[This post applies to everyone, but is inspired by and directed towards the blues and lindy hop communities as we continue our conversation on how to prevent and deal with sexual assault and abuse in our scenes.]
As we plan how to make our communities safer and more just, we need to acknowledge this central fact:
The people who commit assault and abuse in our communities aren’t wearing name tags that say “Monster.” They aren’t lurking in the corners wearing a trench coat and twirling a mustache diabolically.
They are respected leaders, venerated teachers, popular and engaging dancers. They are someone everyone in the scene knows by face if not by name, someone who the organizers and regulars who form the inner circle of a scene almost certainly count as a friend.
We might have doubts about them, fleeting concerns, whispered rumors that we dismiss as malicious gossip. Or we might not. They might have spotless reputations.
So then when someone comes forward – someone we probably don’t know as well, a young woman who has only been dancing for a few months or a year – we struggle to justify their claims with our lived knowledge of this person who is our friend, our teacher, someone who we’ve probably eaten breakfast with at countless exchanges.
And in the face of that massive, shrieking cognitive dissonance, we lose our ability to process information and make rational judgments.
It’s a pitfall of human psychology; our brains seem to be incapable of holding onto two conflicting ideas of who a person is, particularly if it’s someone we trust. If it’s someone important to us, someone whose loss and betrayal would jeopardize our own identity and community, our brains will – without our conscious knowledge – shut out the information that presents a threat.
This might seem like I’m giving too much credence to the subconscious in order to let organizers off the hook for making bad decisions. But this kind of inability to process information is actually quite common – and it’s a large part of what traps people in abusive relationships.
When we paint abusers and rapists as twisted monsters, we are harming not them, but their victims. “I love/respect/admire this person, ergo they are not a monster, ergo what they did to me could not possibly be abuse or assault. It must have been my fault”
When we paint abusers and rapists as monsters, we are providing a cover for those people in our communities. “I could never assault someone! I am respected and loved and clearly not a monster, ergo it would be impossible for me to ever violate someone’s boundaries. It must be a misunderstanding”
When we paint abusers and rapists as monsters, we are impairing our own judgment and our ability to make our spaces safer. “I know this person! We’ve shared meals and drinks and tears together! They are not a monster, ergo this must have been a mistake.”
It is not only possible but common for the predators in our communities to be our friends, our teachers, our beloved hosts and MCs. Many of the people I have known to be abusive partners come across as incredibly charming, personable and loving – as long as there are other people around.
How can someone love you and be abusive towards you at the same time? How can someone be a good friend, brother, teacher, and then sexually assault another human being? How could an actor or director whose work we love turn out to be a serial rapist or pedophile?
I don’t know how. But I know that they can and they are and they do.
These revelations, when they come up, are genuinely heartbreaking. It feels like the ground dropped from underneath us. And the confusion and the bewilderment are real, and they take time to work through. This is why, as organizers, as people who victims will come to because we have told them they can, we need to come up with a way to process claims of assault that remove our personal judgment from the situation if we are too close to the accused.
The cognitive dissonance involved in recognizing that someone we care about has committed sexual assault practically guarantees that we will make bad judgment calls. And we can’t afford to make those bad judgment calls when people who are hyper-vulnerable and already traumatized have turned to us for help and safety. We need to find away to minimize these mistakes because to not take that responsibility is a betrayal of the enormous trust these people have put in us. It is to compound the trauma they have already experienced, to make the community they loved doubly or triply unsafe for them. We create a community where the person who committed the assault continues to have access to potential victims. Which is what they counted on in the first place.
People who commit serial assaults know how not to get caught. They know how to ensure that they will face no consequences if they are caught. They have gotten to this point of entrenchment in our communities precisely because they are so good at it.
Those of us in a position to support assault survivors in our community have an obligation to recognize this dissonance and have a plan in place to deal with it. The stakes are way too high to do anything else.