On Steven Mitchell ... / by Jeff Leyco

The Facts

  • On January 22, 2015, Lindy hopper Sarah Sullivan posted an account of sexually abusive experiences with Steven Mitchell when she was a teenager.
  • The same day, Steven Mitchell commented with a confirmation of Sarah's story and an apology. The same or similar text was posted as a comment in many Facebook posts as well. 
  • Since then, several more women have come forward with similar stories ranging from unwanted contact to outright rape and assault. 
  • Allison Cordner, one of the women assaulted by Steven, posted a video account of her experiences. She has since taken it down for professional reasons, but Zack Richard has reuploaded it with permission.
  • Many international teaching professionals have posted their support for Sarah on Facebook and condemned Steven's actions, including Naomi Uyama, Mike Faltesek, Peter Strom, Bobby White, and Michael Seguin. Sarah Breck also posted with her promises to help the community move forward. Bobby White has further comment at his blog, Swungover. Zack Richard breaks it down in French at JazzMonkey. And here's another resource in Spanish, written by a Lindy hopper in Argentina. 
  • Virginie Jensen posted on Facebook that she was not aware of what was going on and, as of the current moment, she and Steven Mitchell are no longer dance partners.
  • Several prominent Lindy hop events have disinvited Steven Mitchell from attending.
  • Bees' Knees has adopted a Safe Spaces policy, and Pomona Lake has created a tumblr resource for Safe Spaces as well, for people to reach out to.
  • Jerry Almonte at Wandering & Pondering is doing an excellent job of centralizing a lot of information on the situation. I'd recommend reading his Facebook page to keep updated.

Let's get the terminology down, first.

Sarah Sullivan's original post acknowledges there are nuances in various forms of sexual violence, and that her experience is very specific:

I have been hesitant to use the term “sexual assault” because it can mean anything from an unwanted butt-grab to violent rape (I’m not discounting the severity of unwanted butt grabs, I’m pointing out the broad meaning of “sexual assault”). Let me be clear. Steven didn’t rape me, and we didn’t have sex. He wasn’t physically violent .... He did have sexual contact with me when I was not sober or mature enough to consent. He manipulated me and abused his power as an authority figure, mentor, and adult.

From the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sexual violence (SV) is

any sexual act that is perpetrated against someone's will. SV encompasses a range of offenses, including a completed nonconsensual sex act (i.e., rape), an attempted nonconsensual sex act, abusive sexual contact (i.e., unwanted touching), and non-contact sexual abuse (e.g., threatened sexual violence, exhibitionism, verbal sexual harassment) .... All types involve victims who do not consent, or who are unable to consent or refuse to allow the act.

Sarah's story, as well as the stories from the other survivors, are consistent with the CDC's definitions definitions of sexual violence.

Why did it take so long for the survivors to come forth?

According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes. Citing statistics from the Dept. of Justice and the FBI, RAINN claims that 68% of sexual assaults are left unreported, and that even when a crime is reported to police, arrests and prosecutions are still unlikely. 

RAINN also reports that many survivors don't report their assault because they believe it to be a personal matter, that they fear reprisal, or that they don't believe they will be taken seriously. The matter is further complicated when survivors are younger, and/or when they believe they were doing something they shouldn't have been doing at the time (such as drinking or doing drugs).

Sarah's reasons for not speaking out sooner echoes these reasons:

I thought it was my fault, that I was making a big deal of nothing, that others would blame me, that I would be shunned for speaking up against someone that so many people adored; that my parents/people I babysat for/event organizers would be blamed. I didn’t want to see myself as a victim.

How have others reacted?

The comment thread in Sarah's original post is over 350 entries long at the moment. There is additional discussion on Reddit's /r/SwingDancing community, and countless Facebook posts on it. 

Most posts that I've seen have been an outpouring of support for the survivors, with many others sharing their experiences of sexual assault and rape.

Other commenters have doubted the authenticity of these women's stories, or argue that what happened cannot legally be construed as "rape" or "nonconsensual." 

This is the internet. People have opinions.

What happens to Steven Mitchell now?

Steven Mitchell has not denied the allegations and has, in fact, confirmed at least Sarah's story:

I feel so terrible that I made Sarah feel this way.

At that time, I had strong feelings for her (whether right or wrong given her age).
We did have those conversations and alcohol was involved.

I don’t want people to think that this is something I do at all, and by no means am I a predator.
This is something that happened and now I feel really, really bad about it.
I most definitely should have used better judgement.

I wish Sarah and I could have talked.
After reading the blog, i understand why it was not possible for her to do so.

I apologize to Sarah.
As you all know she is a very special person and I apologize for hurting her.

I apologize to the dance community, and I apologize if I have let you down.

Steven

As mentioned above, the same or similar text was posted across Facebook in comments as well. Many users have deleted the apology. Others have picked it apart as a non-apology or as unaware of the severity of his own actions.

Mr. Mitchell has also expressed a willingness to "get help" for the problem, but this was stated in a Facebook comment that has since been deleted. 

Several professional instructors have come forth condemning Mr. Mitchell for his actions and, putting it mildly, stating an unwillingness to work with him in the future. Many events have already removed his presence from attendance, either quietly or publicly. 

Again citing RAINN, the survivors are not legally obligated to report the assaults. Many states do not have a statute of limitations on when you can report sexual violence, though some have very short or very specific time frames (Mississippi is 2 years, while South Dakota allows 7 years or when the survivor turns 25, whichever is longer). 

It's unclear if any legal action will be taken against him, or if the survivors even want to pursue this route, but it appears that he will be excluded from the Lindy hop community at large for the foreseeable future.

What happens next?

If you are a survivor, or know a survivor, of sexual violence, there are many resources available for help:

Many venues and events have created (or have already implemented) a safe spaces policy, including: 

More venues are likely to come as the discussion on this widens.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is talk about this and spread awareness. This sort of behavior shouldn't be tolerated, no matter how famous the person is, no matter how good a dancer they are, no matter how popular they are in the community. 

I don't know where we go from here. I'm sad for what's happened, and what's been allowed to happen for so long, but I am optimistic that this conversation will lead to a better, brighter future. Sarah, Allison, Heidi, Clara, and everyone else who has survived this sort of behavior--you have my fullest support in these times. 

EDIT (1/27 10:47 AM): A recent post on Facebook led me to update the language in this article--particularly, changing the word "victim" to "survivor." The original post is not set to public, so I did some Googling and found this article from Open Democracy as an excellent explanation

Describing women as survivors rather than victims was to emphasise the positive, the heroic; it was a triumph of hope over despair, of the future opening up rather than closing down. Partly it was also a question of accuracy: many women who had faced the most appalling levels of violence had escaped, survived and gone on to build a life for themselves. Partly it was a question of jettisoning all the negative connotations that had attached themselves to the concept of victim: ‘helpless’ and ‘passive’ particularly grated on feminists when our political project was all about the fight back.

EDIT (1/27 5:33 PM): Probably the last edit I'll do on the article. I've added another resource that survivors can reach out to--the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Also corrected some grammar stuff because I'm like that.

EDIT (2/1 10:49 AM): Everyone that has gotten in touch with me is amazing. I've updated the post slightly to include Allison's reason for removing her original video (it's since been re-uploaded by Zack Richard, with permission). I've also added a resource for Spanish-speaking readers who are interested in understanding what's happening. Please refer to my other article, On Safe Spaces, for additional information!