Contact, Sex and Politics

1. Experiences of sensuality and sexuality in contact improvisation

How people create, interpret and name the emotions, feelings and moods they experience while doing contact will obviously differ according to their upbringing and life experiences.

I think there is a wide diversity in how people have learned to sense their bodies and feel their feelings. What follows is not meant as a comprehensive explanation of who feels what, but rather as suggestions for further thought and discussion. It’s premised on the idea that humans do not have a hardwired set of basic emotions, but that emotions are to a large degree socially constructed.

My impression is that many people who have been socialised as boys / men will tend to interpret, or construct, feelings arising in situations of physical intimacy in contact improvisation as sexual more often than people socialised as women. I assume this is because they have grown up with a different set of injunctions, and not under the threat of the same sanctions.

And because, at a different, but connected level, their subjectivity has been constructed in a way that privileges an ‘active’, maybe even ‘possessive’, or at least ‘entitled’, relationship to the world.

I propose the idea that when, in some situations, people socialised as girls / women define / perceive what they feel in contact improvisation as ‘sensual but not sexual’ they do this against the backdrop of the objective drawbacks and dangers associated with expressing sexual desire as a woman in a sexist / patriarchal society, such as having to deal with unwanted sexual advances and slut-shaming.

And I think there must of course be a relation between the way ‘feminine subjectivity’ is constructed (in diverse ways in different classes and cultures, and differently and with more or less ‘success’ in different familial settings) and what people who have been socialised in this way experience in contact improvisation. This could show up as dissonance between a learned self-image of what it is to be a girl / woman and feelings such as rage or ‘active’ sexual desire.

2. Emotions and the practice of contact improvisation

Contact improvisation, a physical, mostly non-verbal and, one could maybe say, in some ways quite abstract, movement practice, does not include emotionally expressive language or gesture – and I am in no way suggesting it should.

What I do want to suggest, though, is that, in fact, learning certain modes of ‘holding’ and managing emotional states, feelings and moods, as well as certain ways of using ‘emotional energy’ to produce movement (rather than, for example, emotionally expressive language) is implicit in the study of contact improvisation, although this kind of skill-building is almost never explicitly addressed.

When confronted with the question sometimes posed by beginners (or experienced practitioners!) of ‘what to do with one’s feelings’ in contact improvisation, many teachers and experienced practitioners will counsel shifting one’s focus from the emotional to the physical, away from the personal – and towards space, the relationship to the ground, mass in motion, alignment…

I agree that it is necessary to train one’s capacity to shift one’s focus, but I also consider this advice insufficient.

I think it often implies the idea that to be able to do contact improvisation skilfully, respectfully and sensitively, one has to necessarily empty oneself of feeling, turn away from emotion and towards sensation, or, as some would have it, from ‘chemistry’ to ‘physics’.

I propose on the contrary that it is absolutely possible to be inhabited by an emotion, such as sadness, sexual excitement or anger, yet have good physical listening, be respectful and sensitive, precise and completely unimpaired in the use of all one’s physical skills.

This is not only possible but, I would say, it can be a valuable and deep human experience. To be able to have this experience, though, we need skills. We have to actually practice recognising, containing, transforming and expressing affect while engaged in the physical dialogue, or multilogue, of contact improvisation.

3. Conceptualising sexuality

I propose that we have to understand sexuality in at least two ways, in a simultaneous and interconnected fashion. I call them the ‘life energy aspect’ and the ‘medium of oppression aspect’.

I believe it’s possible to acknowledge the fundamental and crucial fact that sexuality is a medium of violence and oppression, while at the same time celebrating sexual joy and demanding sexual freedom.

I don’t believe it is possible, or even necessarily desirable, to create one kind of contact improvisation practice space in which everyone’s needs for safety and freedom regarding contact improvisation and the presence or absence of sexuality (whatever that may mean for different people) will be fully met.

But I do believe it is possible to create bridges of understanding between groups of people with quite different backgrounds, wishes and needs. And I think it is possible to create clearly defined movement spaces in which different people can safely have exactly the kind of physical and emotional experiences they wish to have, and be challenged more or less to the degree they are able and willing to handle.

4. Sexuality in contact improvisation – what is the problem?

As should be obvious from what I wrote above about emotions and contact improvisation in general, I do not subscribe to the notion that the presence of sexual feelings, or any other feelings, necessarily detracts from the quality of the dancing. The opposite may well sometimes be the case.

I tend toward the view that the mere fact that some people in a contact improvisation jam or workshop feel they have ‘energy’ or feelings flowing through them that they define as sexual should not necessarily be (seen as) a problem. The issue should be how people construct their feelings, what they do with them, how they manifest them.

That said, we need to realise that women being obliged, in one way or another, to witness, be in the presence of, deal with, often submit to… men’s sexual desire (in the context of a society that tends to erase the dignity, autonomy, importance, sometimes even existence, of women’s sexual desire) is a central element of patriarchal oppression.

So I acknowledge that, for some people at least, the ‘mere’ knowledge that other people have (entertain, cultivate, hold…) sexual feelings, albeit unexpressed, is a problem. The need for a space where people, in a sense, don’t have to deal with the issue of sexuality in contact improvisation at all is, of course, completely legitimate.

Yet many would insist, and I sympathise with this position, that the right to feel whatever one is feeling, as long as one leaves others alone with it, is also legitimate.

But is it really always possible to draw a clear line between ‘holding’ and ‘expressing’ affect, ‘being in the presence of something’ and ‘having something imposed on me’?

As stated above, I don’t think it’s possible to create a space where everyone’s needs will be fully met and where everyone will feel safe. Compromises will have to be made, and / or separate spaces organised.

Having said all this, I think it’s important to underline that the issue is not the joyful, “life energy” aspect of sexuality. As far as I can tell, nobody actually says that, but, in the heat of the argument, we lose sight of this fact at times.

The problem is the disrespect, the objectification, the violation, the humiliation… that are the hallmarks of sexuality in a society structured by gender, class, racial (and many other) hierarchies.

I support the ‘mainstream contact improvisation’ norm of the contact improvisation space as a, in some sense, officially desexualised space where the focus is on the movement practice. In most contact improvisation contexts some extraneous affectionate touch (hugging, stroking and such) is seen as legitimate, as long as it is clearly consensual. But most practitioners will draw the line at kissing, and most would agree that more explicitly sexual forms of physical contact (whatever that is supposed to mean exactly) have no place in the contact space.

I support this norm not because I personally have a problem with people combining sexual touch with contact, if they so desire, but because I want contact improvisation spaces to remain relatively open and accessible, and actually become more inclusive, not less. I want people for whom the presence of practices marked as ‘sexual’ in the contact space would be confusing, frightening, ‘triggering’ or even re-traumatising, to feel as safe and welcome as possible.

5. Contact improvisation and sexual liberation

I have always believed there is an indirect but nonetheless important and strong connection between contact improvisation and sexual liberation. When I say sexual liberation I mean, among other things, the sexual liberation of women, of girls, of old people, of people ‘with disabilities’, of the fat and of the ‘not-good-looking’… But I also mean liberation from ideas of a natural and normal sexuality. Sexual liberation must include the depathologisation and recognition of asexuality and the subversion of many norms relating to pleasure and the body.

While I am painfully aware that contact improvisation has, on the whole, failed to provide a ‘safe container’ for women and non-binary people (as well as many other groups), I have also heard from some women friends about how liberating it was for them to discover a form where so many kinds of movement and touch were ‘less unsafe’ than ‘outside’ – because what happened in the contact improvisation space was, at least officially and in terms of explicit norms, somewhat decoupled from the dynamics of patriarchal heterosexuality.

Some of my interlocutors on this topic also spoke of how the experience of a different kind of physical communication in contact improvisation fundamentally changed their sexual relationships.

In an apparently paradoxical way, this desexualising form ‘contact improvisation’ has often been able to question sexuality without naming it, and had the power to change how people live their sexuality without sexuality ever explicitly becoming a topic in contact improvisation.

I would say it is exactly the stripping away of conventional social meanings, including sexual meanings, from touch, which contact improvisation performs, that makes it an implicit critique of mainstream sexuality.

I would also say it can be an excellent starting point for embarking on further explorations into deconstructing sexuality, questioning gender, healing trauma, confronting fears and inventing strange new pleasures.

Daniel Mang 2021-08-22