When I first moved to London when I was 20, I spent a great deal of time hanging out in gay clubs. I had a gay, male flatmate in halls with a penchant for Britney Spears, horror movies, and late night clubbing. Back before the London LGBT clubbing scene was ousted for more Russian oligarch friendly shin-digs, I accompanied him to many G.A.Y nights. I felt safe nestled in its flamboyant bosom. I was for the most part left alone, could dance, drink and not police my own behaviour. I was not, as I know some gay people have (probably rightfully) accused heterosexual visitors to gay clubs, coming to ogle at the exotic gays in their natural habitat. I just wanted to dance.
In the last couple of months I have revisited these memories of avoiding ‘straight’ dance nights. Just before Christmas, two female friends and I had the great idea to go out as a group, and do nothing but dance all evening at ‘Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues Bar’.
The entire night, we felt threatened and uncomfortable by a constant circle of men. We found ourselves forming a protective ring, as drunken men lunged for body parts, or attempted to insert themselves amongst our group. It was not only the explicit harassment which was bothering, the men shoved us to a corner, forced us to dance small. Their dominance of the dance floor was physical, as they shoved and lurched with no regard for our diminishing physical space.
This is something that goes beyond the dance floor – I think that a lot of the time, men feel more entitled to physical space than women do. They are larger, and often seem to have a solidity that is of course a result of their size, but also derives from an almost unconscious entitlement to space.
What comes to mind is the man and woman sitting on the underground – the man thinks nothing of stretching out, legs stretched out apart, with no worries about whose space they might be encroaching upon. Women will often shrink into their seats, reducing their physical selves. Legs tucked in, arms folded – we let the men assert their dominance over the space we share. This has rather hilariously developed its own term – manspreading.
It is this kind of physicality that becomes even more apparent on a dance floor, as men demonstrate an entitlement to the space, and a similar entitlement to the women occupying it.
I feel often that when out dancing, I am in effect giving up my rights to not be touched by strange men. That dancing, showing my own physicality, somehow equates to sexual availability. And this strange translation of ideas is not isolated to clubs in Central London.
This weekend I attended the Anti-Raids benefit night in a squat in Elephant and Castle. A great night full of, what one might assume, were politically engaged men and women, listening to music, drinking, and dancing. At one point in the night, weaving my way across the dance floor in an attempt to find my friends, two separate men groped me. Each time I turned around to confront the person, only to find a melting wave of male faces. I was left inert in own fury, with no solid culprit to turn my anger on. What became crashingly apparent was that without the chaperoning force of my boyfriend, I was suddenly up for grabs. Literally.
I assumed that in a night run by a group of people opposing the brutal deportation of human beings, I could expect a fundamental right not to be accosted. If it happened once, I could chalk it up to one lecherous bad seed. But twice? This suggests something else. A thoughtless entitlement to women which for some reason, does not disrupt other politically informed beliefs and understandings about the world. It’s all progressive fun and games until the girls get on the dance floor.
It placed a horrible paranoia in my mind that, if there were no repercussions, this is how the majority of men around me would act. Men who are supposed to be my allies. That if they knew they could get away with it, they too would have a grope my body on the dance floor. Perhaps this is extreme, but what else can I take away from this? That supposed ‘comrades’ will do whatever they think they can get away with once the lights have gone down.
Perhaps it is naive of me to assume different forms of behaviour from men at a night filled with the self described politically engaged. We need only look at the recent goings on in the SWP to realize that sexual assault perpetrated by politicos is hardly an aberration. But naive or not, I was still shocked and saddened to realize that this too, was another place where I could not act in a free manner. That no matter where I go, or who I am with, there is a high chance that my body will cease to be my own as soon as I start moving it around to music in the presence of men.
The assault of women at dance nights is so common place, I barely even mentioned it to my friends. It seemed hardly worth the effort of making a fuss. At the time, I managed to brush it off and carry on with my evening.
Which is the other part of the problem. We don’t make a fuss. We try to laugh it off, ignore it, pretend that it isn’t happening. At that moment, it seems safer to retreat and just let it go. My initial reaction when groped was to walk away. No one wants to be the shrieking woman making a big deal out of nothing and ruining every body else’s good time. But there is power and importance in being the ‘feminist kill joy’.
If we don’t shout out in protest when these things happen to us, then who will? What has become increasingly apparent to me is that the majority of women will be grabbed or groped or touched without permission. This is of course, a regular occurrence outside of venues hosting dance nights. But there seems to be a special and specific allowance for this sort of behaviour when carried out on dance floors. As though the act of dancing immediately makes women fair game for assault.
There seems to be this assumption that a woman dancing is doing so to garner attention or admiration from men. That she is acting to titillate her viewers. When I dance, I do so only for me. I find myself looking at the ground, or the ceiling, anything to avoid the faces of men who may construe my looks as some sort of come on.
We are so used to understanding women as being perpetually looked at, and sexualised, that the possibility of a woman dancing just because it feels good seems too much to conceive of. And so, the assault of women on dance floors is allowed and tolerated. A woman dancing is understood as a precursor to sex, her female form moving is understood purely as gratifying male desire.
I want to dance without thought or hesitation about who is watching me. I want to catch whomever’s eye I please, without the implication being that I am inviting a hand on my ass. I want to enjoy my body, which is my body, without fear that someone I don’t know may take this pleasure as reason or validation to assault me. I want, for once, to let go. To not have to monitor my own behaviour, in case it is misunderstood as titillation.
This is my dance floor too, and I am dancing for no one but myself.