The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance hosted an event on Tuesday to raise awareness about sexual and gender-based misconduct in the performing arts, and to explore potential solutions to the problem. The event brought in a crowd of approximately 90 community members and featured a panel, audience Q&A session and a variety of musical performances.
Panelist Kaaren Williamsen, director of the U-M Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, began the event by discussing how sexual misconduct is both a personal and community matter. She said she understands how challenging it can be to address these issues, but she advocated for creating a culture resistant to sexual assault through prevention and intervention.
“I always think about this sexual misconduct, sexual assault, sexual harassment as an issue that impacts people individually, right?” Williamsen said. “These are things that impact people personally in a traumatic way … but it’s also a community issue, and we know that. Communities are impacted when something happens. Communities are also places where we support things happening and traditions, where sometimes we don’t intervene when we see something happening because we think it’s not our problem, or we just look away because ‘that can’t be right.’”
Panelist Amy O’Neal, an activist and choreographer of Opposing Forces, a dance troupe expressing ideas around femininity and masculinity, shared a personal story of experiencing misconduct. She said at the after party of her solo dance performance, an arts newspaper critic paid an attendee $20 to pull her pants down. O’Neal said she felt vulnerable and exposed, noting the power dynamics involved.
“I think there’s this power dynamic that sometimes happens with performers and audience members and administrators that they think they know us because of the things that we show,” O’Neal said. “And in the place where I was supposed to feel safe, I don’t feel safe anymore.”
Panelist Eun Lee, founder of The Dream Unfinished, an activist orchestra, discussed her experience being inappropriately touched in a work setting. She said she was talking to donors at a fundraiser for the nonprofit she worked for when an unknown man touched her without consent. Lee said instead of finding the man immediately, she continued her discussion with the important donors. When she told her coworkers, they were supportive but also prioritized the event. No one told their boss until the next morning after the fundraising goals were met.
Lee said she often feels the goals of organizations are more important than people, and she discussed how this is something that needs to change.
“I myself wondered whether it was worth it to bring attention to what happened,” Lee said. “But what kind of culture are we creating where organizational interests are prioritized above the safety of people?”
Another audience member said he does not think there is a way to eradicate sexual predators or end this type of behavior. He said it is inherently part of human nature.
“It seems to me that sexual predation has existed for thousands of years,” he said. “It seems like sexual predation has become embedded in human nature. We can enforce zero tolerance, but are we able to actually prevent it?”
Panelist Laura Fisher, co-founder of #NotInOurHouse, an organization for victims of sexual harassment in the theater industry, disagreed with the audience member and said all people have a choice in how they act. She said claiming sexual predation is human nature is not an excuse.
“I do not think sexual predation is something to accept in the workplace, in any workplace,” Fisher said. “We know more than we used to, not only about how the body operates and how there are not two genders, how we actually can control ourselves if we would like to. I think as humans, what we have is both choice and control.”
Andrew Fyles, a Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore, told The Daily after the event that he really appreciated the open discussion the panel fostered. He said there is a lack of opportunities to talk about the recent accusations, and he thinks students can learn from hearing others’ personal experiences with sexual misconduct in the workplace.
“I just think it was cool that there was a way for people to have discussion about this because it seems to be a very big topic of discussion lately, and there doesn’t seem to be any actual discussion about it from peer to peer,” Fyles said. “I think it’s nice that Michigan has these resources and these events for people to have these conversations and for people to share their stories about how they experienced these issues.”
Fyles also said he wished the panelists discussed more solutions, as he is unsure of what action to take moving forward.
“I think it was a little bit unclear as to exactly what the solutions are, honestly,” Fyles said. “But I think it was still helpful to be able to have a discussion about it even though I’m not sure what exactly to take away from it or what to do next.”