A Dance Event Organiser’s Guide to Sexual Harassment & Assault

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Social dancing in Lisbon, Portugal.
Social dancing in Lisbon, Portugal. Credit: Ardian Lumi

What would you do if someone was raped, otherwise assaulted, or harassed at your event?

What would you do if there was no evidence and the accused was denying it?

As an event organiser, you need to be prepared for this situation. You owe it to your attendees, teachers, performers, and general staff members. You also owe it to yourself, because handling this badly could result in lawsuits against you. With an anonymous email to SDC about this topic, we’ve decided it’s time to provide advice on how to protect yourself and others against this horrifying eventuality.

Because even though we hope you won’t have to face it, World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics indicate that just over one in three women will experience rape, sexual violence, or physical violence by a sexual partner in their lifetime (and, according to Rape Crisis England and Wales, just over 12% of reported rapes in England and Wales happen to men). If we think sexual harassment and assault doesn’t happen at dance events too, we’re lying to ourselves.

However, managing these situations in a way most likely to minimise any further trauma (and protect yourself from lawsuits) often comes down to good preparation. Read on for our nine-point guide on how to do so, or skip ahead to a particular recommendation:

Before The Event:

  1. Know Your Legal Obligations
  2. Be Educated About The Issues
  3. Have Internal Policies
  4. Train Staff to Recognise It & Respond
  5. Elect Staff to Handle These Situations

During The Event:

  1. Make Staff Visible
  2. Encourage Teachers to Communicate Consent
  3. Confirm Policies Are Being Followed

When Responding to Reports:

  1. Listen, Confirm, Act

As an event organiser, you have a responsibility of care to your attendees, teachers, performers, staff, and even to those who aren’t attending but may be affected by the event (such as people working in the venue or living nearby). However, the exact requirements will vary significantly by country or even state. It could be even more complicated if you’re organising international events. For this reason, it’s important to always research your legal obligations. We recommend speaking to a qualified advisor who specialises in the topic.

For many countries, your obligations will hinge on what is considered “reasonable” – which can be a murky area. When debating what is reasonable, courts might consider foreseeability, risk level, cost, resources, and more.

Simultaneously, in many places, you will have a responsibility to treat people as innocent until proven guilty. Ian Manborde is the Equalities Officer for British trade union Equity, which describes itself as “the only trade union providing support for dancers and choreographers”. He tells me, “If allegations are unproven, and a decision is taken to act on this, it may have legal consequences, particularly if opportunities for work are denied.”

Should someone that you have employed or contracted be accused of rape, sexual assault, or harassment while at the event, he says that every situation is different but that employers tend to await outcome of a police investigation before deciding whether to terminate a contract. When I ask about accusations pre-dating the event, he advises that “a safe route… is to ask that on-going investigations are concluded before someone is engaged. If that isn’t possible, then the person against whom allegations are made has to make a full and frank disclosure prior to being engaged, and to allow for a decision to be made.”

This can create a grey area: it may be considered reasonably foreseeable that someone accused of rape, assault, or harassment could pose a threat to other attendees at a congress (especially if the alleged incident took place at the dance event in question or a previous dance event). On the other hand, unless it is proven, a loss of contract could be considered unfair dismissal. When I bring this up with Manborde, he recommends that event organisers join a union, such as BECTU in the UK, and seek legal advice as soon as possible.

Additionally, Karen Meadows BSc (Hons) CMIOSH MCIEH, a Chartered Safety and Health Practitioner and owner of Safety in Action, advises me that, in the UK, the risk of sexual harassment and assault “should be part of [the] risk assessment” and that organisers “must put adequate controls in place”. She explains that, should there be a prosecution, documentation evidencing the risk assessment and any controls may be required by the courts.

So, what can you, as an event organiser, do?

In addition to seeking – and following! – professional advice and undertaking a risk assessment, you can consider the contracts you draw up. Depending on local laws, hiring people as independent contractors may give you more flexibility. It could also be worth considering the clauses for cancellation and penalties.

Additionally, you may wish to have clauses that mandate behavioural standards. In the UK, the vague phrase “bringing the company into disrepute” has long been inserted into contracts to allow instant termination for activities that, while not illegal, do not meet expectations. Clauses such as this may be useful for evidenced sexual harassment, even if assault or rape is unproven. (Just remember that this clause can only be used for behaviour that could result in brand damage, rather than behaviour that you personally disapprove of.)

Additionally, you should look at ways to minimise risk that could be considered reasonable. For example, if your assessment highlights that the biggest risk is at the party nights, you might look into banning the accused from those even if you do not terminate their teaching contract. Again, you should confirm with a legal professional licensed to practise in your area before implementing any such policies. Meadows also mentions that asking for a DBS or police check on any hired performers and teachers may be considered part of a reasonable precaution.

While Manborde and Meadows have provided plenty of advice for accusations against staff, teachers, and performers, remember that an attendee could also be accused of this. While the issues you will face are similar, you should remember to also take them into consideration for the Terms & Conditions of ticket sales as well as for contracts.

It’s also worth noting that many instances of sexual violence are either not reported to the police or charges are dropped, for reasons ranging from financial to emotional. Evidence is often scarce, the process of reporting it is difficult, public shame and judgment tend to be high, and victims and survivors are usually traumatised. All these factors can make it difficult to pursue a conviction. Unfortunately, this also leaves event organisers with less legal options. You should consider in advance what support you can provide – but more on that in point three.

We cannot underscore enough the importance of seeking professional legal advice. While this is a general guide to some of the issues that may affect you, there will be great variation depending on your location and context.

2. Be Educated About The Issues

You can’t respond appropriately, protecting and supporting victims and survivors, unless you understand the realities of sexual harassment and violence.

For example, are you aware of the fact that, in certain places, removing a condom without a partner’s knowledge or consent can constitute assault or rape? What about public masturbation? Or the fact that, in some countries, having sex with a nineteen-year-old is prosecutable as rape – while in others, fifteen-years-olds are legally considered old enough to consent?

UN Women’s guide to sexual harassment states that harassment can be as subtle as looks, especially when it’s a case of looking someone up and down (“elevator eyes”), and emphasises that sexual harassment only has to be “unwelcome” behaviour – not specifically protested against. But do you know how your local laws follow or deviate from this definition?

Do you know that 45% of rapes are committed by an acquaintance (which is what a fellow dancer or teacher would be considered)? Or that the majority of people who are raped are under 30?

What about the fact that 33% of people who are raped consider suicide? And the common reasons victims and survivors give for not going to the police? (Shame, a fear of being disbelieved, an unwillingness to relive the trauma, not wanting to make it public, fear of retribution…) Or that minorities and younger people are, generally speaking, less likely to report crimes to the police?

Educating yourself about sexual harassment and violence will help you to follow your legal requirements. It will also aid you in recognising issues, creating adequate training, developing policies, and providing more empathetic and helpful support to victims if issues occur. In addition to your own research, you can reach out to local and national organisations for educational materials.

3. Have Internal Policies in Place

Knowing in advance what action you should take will help you to respond promptly and appropriately. It will also enable you to be consistent and to add anything relevant to your Terms & Conditions and contracts, protecting you against accusations of discrimination.

For example, if someone reports that a person’s behaviour is making them uncomfortable, you might decide that you will ask that person to take reasonable measures – as defined by you – to avoid this behaviour in future. If they don’t follow those measures, for the first infraction, you might give them a warning; the second time, you could ban them from the event. You may also choose to have an “expiry date” on the warning, so that the ban will only happen if the infractions occur on the same weekend or, for events that happen multiple times a year, within a certain number of months or years.

You may decide that a specific list of actions warrants an immediate ban (such as intentional groping and assault) while others (such as harassment) start with a warning. You may decide that certain types of harassment necessitate stricter responses than others. You should also consider other communication channels when considering these actions, such as messages sent on social media while at the event, photographing someone either to post it on social media or to keep it private, and so on.

Whatever policies you choose, we recommend being precise, especially about the actions to be taken. At the same time, it’s important to leave room for judgement calls when it comes to the troublesome behaviour. For example, you might say responses to complaints about any actions that aren’t specifically mentioned in your policies are at the discretion of a small number of trusted and trained team members – or even just you. Your policies need to support you in responding; you don’t want them to trap you into taking or not taking action that you feel isn’t appropriate.

An Argentine Tango milonga.

An Argentine Tango milonga.

4. Train Staff to Recognise It & Respond

The Survivor Stories page of Rachel Cassandra’s Kizomba Community details a disturbing story from an international dance congress: one of a teacher drugged, raped, and left half-undressed in a hotel corridor. Yet one of the most horrifying aspects is that nobody recognised that she had been raped or needed help. Other attendees joked about her drinking too much, while her dance partner apologised to the organisers on her behalf for her ‘embarrassing’ behaviour.

Sometimes it can be hard, from the outside, to see the differences between flirting and harassment or consensual activity and assault. This is especially true given that, in most instances, the assaulter already had a relationship of some kind with their victim.

Your staff cannot adequately protect attendees, teachers, performers, and other staff members if they cannot recognise when boundaries have been crossed. For this reason, it’s important to train them on different forms that assault and harassment can take and how to recognise them.

Additionally, it’s important to consider the impact of the bystander effect. This is where people witness something bad happening but don’t act. It’s worsened by group situations, as the feeling of responsibility is diluted. To tackle it, train staff both on the reality of bystander effect and on what to do in situations where they see harassment and violence taking place. By discussing actions and potentially even role-playing them, those staff members will be better prepared to actually follow through with them if needed.

5. Elect Staff to Help Handle Reports

As the main event organiser, you won’t always be immediately available to respond to reports of harassment and assault (although, of course, you will want to be involved as quickly as possible). And if you’re the only one who has been trained to handle these situations, you risk delays and errors happening.

At the same time, not all staff members will be as adept at managing this. There are many reasons why, including personality and experience (both positive and negative). For example, someone who has also been sexually assaulted may feel that dealing with this could trigger flashbacks, panic attacks, or worse. A nervous, inexperienced staff member may lack the confidence required. Another staff member might be too cynical about accusations.

Additionally, victims and survivors might find it easier to report incidents to certain people, e.g. someone of the same gender or age as them. There is also a possibility that they may wish to report a staff member’s behaviour and so, of course, will want to speak to a different member of staff to do so.

For all these reasons, it’s important to form a small group of staff members capable of responding. They should be both willing to do so and people who you believe have the right personality and skills.

Once you know who the members of this group are, give them additional training on your internal policies, listening skills and empathy, non-judgemental language, and what action to take regarding the accused until you’re available to step in (even if that action is as simple as asking the accused to wait for you in a private area).

6. Make Staff Visible

Now that you’ve followed these steps, you’ll be more prepared to handle reports of sexual harassment and assault.

However, if victims and survivors don’t know who to speak to about incidents, you still won’t be able to do anything. Make staff visible and let attendees, teachers, performers, volunteers, and your own staff know who to report issues to. The simple act of saying “If you have any problems, talk to anyone in a black t-shirt or at the desk in the entrance hall” can make it easier for people to approach your team with issues.

Make sure there’s a visible team member available at every moment of the event. We know that everyone likes to dress up for the party nights and enjoy themselves, but it’s important that even then attendees can find someone to speak to.

Given the low rate of reported sexual harassment and violence (around 30% of rapes are reported to the police), and the difficulties victims and survivors face in telling people, you need to make it easy as possible for them to come forward.

7. Encourage Teachers to Communicate Consent

If we want to not just respond well to incidents of sexual harassment and violence, but also prevent it from happening, we need to create a culture in which people are aware of boundaries and that saying “no” is acceptable.

This is more than just common sense. It’s an approach that has been proven to reduce rates of rape. In one programme, women who were taught that they have the right to express what they want (in the dance world, you might consider this “I don’t like this move; please don’t lead it with me” or “No, thank you, I don’t want to dance”) were 63% less likely to be raped. It’s not a woman’s responsibility to avoid being raped, assaulted, or harassed, but when she feels that she has the right to leave uncomfortable situations, it helps her to protect herself.

What’s more, surveys in the US have shown that sometimes people fail to recognise what constitutes “sexual assault” or “consent” – and that men aged 18–34 are the most likely to do so.

Of course, these statistics and trends will vary across countries and cultures. However, they point to a problem with the way people can understand personal agency and consent – and one that, arguably, is made worse in the dance world by common myths such as “saying ‘no’ to a dance, or in a dance, is rude”.

You can help to counter this and, in doing so, reduce the likelihood of sexual harassment and violence at your event. Since attendees will be looking to teachers to set examples, encourage teaching consent in the lessons. This can range from mentioning that it’s good to ask partners if they’re comfortable with certain moves before doing them to modelling ways to create more distance mid-dance.

For guides on how to teach consent, check out this two-part series:

How to Teach Consent Starting Now (Lesson 1)

How to Teach Consent Starting Now (Lesson 2)

You may also find it helpful to read:

What to Do When You’re Uncomfortable

Are You Sure You’ve Never Made Your Dance Partner Uncomfortable?

8. Confirm Policies Are Being Followed

Policies are only useful if they’re being followed. Your staff won’t intend to be negligent, but dance events are busy affairs and there’s a lot for people to remember. Take the time to confirm that your staff are doing as you instructed, whether that’s always being available or reporting any worrying situations to yourself. It doesn’t have to take long; a quick question will be enough to remind staff of their tasks and underscore the importance of doing them.

9. Listen, Confirm, Act

No matter how much you prepare for handling reports of sexual harassment and violence, it will likely feel inadequate when you’re faced with these situations. They are upsetting and complex. There may be multiple viewpoints you need to consider, in addition to your legal obligations.

Yet one of the most important things that you can do is listen. Make the alleged victim or survivor as comfortable as is possible given the situation. This may mean a one-to-one conversation with you or it may mean having multiple staff members or their friends there. Let them know that they can take their time to tell you what happened. See if they need water.

And then, let them talk. Don’t interrupt or rush them. If they ramble, allow them to do so; in traumatic incidents, it may be the only way they can make sense of the events. Understand that they may wish to take a short break. Only once they have finished talking should you go back and ask questions. You should also be taking notes on everything that they say; don’t be afraid to confirm your understanding of points.

Once you have all the information, outline what your next steps will be. Don’t rush to a conclusion until you have all the evidence, but make sure they know what you will do.

Offer the person options, if relevant: would you like someone to walk you back to your room or would you prefer to wait here? Would you like an apology from the alleged harasser or would you prefer that they don’t approach you again?

Make sure to see if they need any medical support and, at the start of the conversation, offer to call the police. (Manborde tells me, “Equity’s guidance is that members should contact the police if there is a possible breach of criminal law.”) Be aware that, in cases of sexual violence, in order to prosecute, victims and survivors should generally have a medical inspection prior to washing. In instances of date rape drugs, it’s critical that blood tests are done as quickly as possible.

Once you have done this, follow through with your internal policies. Act as quickly as possible but don’t rush into poor judgement calls. Make sure to follow up with the alleged victim or survivor and also offer them any after-care you can.

Should You Share Information?

You should never share information that can make a victim or survivor identifiable without their permission. You should also not share identifiable information about an accused person in an unproven incident, as this may constitute defamation of character.

If you have information about proven incidents that, to protect attendees at future events, you wish to let other dance organisers know about, you should confirm with a legal advisor first.

That being said, there would be no harm done in advising fellow organisers to require police checks from teachers and performers. Additionally, if asked for a professional recommendation, you could certainly refuse to give one if you felt it was appropriate.

Dance events are known for being community-orientated, welcoming, and friendly. The friendships and professional connections built there can span continents, cultures, and decades. And so, whether we run or attend them, we do so with the belief that all present will want to support and respect each other. Yet organisers, you have a responsibility to prepare for negative eventualities too. It’s only through doing so that you can ensure your events remain positive spaces for the dance community.

Please note: This article is not a replacement for legal advice and we would encourage you to seek legal advice before drafting any contracts or policies.

 

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