Almost every scene has had a bad actor, ranging from lower-level he-said-she-said harassment to full, witnessed assault. Often, organizers and scene leaders are at a loss for an effective way to handle these issues.
The default often goes one of three ways:
- The organizer does not want to deal with it and does not engage, resulting in no further action;
- The organizer takes the side of the alleged perpetrator because there isn’t enough “proof”; or,
- The organizer sides with the alleged victim(s), without careful consideration of the full story.
I don’t think any of these directions is the appropriate way to go to solving these issues. Instead. I think we need to look to models set out by regulated professions and others to find the best way of dealing with these issues.
Settle in; this one is a bit longer than usual.
The Problem of Proof
If you are naturally inclined to believing the alleged perpetrator first, you probably are grappling with the idea of proof. And, you may jump to the natural conclusion that if there is any doubt as to what happened, you should take no action. I think this is flawed, mostly because the absence of any action is an action. Hopefully this article will give you better tools for managing this issue.
Why “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” is a Terrible Benchmark
The criminal procedure in Canada (and many other countries) uses something called beyond a reasonable doubt to determine guilt. This is because a criminal conviction has the potential to impact a person’s physical liberty (jail), or even their right to life (in places that allow the death penalty). So, because of the massive impact the decision will have, courts want to make extra sure the person did what is alleged.
In order to (try to) protect innocent people from being found guilty, the burden of proof is on the state (government/Crown) to show that they are sure the person committed the crime (See here for an excellent definition defined in common-law).
A dance community is not a criminal court. It does not make sense for a dance community to use beyond a reasonable doubt as a benchmark for determining whether a person is a danger to a scene. Rather, the balance of probabilities standard seems more appropriate.
A balance of probabilities occurs when you think one party’s side of a story is more probable than the other (or even, that the actual version of the events is more in support of one of the parties). In the case of alleged dance perpetrators, this may be satisfied if you have more than one victim, where there’s a history of past cases, or where you find more information that supports the alleged victim.
I’d argue that in the context of social dance, we are not going to have the same impact as jail or a criminal record on someone. Therefore, the civil balance of probabilities seems more appropriate for us to use as a benchmark when determining what action (if any) we want to take.
Keep in mind that even if we are using a standard of evidence used in civil court, this does not make us a court or tribunal. But, we can still deal with and manage complaints that arise within our communities.
“Well, we’re not a court, so I need a criminal charge or conviction to make a decision!”
No, you don’t. This is an easy way of absolving responsibility – and an easy line of defence for alleged perpetrators – but it is not a sound argument. If there’s a case of workplace harassment, your HR team should be dealing with the issue – not waiting for the courts. In the case of your event, you are HR.
A criminal conviction is certainly a very powerful tool for assessing whether an act has occurred. We would be nuts to not recognize one as proof – they’re even used to bolster cases in civil court (with a few nuanced details). But, even in a civil court, the absence of a criminal charge or conviction does not mean that a person could not recover for damages.
But, you’re right – we’re not a court. So instead, I would look at the processes used by many regulated professions and unregulated associations. Lawyers, doctors, nurses, and other regulated fields can all lose their licence to practise if they are found to have engaged in professional misconduct. This is more analogous to making findings against dance community members – and especially against dance professionals.
“But we aren’t an association or a regulated profession!”
You’re right – we aren’t. But, that does not mean we can’t use the very well thought out processes of regulated professions to guide us in finding a fair (albeit less procedurally intense) way of managing alleged poor behaviour in our scenes.
Making a Decision
“So how do we decide what happened?”
There are two things that work together to determine what happened:
- Evidentiary documents (recordings, papers written at/near the time of events, police reports, etc.)
- Witness information (from the victim, alleged perpetrator, bystanders, friends/confidants, etc.)
Evidentiary documents are relatively straightforward. But, it is often in short supply with alleged sexual harassment. This leads to having to determine credibility that often relies on evidence provided by witnesses – and this is where most problems start.
The Easy Way Out: “I don’t want to deal with this!”
If you are a community leader or event organizer, I think dealing with this stuff is part of your job. It’s something you have undertaken to do by rising to a position of power within the dance scene. If you do not make a decision, there is almost no one with the same ability to impact the safety of the scene.
“But I don’t want to draw attention to it!”
Ignoring a problem person doesn’t stop the damage. It just drives it underground. For example, if you hire or allow a person who has allegedly done bad things to be part of your event, the impression you give is likely one of three:
- You don’t care about the impact of that person on the scene;
- You believe and support the alleged perpetrator (or have forgiven them); or,
- You lack the leadership to handle the situation.
If you are presented with information, you should make as many attempts as you can to get all the relevant information you need to make a decision. Depending on the situation, this may require more or less work. One thing that I do is reach out to a trusted network of organizers and leaders and ask if they’ve had any issues reported about that person. In the case of individuals who have a widespread complaint history across more than one scene, I work with others that I trust to also investigate issues in their communities. We then share what we have gathered.
When you are collecting information, try to put aside your gut instincts to believe or not believe certain parties. Keep an open mind that someone you may like could do bad things, and someone you don’t like may not have done something very bad.
Generally speaking, we aren’t in a very good place to assess credibility. It is a best practice to prefer documentation to credibility assessments, and where possible, use documentation to support any witness statements.
For example, if you have multiple victims or witnesses, or where there is a pattern of behaviour that lends itself reasonably to support one party over the other, you might be able to use that to help determine more likely than not what occurred. For example, if you have a victim who has made 10 different complaints of harassment against 10 different people (none of whom have any history), you may decide that it’s less likely that an event happened as recalled. In contrast, if you have 10 unrelated accounts of similar behaviour from 10 people against one alleged perpetrator, you may prefer to lean in the other direction.
I will note here that sometimes, a vulnerable person has been or can become the target of multiple incidents by different perpetrators. This does not shift the probability of what occurred automatically.
In the above situations, we have dodged having to make a finding of credibility because we are looking at context over believability. However, at some point, we will find ourselves in a situation where you have only the alleged victim and perpetrator’s accounts of what happened with no supporting information. What then?
If I have no supporting information, I tend to lean towards a conservative measure to manage the issue, whether it be a warning, advice, or agreement with the alleged perpetrator. We just are simply not in a position to decide whether someone is “truthful” in an informal dance setting.
“But we must always believe victims!”
I disagree. Instead, I believe we need focus on treating alleged victims with respect, and ensure that we appropriately manage and investigate their claim. This does not mean immediately disbelieving the person or not acknowledging their pain – but it does acknowledge that these situations need to be dealt with from a neutral position by organizers and community leaders.
While it is great to say victims will always be believed unconditionally, there are situations where there is a reasonable explanation for what occurred (despite the feelings of the victim), where there is an exaggeration of events, or even a falsification of events. Also, it is possible for a person to feel completely violated and traumatized by an event that had no ill intention. And, a lack of an ill intention may not remove the need for you to address the situation with the perpetrator.
“What about collusion?”
Collusion is only possible if there is some sort of contact between the alleged colluding parties. So, if you have a victim who has two friends who seem to have identical and highly specific recollections, collusion is possible (though generally improbable). However, if the people involved do not know each other and have not been coached to say certain things, then there it would be almost impossible to collude to bring someone down.
“What if it is truly 50/50?”
If it is really 50/50, it is usually better to state what you expect the person’s behaviour to be in the future, and advise them that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated. It could also include a discussion about potential ramifications if there are future issues with behaviour.
I would caution against doing absolutely nothing in a 50/50 tie, simply because it means that it is equally possible that the thing did or did not happen. So, it makes more sense to set very specific ground rules that you expect to be followed. This alerts the potential bad actor that future bad behaviour will not be tolerated – while still ensuring you haven’t taken a hasty action against someone.
“I need help!”
If you need help, ask for it. Other organizers are in the same boat as you. I am also able to help if you feel there’s no one else you can talk to in your own scene or genre. This stuff is really hard, both emotionally and logically. And, it’s really heavy to bear that burden.
“What if there’s nothing specific; what if they’re just creepy?”
If someone is creepy, talk to them earlier rather than later. If it was (allegedly) unintentional, help them understand what it is they are doing that is negatively impacting others. This also sets the ground work for later, because you can use this opportunity to state what your expectations are.
Remember: early intervention is one of the best ways to keep a big issue from happening. Having a chat with someone before something really bad happens, you’re in a much better position to maintain a happy, healthy scene.
After You’ve Decided
Once you have decided what you think is likely to have happened, it is up to you to determine what type of action needs to be taken. I would propose the following hierarchy:
- No Action
- Advising the perpetrator on how to improve their behaviour
- Requiring the perpetrator to reflect on what went wrong, and suggest how they will change their behaviour (in writing)
- Cautioning the perpetrator on what they did, along with potential ramifications for any future misbehaviour
- Requiring the perpetrator to sign a behavioural agreement in order to participate in an event or community, with consequences for further reported misbehaviour
- Suspending the person’s attendance when a victim is in attendance, or for a specific duration of time
- Banning the person entirely.
I decide which way to go depending on:
- The perceived risk of harm for my attendees (including the victims)
- The seriousness of the incident
- The insight of the alleged perpetrator
- My certainty as to what occurred
- Any past, similar behaviour
There are a few other considerations you need to keep in mind if the person is a professional or staff member:
- Whether you are OK with that person continuing to represent your event in a professional capacity; and/or,
- Whether you are OK with that person attending your event in any capacity.
Do it before your event!
The time to do your groundwork is not the weekend of your event. If the person shows up unannounced, it is very difficult to collect yourself and the information you need to make a decision at that moment. If there is a problematic individual, you should make your plan ahead of time – and preferably, if their attendance will be impacted, reach out to them ahead of time to avoid any weekend issues.
There is one caveat to taking action: the feelings of the victims. If a victim really is set against you using their story to pursue any action, please respect that. I’ve sat on information for months in the past – until a different individual came forward with a substantially similar complaint that the information could help inform. Even then, speaking with the original complainant before using any of the information provided to you is an important part of ensuring they feel protected and respected in coming to you with sensitive issues.
I will typically take no action on a matter where, based on assessing the information, I believe that there is:
- little to no risk of harm in the future;
- little to no actual harm in that situation; and/or,
- the information suggests that it is more likely than not that the situation did not occur/unfolded in an innocent manner.
I would stress that you should be very sure of this before deciding to take absolutely no action on a claim. If it is a he said/she said, and your opinion is hovering closer to a 50-50, you should probably consider Advice instead.
Advice is not necessarily confrontational. It acknowledges that you’re not entirely sure what happened, but lays out your expectation for how the perpetrator (and other attendees) should be behaving at your event or in the community. It is also a way to say “we don’t know what happened here, but we are paying attention in case anything happens in the future”.
For low-level issues or for issues where there is truly no way to determine what happened, this is often one of the best ways to go.
Reflection is useful when you think something poor did occur, but where you think it was a one-off issue related to judgement or misunderstandings. It is reasonable to require the person to explain to you in writing what they have learned from the situation, and how they are planning to make sure that this type of thing does not happen again. It is useful for when you are either close to a 50/50 split, or where you are pretty certain something did happen but it wasn’t that serious.
Cautioning is not the same as advice. A caution is when you are fairly certain that a behaviour has occurred, and when you need to set some ground rules and expectations specifically around the perpetrator to satisfy yourself that the victim and future attendees will be safe. Or, if it is a one-off incident, where you have serious concerns about the behaviour, but do not think the type of behaviour is likely to cause future problems.
A large part of this particular one for me is the insight of the alleged perpetrator. If they are resistant and are unable to accept responsibility for what seems to be something they did, I will be less likely the caution them. The reason why is that a lack of insight does not give me faith that the person will act appropriately in the future, and could potentially cause more harm to the alleged victim or other people.
A step above a caution is actually requiring a person to sign a behavioural agreement. This can include not interacting with certain people, rules about hotel sharing and participation, and other elements. It is voluntary on the part of the perpetrator, but can be required for them to be given access to an event or community. It gives you a pathway to remove them later if they breach the terms of the agreement.
I would use this if there was a serious issue, but you believe that the person’s behaviour can be successfully contained through such an agreement. I would not use this if I did not trust the person to abide by the terms of such an agreement.
A suspension is any time a person will not be permitted at the event under specific parameters. If there was a serious issue that was limited to one person with a low risk of recurrence, it could include barring admission whenever that particular person is in attendance.
This type of sanction should only be used if you’re quite sure of what occurred, and there was serious, real harm or a risk of serious future harm.
This is the most serious sanction we have the power to put in place as organizers or community leaders. I only use it when I believe there is a serious risk of harm, and I do not believe the person has the intention to cease or change their bad behaviour. I have only had to enforce a ban twice.
This is a power that should be used sparingly, but you should not be afraid to use it when it is called for to protect your community. I know it sucks to be that person – but the position you are in calls for you to make these decisions.
What about professional responsibilities?
If a professional has credible allegations against them, I will seriously consider whether I want them to represent my event. If I believe the allegations to be true and at least of moderate severity, I will likely reconsider having them as the face of my event for at least a year or two. The reason why is that I do have a responsibility as an organizer to show that I am committed to the safety and health of the community. That is more important than my friendship with a pro.
And, most professionals should understand that if they did mess up with a consent boundary, they need to own that mistake and all its repercussions. At that point, it’s not personal – it’s leadership.
Not hiring an artist does not mean that you have banned the artist. There may be times where you decline to have them represent your event, while not enforcing a ban against their attendance. This can be a reasonable outcome.
“What if they’ve helped me a lot or are my friend?”
If the person has done something bad, it’s not OK for them to get a free pass just because they are really helpful or supportive of you. It sends a message that you’re willing to accept that behaviour – as long as the “right” person did it. To me, you have not done your duty to the community if this is how you lead.
“What can I do if I’m not an organizer?”
For artists and attendees: you can set your own ground rules for whether you will or will not support events that work with that person.
For example, there is one individual that I will not work with at events. If they are hired, I will inform the organizer that I will not be providing any services if they are on staff at the event. If I am aware they are on staff before the weekend, I will also not attend.
The caveat is that you need to let the organizer know if you’re doing this. Otherwise, the impact is not really going to be seen. If you feel it is necessary to boycott an individual, the organizers should know. It puts them either a) in a position to learn about the issue and investigate; or b) forces them to confront the fact that their continued support and hiring of that person is impacting their tickets or artist choices.
“I complained about a perpetrator and they’re still there!”
It is very difficult to feel like you haven’t been heard and considered.
If your complaint was not the first one and nothing was done, I would say that the organizer likely needs to take more responsibility for explaining the reason behind their decision to take no action. However, if your complaint was the first, it may be that the he-said-she-said nature makes it impossible to prefer one side over the other. But, what you have done by making your concerns known is laid the groundwork for any future complaints to be better supported. You are, in essence, the first drop in the bucket – and you amplify the power of every subsequent drop.
Further, please recognize that, aside from you, the perpetrator, and any witnesses, no one truly knows what occurred in that moment. It’s almost impossible to tell whose account is accurate just from an oral relay. It does not mean the organizer thinks you’re a liar or untruthful; it simply means that there’s no discernible way to tell what is most accurate.
So, if they chose a lesser level sanction than you would like, don’t take it as a reflection that they don’t care about you or the safety of the community. Maybe this was all they could do for now in good conscience. But again, it does set the groundwork for any future issues with the same individual – even if your story alone was not enough.
If you really feel that the particular organizer missed the boat, talk to some other trusted leaders in the community. They can help look at it again, and perhaps consider an alternative (if it is warranted).
Yes, it’s difficult.
It is very hard to deal with allegations. It is emotionally taxing beyond anything else I have dealt with in dance. But, it is necessary. And, the best way to make it easier is to support each other as leaders and organizers to find the most effective and fair ways to handle these situations.
Note: my views above are not legal advice, and should not be relied upon as such.