Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics famously sang: “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves.” Widely hailed as a feminist anthem of empowerment, I’m now wondering why sisters ended up resorting to doin’ it for themselves.
Out of necessity, victim-survivors of sexual violence have been doin’ it for ourselves. We are constantly asked to report crimes and stand up to abuse after others have enabled the abuse and looked away. We are asked to do what others refuse to do.
I support the empowerment narrative, but doin’ it ourselves doesn’t always work. Sometimes, we need help. And sometimes, even when we ask for help, we don’t get it. We’re back to doin’ it for ourselves. We are told to confront the person who abused us ourselves as some sort of a personal growth empowerment project.
In his essay, “101 Ways to Say No to Contact Improvisation: Boundaries and Trust,” Martin Keogh gives accolades for just such a scenario. A group of women complained to a Contact Improvisation jam leader about a man named “Roland” and asked the leader to do something about him. Instead, the leader encouraged the women to talk to him directly. I broke down what was problematic in this scenario in an essay, “Starting by Believing Maria: Responding to Sexual Violence in Safer Brave Contact Improvisation Spaces,” published in the CQ Contact Improvisation Newsletter in 2019.
Recently, revisiting the essay, I realized that in my annoyance at Keogh’s compliments for the leader’s insensitive response, I overlooked the obvious: the tactic failed miserably. Keogh himself explains that the victim-survivors’ intervention did not work. Roland reformed only after male members of the community intervened. Keogh advocates for the individualistic “first rule” of Contact Improvisation—”take care of yourself,” in his essay, but his example shows the importance of active community involvement. The men, acting as “co-strugglers,” succeed in creating safer brave space for the community.
To address my oversight, I just added the following comment in the comments section for my essay on the Contact Quarterly site:
As the author of this article, I would like to add an important point. In the article, I discussed how the leader’s suggestion—that the women who were uncomfortable with Roland talk to him themselves—was not trauma-informed or survivor-centric, but I didn’t say that it was also ineffective. I noted that in asking the leader to talk to Roland, the women “may have recognized that a more neutral party with organizational power would be in a better position to intervene successfully.” I did not point out that the women’s decision not to deal with Roland directly themselves was, in fact, wise and pragmatic. Intervening themselves, which the women did after the leader encouraged them to, didn’t work. Keogh recounted that after the women talked to Roland, Roland reformed with women he knew, but “his radar would still light up when new women came.” Roland reformed only after a group of men (finally) spoke to him. The anecdote about Roland shows how victim-survivors cannot create safer brave spaces on our own. Roland did not listen to the women he was abusing. He listened to other men. Community accountability and community norms create a culture of consent.
The oil pastel drawing illustrating this post is the first in the triptych, “Jam Series,” which I did to illustrate the article, “Starting by Believing Maria: Responding to Sexual Violence in Safer Brave Contact Improvisation Spaces.“ For more about the triptych, see my blog post, “Art about Safer Brave Space at Going Dutch Festival.”
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© 2022-2023 Michele Beaulieux … Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. That means you are free to share and adapt as long as you attribute Michele Beaulieux, don’t use for commercial purposes, and use this same license. And if you do share, I’d love to know! I continue to revise, so to avoid sharing an outdated version, I recommend linking to this page, where I provide the date of the current iteration: 4.25.2023