortable, attacked, or offended. I also experience fear of backlash, rage, or violence. In a split second I am running through how safe I feel, considering my options for escaping and/or changing the situation, and making a decision about how and what to say so that I can re-establish my own comfort and wellbeing with the least violent outcome.
  • Then I need to find my voice. I need to take a deep breath. I need to actually speak. I always say less than what I feel. I always minimize my discomfort, apologize for it, or communicate that it is not the other person’s fault, even when it absolutely is.
  • And even if all goes well and my message is immediately heard, I then need to protect my very raw heart, and search for a safe way to come down from that experience. I need to find a safe person to sit next to, who given the context, may or may not be present. I need to calm my nervous system and recover from a highly activated state. It’s very triggering to have to set verbal boundaries against sexual transgressions, and the adrenaline rush can set me off for days.

This whole process can take 10 seconds.

That’s an overview of my personal experience, but the experience of setting boundaries is further complicated by intersectional power dynamics and oppressions. Race, gender, ability, experience with CI, a sense of belonging within a particular jam/community, age, etc. can all affect a person’s ability to say “No.”

So no, saying “No” is not easy. Furthermore, it’s an uninformed micro-aggression (that is, a small but wearying form of oppression) to suggest that it is. As much as I advocate for myself and others to practice setting boundaries and speaking them, I also advocate for the world to do better at not transgressing in the first place.

Footnotes

  1. The subject of how CI or conversations about sex can be triggering is a big one, perhaps to be addressed in another post.
  2. For an explanation of privilege, see “Privilege 101: A Quick and Dirty Guide” or “Intersectionality 101: Understanding Your Privilege And Oppression
  3. This is a very large topic; perhaps I will address it in a future post.
  4. Another myth; again perhaps for a future post.
  5. We work with lots of different types of “No”s in contact improvisation, but in this piece I’m focusing on the verbal “No.” However, the difficulties and complexities of saying “No” are generally also true of nonverbal ways of saying no.

10 comments for “Myths to Break Down: Moving Toward Ethical Communication and Ethical Sexuality in CI

  1. Benjamin Pierce
    2018/04/26 at 14:45

    Wow. Seldom have I seen so much truth expressed so clearly in so few words. Thank you, Sarah.

  2. Moonbones
    2018/05/03 at 10:46

    Ms. Gottlieb,
    Many thanks for layin’ that sh!t out.

    -a fella

  3. Lori Luebke
    2018/05/03 at 12:47

    Beautifully stated, and so well thought out, Sarah. It took me a long time to read this article because so many things you said created a flury of memories and feelings within me that I had to process. I could probably write an entire article in response to your article. For me, boundary setting within a dance goes beyond the issue of sexuality within a dance. There are many times when I have felt slimy or completely uncomfortable after a dance. I often have difficulty processing the why, but I am left with the feelings. There can be so many subtle messages within a dance. I sometimes feel as though I am navigating through a labyrinth. Your article is extremely thought provoking for me and I will continue to process. I look forward to further discussion.

  4. Daniel Halkin
    2018/05/05 at 01:24

    Thank you Sarah for the phrase “ethical sexuality”, it is a wonderful place to start a discussion.
    Thank you for articulating your “saying No” experience: I’ve been working to create a context of consent where giving space and time for saying “No”,”Yes” or “Maybe” is an ongoing standard of interaction, where “No” is used as answer to a question so it doesn’t need to be used as a response to a transgression, but I haven’t thought about making space for the “raw” state that can occur when things don’t go well, so I’m grateful you mentioned it.

    Write on! You are fantastic!

    Daniel

  5. Ryan Pusch
    2018/05/05 at 13:39

    I recently moved out to PA, and I had a chance a few weeks ago to participate in the East Coast Jam in Charles Town, WV. Some folks there organized an ongoing discussion during the jam about boundaries, permission, and sexuality that I found echoed a lot of what is written in this post. I have two contributions from those discussions:

    1) We were talking around the issues in myth #2- not specifically in regards to massage after a dance, but what another dancer described as “extraneous touch” during a dance: this she described as any touch in a dance that communicates emotional connection or draws attention to sensation, as opposed to touch that communicates weight, resistance, or facilitates pathways of movement.

    I had the realization that as of late I personally seek out opportunities for this “extraneous touch” in my dances- e.g. touching the scalp, hands, feet in a gentle way- because I have found that it leads to the most engaging, softened, tuned-in dances. However, It was pointed out to me that just because this type of touch generally produces positive experiences for me, that I cannot assume this is true of my dance partners. This is certainly true!

    Reflecting on my personal desire for dances that permit and welcome extraneous touch, I engage in a process of negotiating what kind of touch and interaction are welcome in a duet from moment to moment, through my own awareness of feedback from my partner. I wait to see what kinds of risks my partner is willing to take, and I attempt to communicate trustworthiness through my sensitivity to my partner’s presence and energy. I tend to follow more than initiate, keeping always aware of the potential for greater trust and risk to unfold in the duet, or not.

    But of course, this negotiating and following could all still just be my more subtle way of imposing my will and desire into a duet! I would hope that at least (and this may not be sufficient, I understand) there are plenty of opportunities to for the duet to detour and give space for the direction of my dance partner’s desires for movement and touch, especially if they are in contrast to my own subtle desires! I would love to hear feedback about this.

    2) The other broader idea that was discussed was about how the contact improv community could be a transformative environment for drawing our awareness to and overcoming shame. Suffice it to say that this has been my experience with CI, but I also realize that I have an entire litany of societal privileges that have made the CI environment more easily transformative for me than for those without white, male, and heteronormative privileges. Yet I agree that CI must insist on creating a framework of social responsibility that names and dismantles unjust privileges. Indeed, isn’t CI a profoundly fertile space for this work because it gives tangible opportunities for exercising that responsibility through both discussion surrounding dance, and dancing within that mutually created awareness of responsibility? I think it could be- even if that’s not the universal experience- because it’s no fun if we’re not listening.

  6. Rob Welcher
    2018/05/09 at 17:02

    Thanks for laying out all that happens in the 10 seconds of trying to say “No’! It, obviously, helps me better understand the challenge for others, including those with less power in a situation. And it is helpful to me to understanding my own challenges to saying “no” as a cis-male with no history of sexual abuse or violence, as well as finally being able to have words for the discomfort I feel around saying “No”, including class exercises that practice saying “no” verbally and non-verbally, which I feel so icky doing.

    You rock!

  7. Federico Escobar
    2018/05/11 at 23:20

    Awesome and super educational mythbreaking. I enjoyed it so much.Thanks for mentioning and reminding about the importance of intersectional power dynamics. And for you powerful story about your experience saying no. I gain awareness of my possible power abuses through stories like this. Thank you!

  8. 2018/05/25 at 11:59

    Fantastic article Sarah! I’m printing it out to share and have available at my jams. Here’s to creating and deepening a culture of consent! Thank you!

  9. Keith
    2018/06/24 at 18:58

    Really appreciate this. Thanks. I will cite it in a zine I’m making that is a critical race and queer questioning of CI.

  10. Michele Beaulieux
    2018/06/24 at 20:27

    Hi Sarah,

    Great post!

    Thank you for making the case for creating space for talking about issues. Very well put: “When facilitators and practitioners are silent about these issues, it becomes an unconscious yet harmful expression of privilege . . . Furthermore, the failure to address boundaries, consent, and sexuality leads to the false notion that CI is inherently “safe.”

    And I love the 10 seconds of saying “No.” You do a great job of explaining why just saying “no” isn’t easy. But I’m confused by your statement: “Saying ‘No,’ either verbally or nonverbally, is not setting a boundary, it’s re-establishing a boundary after it has been transgressed.” It seems to me that “no” can serve multiple purposes. It can re-establish a boundary, but, other times, it can set a boundary. Isn’t saying “no” a tool for setting boundaries? If someone asks, “May I have this dance?,” the first time I say “no,” aren’t I setting a boundary? If that person repeatedly asks, then I’m re-establishing my boundary.

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