The Inner Circle - Capoeira and Sexual Assault -- Part 1: Mo' Power, Mo' Problems

Capoeira and Sexual Assault -- Part 1: Mo' Power, Mo' Problems

A few things before we begin.  First, this is not one for underage readers.  There’s going to be a lot of talk about sex, sexual assault, and rape.  Second, I’ve reduced things down to just heterosexual men and women.  I largely ignored sexual assault and rape within/against LGBTQI folks because I have no personal experience, knowledge, or data in that area, and don’t want to pretend I can represent those issues.  Third, obviously all this stuff is complicated and, being human, I’m biased.  

Part 1 deals with how power structures and hierarchy worsen sexual assault.  Part 2 is all-male, all the time.  Machismo, masculinity.  Plus what we can do to change our rape-y landscape.

Some definitions to get us off and running, via the Oxford English Dictionary.

Sexual Assault - “The action or an act of forcing an unconsenting person to engage in sexual activity; a rape; a crime involving forced sexual contact, variously defined as inclusive or exclusive of rape.”  So all rapes are sexual assault, but not all sexual assaults are rape.

Rape - “The crime of forcing another person to have sexual intercourse with the offender against their will.”  

Hollywood, the Beginning

Let’s start in the place a lot of this stuff first went public, a land of magic and sin and dreams: Hollywood.

In 2010, Casey Affleck released a faux documentary, I’m Still Here, that followed Joaquim Phoenix’s bizarre year trying to become a successful rapper.  No one knew quite what to make of it.  Even potential film buyers couldn’t tell if it was real or fake, performance art or trash.  It featured a truckload of uncomfortable encounters between Phoenix and other celebrities, drug use, Phoenix receiving oral sex from a publicist, and (I’m not making this up) a rival musician defecating on Phoenix’s head while he slept.  The movie’s reception was, understandably, mixed.  

But among arguments over whether Affleck and Phoenix were Kaufman-ian geniuses or just hopeless weirdos, a troubling signal was lost in the noise.  Two women from the film crew sued Affleck for sexual harassment.  As Vox reports, “one of his accusers...alleged that Affleck instructed one of the crew members to flash his penis at her and routinely referred to women as ‘cows’...[he] tried to convince her to stay in a hotel room with her.”  The other woman accused him of sneaking into her bed while she was asleep.  She woke up to find him inches away, caressing her back and panting alcoholic fumes in her face.  Not much was made over the lawsuit at the time, and after an out-of-court settlement Affleck went on to direct and star in more movies.  

Now, eight years later, he’s been penciled in on the growing list of men who’ve used their positions to harass, assault, and rape women.  As the 2017 Best Actor, Affleck was scheduled to present 2018’s Best Actress but dropped out, seemingly caving to public pressure that a man accused of sexual harassment shouldn’t be the Academy Awards’s figurehead when it comes to evaluating actresses.  

It seems like we’re seeing a shift in our culture.  A few years ago, a woman speaking up about being sexually harassed could expect to be, on the whole, dismissed.  As a society we shamed these women, making them look and feel ridiculous, as if they were the ones committing a crime.  There are endless examples: a judge asking a woman why she couldn’t just keep her legs closed, a university calling a woman a liar for publicizing her rape, another university being sued for protecting a Heisman-trophy winner when he was accused of raping another student, a small but significant consensus that if a woman’s drunk she’s partly to blame for getting raped.  Ad infinitum.  

Now, things seem a little different.  Another day, another man revealed to be a harasser.  Maybe we’re realizing what some people have been saying all along: that a lot of women are subjected to a lot of unwelcome attention a lot of the time.  


The Complex Threads of Power

Look up any study or article on sexual assault and rape (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here) and you’ll find a common refrain: sexual assault is not about sex, it’s about power.  Although “power” is often used interchangeably with “control,” most of psychology defines it differently.  Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, says it’s “one’s capacity to alter another person’s condition or state of mind by providing or withholding resources—such as food, money, knowledge, and affection—or administering punishments, such as physical harm, job termination, or social ostracism.”  He points out that “this definition de-emphasizes how a person actually acts, and instead stresses the individual’s capacity to affect others.”  

Affecting others can be leveraged in myriad ways.  It can be direct, like your friend convincing you to see a crummy movie when you’d rather not, or indirect, like parents being a good example for their children.  The former is easier to resist since it’s plain; the latter is sneakier.

Moreover, power is primarily given, not taken.  The ability to affect others is, on most levels, predicated on their allowing it (let’s ignore stuff like priming/subliminal messaging since, as far as I know, the effects have been exaggerated).  Leaders maintain their position more by the currency of respect than fear.  Humans, social apes that we are, stay tuned to small changes in our communal climate.  Navigating power dynamics, reputations, and gossip comes easily to us, and generally we follow people who are socially astute.  The bullying CEO who blunders around, shouting and forgetting to pair the carrot with the stick, is mostly a myth.

So tracing the ties that bind leaders and followers together is messy.  And to make it more convoluted, power depends on context.  A pastor has a large capacity to affect others when they’re in church; less so at the movies.  A group of friends can range from egalitarian to authoritarian depending on the setting.  My younger sister usually defers to me when we’re talking about martial arts, but I defer to her when the subject shifts to, say, music, an area where she’s much more the expert.

If we view power as a gift,  then the abuse of power is more than a group failing, it’s a kind of personal betrayal.  Respecting a friend or a teacher, especially when it involves following their advice or instruction, means loaning them something precious.  Hey, I gave this to you and you messed it up.  Unfortunately, as the saying goes, power corrupts.  Keltner (he of the power definition above) writes about his research experiments where people are separated into two groups and a “condition of power” is randomly assigned to one group.  The people in that group tend “to develop empathy deficits and are less able to read others’ emotions and take others’ perspectives...they behave in an impulsive fashion---they violate the ethics of the workplace.”  These aren’t egomaniacs, just ordinary folks who’ve randomly been given influence over other, equally-ordinary people.  And this happens over and over, to the point of mundanity.  It’s common enough that Keltner calls it the “banality of power abuse.” (As an extreme example to illustrate power’s corruptive influence, some studies have found that around half of the sexual assaults on prisoners are committed by guards.)  

We’re in a position where lending out respect is dictated by a shifting, turbulent, multi-colored social dynamic.  And then, even though we tend to follow the socially intelligent among us, those very people often become less smart and empathic as they’re given more influence.  Their feet increasingly fit just one pair of shoes.

Power and Capoeira - the Double-Whammy

If you set out to design an environment where formal and informal power lines get as tangled as possible you couldn’t do much better than capoeira.  On the surface, there’s the explicit ranks and batizados (yes, some groups don’t do cords but I’d argue they still find ways to reinforce a hierarchical structure).  Using a peculiar combination of military and scholastic framesets, capoeira sends constant (usually friendly) signals to new students that there’s a totem pole, and they have a certain place on it.  Titles like professor and mestre give teachers some of the same reverence bestowed on college professors and wise old kung fu gurus.  New students catch on quickly as they hasten to fit in.  Loosely speaking, they assimilate.

Underneath all that, capoeira bills itself as a community first and foremost.  Rubbing elbows is practically required.  A tired joke among the older students is, when announcing that we’re doing a group intro class, to say, “Invite all of your friends outside of capoeira---if you have any left.”  Either all your friends join the cause, or you get new ones.  Ex- and implicitly, capoeira makes certain promises to its practitioners.  Here’s a network that can be relied on.

Part of that involves sex.  Batizados can get downright bacchanalian.  In a lot of ways, it resembles a college scene: the social ties are knit tight, the alcohol easy to find, and the sex is often casual. Being in a capoeira group isn’t much different from belonging to a fraternity, practically and ideologically.  Both share a talent for socializing and networking; both share a love of partying.  Granted, training capoeira doesn’t mean you have to go all Animal House, but it’s available and easy to find if you wish.  Hooking up is a time-honored capoeira tradition.

Unfortunately, misogyny is as well.  Defined by the good ol’ OED as, “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women,” this is a commonly-recognized feature of lots of male-dominated fields (e.g. Hollywood, where women make up about 13% of directors).  I don’t have any data to make this claim, but I think it’s intuitive: capoeira is pretty darn skewed, gender-wise.  Women are so sparse in the upper ranks you could be forgiven for thinking a Y chromosome was part of the requirement for a contra-mestre cord.  And yet, in my experience, new enrollments fall closer to a 50/50 split between men and women.  Somewhere along the way a lot of women drop out of the sport.

Here, I’m not going to waste time fielding any explanations about whether women are less good at capoeira.  Of course they’re as good.  Let’s take that as a given and move on (if you have a problem with that, please enroll in a women’s studies class or something).

Proving systemic gender prejudice is notoriously difficult (men rarely deny women professional advancement by outright saying, “If you weren’t a woman I’d give you this promotion”).  Cases of sexual discrimination often rely on aggregate numbers: we may not be able to prove one particular woman was discriminated against, but we can look at a company or a field overall to see if there are “bottlenecks” where women get forced out.  Samuel Bagenstos, a professor at the University of Michigan law school, describes it as, “You see if there are bottlenecks in the process where the demographics get skewed in one way or another, and those are the places where you say, ‘Aha, something fishy is going on here.’”  Capoeira has a clear bottleneck---somewhere around the graduado rank, I’d say, lots of women disappear.


Harder to Say No

So we have system that’s biased against women and regularly mixes formal and informal power structures.  The hierarchy bleeds into more casual settings.  In a sense, a mestre still wears his cord even at the bar.  I’ve been to a lot of batizados where, when we go out to dinner, all the instructors sit at one table and all the students spread out among themselves.  Even in a restaurant, there’s a delineation between teacher and student.  

We carry this mindset into more intense situations.  Preserve the hierarchical structure, add in alcohol, maybe a little dancing and, voilá, a Gordian knot of social interests.  There’s the surface layer of chitchat and gossip, floating on an undercurrent of sexual interest.  Different people are sniffing each other out, flirting and teasing.  Trying to suss out who’s interested.  Again, nothing about this is unusual, but capoeira’s intensely social nature acts like a magnifying glass, both sharpening and distorting the image.  The star power of the mestres, the weekend deadline, and the multi-ingredient social stew condense into an atmosphere conducive to casual sex.

It’s also conducive to sexual assault.  As anyone who studies these things will tell you, our picture of a stereotypical rapist---the man leaping out of the bushes to ravish a woman on her way home in the dark---is basically wrong.  Most rapes and assaults are done by someone the woman knows, i.e. “acquaintance rape,” (the more accurate, encompassing term that replaced “date rape”).  There’s usually preceding sexual tension on the man’s side, and alcohol’s often present.  Two people are flirting, drinking, chatting.  She’s undecided on how far things will go but she likes him; he’s feeling confident, interested, maybe even determined.  He comes on strong.  Pushy.  Maybe she’s too drunk to refuse, or too frightened, or too confused, or too ashamed, or too self-conscious.  This is not a “criminal in a dark alley” scenario.  It’s a “ordinary guy decides to take advantage of a woman in a complex social interaction” scenario (if you’re interested, there are plenty of different examples laid out as teaching tools on what consent, withdrawal of consent, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, and rape look like.  Here and here, e.g.).  Capoeira’s power lines don’t help.  “Rape takes place most often when there is social hierarchy---among men in prison, by men in marriage, by soldiers at war, by those enslaved by another group, by adults who control children, and by those preying upon people with physical or mental disabilities,” says Merrill Smith in the Encyclopedia of Rape.  Social hierarchy makes it harder for men to define consent (more on this in Part 2), and harder for women to say no.

Here, a simplistic argument against rape might say, “Well, what about consent?  What about ‘yes means yes’?”   But trying to reduce such a multi-headed hydra of a problem down to a single clear line (“did she say no or not?”) is a process born out of ignorance.    

We have a complex environment with sexual interest, alcohol, and both overt and subtle power dynamics.  Seen one way, this is the recipe for a great time.  But if the dynamic shifts toward something darker and creepier, this becomes a place where acquaintance rape is more likely to happen.  As Amanda Hess shows, writing in the Washington City Paper in an article called “On the Difficulty of Saying No”, making a clear refusal isn’t easy.  “In acquaintance rape, the power dynamic is a little bit different---you may be hanging out with someone who is bigger, stronger, and maler than you are, but you know them and you trust them.”  Everything about capoeira’s scene conspires to inflame the “knowing” and the “trusting.”  It’s simply not set up to keep men in check (again, more on this in Part 2).   

No one’s collecting data on rape within capoeira (as far as I know) but nonetheless I feel confident saying that men are raping women in capoeira.  Just like in larger society, this has been the open secret for some time.  But it’s making its way to the surface.  The women in capoeira are less and less comfortable staying silent, of accepting this patriarchal model we have, of feeling ashamed when they needn’t be.  If you’re a man in capoeira and you don’t already know, let me break the news: everyone is talking about this.  Not quite openly, but it’s there.  Social media is doing its part---in closed facebook groups stories are shared and names are named.

We’ve all allowed this to happen.  We’re all culpable.  Time to start fixing it.


Hollywood, the Ending

If there’s a fulcrum for our recent cultural shift on sexual assault and rape allegations, it’s probably Harvey Weinstein.  He’s an example of both personal and systemic failure.  As slimy as he is, Hollywood was set up for him to succeed.  He harassed and assaulted multiple women for years with impunity not only due to his own degeneracy but also because the industry valued his work more than it cared about these women’s welfare and career prospects.  Logistically, Weinstein’s unmasking took more than a dozen women publicizing their stories.  But it also required something more radical: an audience willing to believe them, and willing to investigate.  Who knows how many hundreds of women have been abused by men in privileged, powerful positions and then subsequently dismissed?  Now, I hope, that blanket policy of dismissal is being overwritten.

Casey Affleck’s example spans the BW (Before Weinstein) and AW eras nicely.  Allegedly, some sexual harassment and assault was helped along by shooting an oddball documentary whose main narrative draw is the way it distorts the expectations for normal, respectful behavior. BW, not much reported.  Now, like many other famous men, it’s an essential addendum to Affleck’s career.  These men are professionally talented, but they come with something rotten.  Without that rot, imagine how many equally-talented women might otherwise be working, contributing, influencing.

Capoeira isn’t Hollywood, but I’d say they’re neighbors.  Weinstein controlled careers and leveraged that to commit sexual assault.  Mestres and other formados usually can’t overtly keep a woman from advancing, but they can sabotage her in other, subtler ways.

One of the most important things capoeira has given me is a sense of self.  It gave me friends, peers, and idols, even.  The community I’ve found has shaped me indelibly.  Unfortunately, this is exactly what can get sacrificed when one capoeirista rapes another.  As important as careers and financial prospects are, I think that holding a community hostage is the graver sin.  If we allow rape to continue, we’re allowing rapists to dictate a part of how women connect to the capoeira community.  We’re betraying our most sacred value: capoeira resists oppression through a strong, supportive community.  

If we don’t recognize that capoeira’s complicated power structure encourages acquaintance rape, we’ll continue to lose women who could be strengthening and contributing to the art.  And we’ll continue to keep the worst of us---the harassers, the assaulters, the rapists---protected, venerated, ranking.  This ugly capoeira, this violent, hateful scar on a changeable-beautiful-mercurial face, disgraces all of us.  It squeezes the air out of the game, vacuums the warmth from capoeira’s corpus.  A body scooped of organs and compassion and vibrancy.

Is that who we are?  Men and women willing to tolerate this kind of behavior?  Willing to let the socially predatorial hold some of the available mestre cords and, thus, dictate how this art develops?

I sincerely hope not.  Time to storm the Bastille.   

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  • My User Image

    Great article, Varal. I think sexual impropriety in Capoeira is very much present in all groups. The debauchery and moral shallowness of many Capoeiristas is disheartening and, I think, is the grease on the slippery slopes to rape and assault. The question is not what are we going to do about it, but rather, what am I going to do about it? Is it a problem that leaders will take action against, or just look the other way?

    3/2/2018 1:40:28 PM
  • My User Image

    I Does power corrupt? Phillip Zimbardo was a social psychologist famous for the Stanford Prison Experiments. He theorized that deindividualization causes desensitization which leads to abuse and corruption. Groups deindividualize through social pressure to conform by encouraging like behavior and a group think mentality. Can a capoeira group be a catalyst to desensitize its students to the point where sexual assault occurs? yes. When the pressure to conform is fueled by out of control egos, alcohol and drug use, and certain social disorders then the group can become a party to assault and abuse within the group. When things go awry its not always power that corrupted the group, it might be choices made in the leadership.

    3/2/2018 5:06:28 PM
  • My User Image

    Rei, I agree that the best question is "what can I do about this?" I have some on that coming in Part 2. Thanks for reading, and for the insightful comments guys.

    3/5/2018 12:18:12 PM