For this second weekend of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I wanted to highlight some of the behaviors that women are exposed to that can create a slippery slope down to assault and rape. They’re the things people do to us that make us feel unsafe, even though there’s very little we can do about them (if we even realize what’s happening at the time). Societal standards have told us that it’s important to give people what they want, sometimes at the expense of our own wellbeing. I considered writing more clinically about this, like last week’s piece about mandated reporting, but in the end, I decided it might make more sense just to show you.
So, below are four examples of things that happened to me that made me more wary of the people walking through my world. (If I were going to rewrite He Probably Just Likes You, I might consider drawing from some of these stories. However, that piece is perfect the way it is.) I’ve done my best to highlight why they made me deeply uncomfortable or afraid or slightly traumatized or whatever the case may be, but talking about grooming and other insidious behaviors can be very difficult for me, especially with these memories I don’t spend as much time rooting around in normally. If you have questions, please drop me a line and I’ll be happy to clarify anything.
This is a very difficult post. (And this is only the first week of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so buckle up, because in all likelihood it’s all downhill from here.)
I’ve been working within the confines of the collegiate system for six years. My future career path probably includes teaching, likely at community colleges and/or four-year universities. My creative work intersects nearly constantly with sexual assault. I hear a lot of stories. And in the near-ish future, I’ll probably be a mandated reporter.
Let’s get something straight here: I know some stories need to stay quiet. I’m well aware of the toll an assault or rape or even just gendered harassment can take on folks. I know that for a lot of people, the idea of reporting to Title IX goes hand in hand with expected retaliation. I’m one of those people. And whenever I can, I’ll be committed to making sure my friends and fellow victims/survivors/casualties can communicate freely with me about their own experiences, questions, and uncertainties. I’ll make sure you know in advance when I’m unable to keep stories brought to me by certain groups, especially any college students I may teach in the future, confidential. I’ll find workarounds so I’m still available to give advice and support to folks who need it.
On the one hand, Title IX is (for the most part) a great idea. We should absolutely be combatting gender inequality, whether it’s discrimination or harassment or violence of any nature, in colleges and universities. However, I’ve found that the links between mandated reporters and the folks who field Title IX complaints can be stretched too thin. When lower-intensity solutions might be more apt—for instance, when mouthy, young, subtly-sexist undergraduate men in male-dominated programs could perhaps be told by their faculty that their behavior needs to change before they seriously hurt someone—complaints get lost, washed away, and never followed up on.
The crux of all these issues? I think mandated reporters don’t feel like they have power to change their institutional/studio culture for the better without the guidance of Title IX, and I know students aren’t informed about what the system will do for (and to) them if they report.
Wow, what a crazy first half(ish) of the semester. I’m spending the weekend sleeping extra and getting back on a somewhat normal schedule for, well, everything. I’m still a little shocked that I spent two months working hard on an intense show about sexual assault and victimhood and somehow it worked. We had a great run last Sunday—my dancers were superhuman and my chops were happy with me—and now I’m diving deep into footage, thinking critically about the next steps for face the mirror. I’d really love to take it on the road in California and the Southwest, so if your school or venue wants to host a night or two, give me a shout. For the time being, though, I just want to take a few moments and expound a little on what this show means to me and how it came into existence.
Tomorrow night, I take the stage to bare a piece of my soul.
Mine, and a thousand others’.
Tomorrow night, I take the stage with a little fire in my feet and a spark in my eyes and I bring the world into a story I might’ve told a hundred times by now. I bring the world in, and I shut myself out.
You see, that girl onstage isn’t me.
Sure, she wears my face and laughs and cries like I do. She carries with her the same sense of wonder, the same reactions to old wounds made new again. She lives a story that is rich and complex and devoid of the words I’d choose to write for myself. Her experiences shape her, ever so subtly, in different ways than mine shape me. Sometimes they look the same, outwardly—she falls to the floor at all the same times that I probably would—but her motivations, her qualms, her relationship with herself is dramatically different.
I spent much of the holiday season catching up on sleep and composing projects, and I’m happy to have some new things off the ground and some long-awaited scores nearing their premiere performances. This semester alone, I’ll have works performed in four to five states (which, for an early-career composer, is a Big Deal), and Letters will reach more audiences than ever before thanks to a couple large ensemble performances, a student recital (away from CalArts, even), and my own graduation project, face the mirror, which will have its own page soon but for now lives in my Projects catch-all. I’m super excited for each of these milestones and will devote more column space to each of them over the course of this semester, but I wanted to take a moment this week to talk a little about a piece I’ve just completed and how the concepts at play within it affect my own life on a day-to-day basis.
The work is called walking/I’m sorry, Mom and it was commissioned by my dear friend and fellow musical troublemaker Tanner Pfeiffer for the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble at CalArts. For CVE’s spring concert this year, Tanner is assembling a collection of works that explore, in some way or another, movement, theater, and/or dance within a musical performance context. Much of the art I currently enjoy making incorporates theatrical or dance elements, so I was excited to hop on board to contribute something new. Originally, I’d been aiming for a work that established strong connections between physical aftereffects of assault and their mental repercussions, but as dark works tend to do, the music pulled me in a different direction.
I wrote walking about what is [unfortunately] a quintessential part of the stereotypical female experience—a strange man, with unclear intentions, following a woman home late at night. “Don’t walk alone in the dark” was one of the sentiments that shaped my own coming-of-age experiences; ASU’s campus is lovely at night, and frequently the only reasonable time to walk around and enjoy the area is after the sun goes down, so eighteen-year-old me admittedly didn’t follow my mom’s advice to the letter. I’m fortunate that I started walking with friends before I could run into cause for concern, but I have friends (both from my time at ASU and other moments) who have dealt with these issues repeatedly.
More than that, though, walking isn’t just about being alone at night. It’s about being approached by a man—in any situation—and having to make that snap judgment of how to react. It’s about Schrödinger’s rapist.
My brothers and sisters and siblings and I, we have been violated. We have been attacked and groped and touched intentionally and carelessly and recklessly. Our attackers may know what they did to us; all the same, they may have forgotten entirely, relegated us and our pain to the insignificant past. We have been hurt beyond all telling. And we don’t report.
I have carried the weight of my own existence for a long time. Some days it’s light and life is easy. I laugh and love, I take the risks I’ve dreamed of, I pursue my best self relentlessly. I am my own best comforter.
On these days, my mind is sharp. I engage with my peers, my friends, my colleagues. I am brash and loud and bold. I am the woman fourth-grade me would be so excited about. And on those days, very little can touch me—I’m up in the clouds, soaring to my heart’s content. On these days, I am free of my past. (This feels good.)
I have carried the shame of my own existence for a long time. Some days it’s so overpowering I can’t breathe very well. I fall silent. I pull away. I can’t bring myself to confide in the people I love; they don’t need to watch me suffer. I shrink into myself, asking what I was wearing or why I was alone or why I didn’t report or whatever other vitriol someone in power chose to sling at a survivor today. (This does not feel good.) I reduce myself to a casualty of this war to normalize violent behavior. I find a thousand things to write but none to say aloud, lest I find myself the target of that powerful person’s vitriol someday. I let my music speak for me because there are still so many things I can’t bring myself to say. And I bleed. (This does not feel good.)
Last week, former Olympic gymnasts and reigning NCAA champions Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian appeared on CBS This Morning after recently revealing they too were victims of Larry Nassar, who assaulted hundreds of young gymnasts under the guise of medical treatment. Ross and Kocian appeared with their coach at UCLA, Valorie Kondos Field, and the three women fielded questions about Nassar’s actions and subsequent conviction. They were articulate and composed throughout the interview, which you can watch here. Many of Ross’ and Kocian’s thoughts echoed those previously heard from their teammates (the entire 2012 Olympic squad and all but one member of the 2016 team have come forward as Nassar’s victims). Though never asked in as many words, the question lingering over the interview was unsurprising: why wait? Why not come forward earlier?
DCI Championships are this weekend. It’s a fact most current and former band kids can’t escape—social media lights up with profile pictures from when everyone you’ve ever known marched in the Blue Devils, the handful of friends who are on staff or on tour with a corps are super excited, and everyone who wants to see the shows at their best without flying to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis flocks to the movies to watch the live stream of the quarterfinals.
This year, following a season or two of not keeping up with the activity, I joined them. I sat in the same place for five hours (plus bathroom breaks) and munched on entirely-too-unhealthy popcorn and rooted for Vanguard (and Crown, and The Academy, and . . . you get my point). And since I hadn’t been to a show in a couple years, it was a lot of fun. I’ll always have massive respect for my friends who march and tech for these groups, but I’ve also realized that as much as I like DCI, I’ll never again adore it as much as I used to.
My parents enrolled me in dance classes when I was three years old. My mom claims it was because I was clumsy (I believe her, as I’m still clumsy), but integrating myself into a world of high buns, leotards, pink tights, and hairspray taught me innumerable lessons that have affected my musical training from the beginning. Dancing was where music got to be fun, where I got out all the energy I’d never be able to project through a horn or a piano. But there were hidden benefits, too—chief among them, the safety net that helped me as a young victim of sexual assault.
Unlike the majority of women, my assault wasn’t committed by someone I knew, but claiming and using my body as my own, as something I could use to create amazing things, was and is a key part of my recovery. Dance has always been key to that. And the most affirming things I’ve ever heard from a teacher were spoken in dance class: “Is it okay if I fix your posture?” “Can I lift your leg to help you stretch?” “Will you come up here to show the class?” “I’m going to shape your foot, okay?”
Did you catch the commonality running through these questions? Each one asked my permission for an act that required my body. Further, not a single teacher touched us outside of those corrective moments, except for high fives or holding hands (you try herding twelve kindergarteners onto a dark stage and let me know how that works out). I knew as early as elementary school that people should ask before touching me, and I owe that to my dance teachers past and present.
Dance has its fair share of systemic problems. Not all teachers are like that. But in music, most teachers aren’t.