the ethics of a compelling violence prevention talk

The semester has begun, and with it the long series of talks I give to groups of students about topics from alcohol to sleep to relational aggression to sexual assault.

I’m good at this part of my job, the public speaking part. But man, what I do must seem slightly insane to people who don’t know why I’m doing it the way I do.

I use music and dance to entrain (PDF) students, particularly when the topic is difficult, like sexual assault.

Imagine it: here I am, on a stage in front of 350 students at the very start of my talk, dancing to this song:

The beat is simple. The dance is simple. It’s just a series of bounces:

Left 2, 3, 4,
Right, 2, 3, 4
Left 2, 3, 4,
Right, 2, 3, 4
Left 2
Right 2
Left 2,
Right 2
Left Right Left Right Left Right Left Right

Repeat. For three minutes.

Students, meanwhile are sort of half paying attention, because I’ve done nothing to announce or indicate that what I’m doing has anything to do with why they’re there (which is to learn how to be an active bystander to prevent sexual violence). That’s good. Their attention is pulled gradually toward me, as the rhythm of the music in the air around them lines up with the rhythm of my movements. These begin influence the rhythms of their bodies. But I must look crazy to anyone who doesn’t know what this is about.

Then this song starts:

“We’ll start in 3 minutes,” I say into the microphone. And I sway. And I think about three students who’ve died since I came to this school. I say their names to myself, and with every chorus of the song, I wave my arms over my head while I sway.

Remember they have no idea why I’m doing any of this. I haven’t said, “Entrain to me.” I’m just on the stage, familiar, friendly, feeling my feelings, in rhythm.

Then the talk starts with a careful, thorough trigger warning, requesting sincerely that students take care of themselves – step outside or tune out or fall asleep or whatever they need to do in order to stay safe.

And then I say, “I’m going to let Beyonce set the mood. Last year on World Humanitarian Day, she went to the United Nations and sang a song called, ‘I Was Here’.”

And I show this video:

See, Beyonce does it too. She brings you into her rhythm. Christ almighty is she good at it.

So we’re 15 minutes into the talk, and I’ve given the no content. All of this has been to shift their physiology, tune their bodies and brains to the rhythms of mine. Put them in a receptive state. When I begin talking, I start with two stories from my first year in college, both of which put me sincerely on the edge of tears, explaining to them – no, SHOWING them – the personal meaning this work has for me.

“I’m here,” I say, meaning “here” in the cosmic sense, “To teach women to live with confidence and joy inside their bodies, to teach them to lead with confidence and joy inside their bodies.” I say it with confidence and joy inside my body.

20 minutes into a 60 minute session, and still no substantive content, just connection. Only then do I start teaching content.

I can’t know for sure that it worked, but I think it did. I felt them in the room with me, tuned in the whole time. Attentive. Not rolling their eyes, not looking at their phones for the time. Not just polite, but PRESENT.

Not every single person, but a lot.

Several students did take care of themselves by stepping out, which I consider a good sign. It’s not possible to talk frankly about sexual violence without triggering some survivors in a group that large, and the fact that they left shows me that they felt empowered to take care of themselves.

But I spent fully a third of the talk tuning their bodies and minds to mine. It’s basically a form of hypnosis.

It must look crazy to people who don’t know what all this is about, but I’m not worried about those folks. I’m worried about the survivors and co-survivors in the room who wanted to leave, but whose bodies and minds were entrained so deeply they felt they couldn’t leave. It’s like a magnetic force, entrainment. It pulls you in a direction, even if that direction is not the one your body would go, left to its own devices.

One of my key messages in the talk was, “Listen to your own gut, your own heart, your own body. You can always trust it, it will always tell you the truth. You might need to go somewhere quiet and still in order to hear what it’s saying to you, but you can always trust it.”

And am I a hypocrite? When my key message is “listen to your intuition,” but my key strategy for communicating that message is to align their intuition with mine? To tell them to trust their hearts, when I had deliberately attempted to make their heart beat to the rhythm I chose?

Is it fair to use these kinds of tools in order to communicate a message like this? A message of such fundamental importance, but also such sensitivity?

I have to believe it is.