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How Hard is it to Ask?

1 in 4 women have experienced sexual assault to some degree in their lives. This is not to suggest that every 4th woman that you meet has been violently raped at knifepoint - but, statistically, you probably do know someone who has. Just because someone hasn't had a knife to their throat doesn't discount an experience of sexual assault or abuse. Not at the same rate, but men are victims of sexual abuse/assault as well. This is something that always sits in the back of my head when I, a large man, am working with students. Diving is not an elegant sport, you see? As soon as your mask comes off it exposes the fact that your entire face is covered in snot. Divers tend to be perfectly honest about how they piss all over themselves when you’re wearing a wetsuit. There is - shall we say - an intimacy to diving, even among strangers. As a dive professional one is in the position, with a general expectation by all, to poke and prod and yank and guide and tighten and loosen equipment and generally manhandle people. There are classes, like DPV, where there are skills where you hold onto someone’s crotch-strap right between their legs. As an instructor working with someone to get their gear, especially something extra fussy, like a sidemount harness, configured there is a great deal of poking and prodding and tugging on this bungee to try to get just the right tension, and taking up an extra centimetre of material here or there. I’m often putting my hands in places that would get a motherfucker arrested in other circumstances or suggest the context of at least a second or third date. To that end: I always start such a class with the question of whether people are extra protective of their personal space. I am always very clear, beforehand, about where my hands are going to be and why. Before a dive when I may be making adjustments I try to explain, “All you need to do is tell me stop and the adjustments are done then and there,” to make sure people know they have an “escape hatch” if they feel vulnerable for whatever reason. On the surface, when I can, if I am going to be working anywhere near… you know… no-no zones I say what I would like to do and ask if that is OK? I bring up my own reluctance to have my personal space imposed upon. I don’t like to be touched, generally. Not what you would call a hugger. I use that as the foundation for the explanation that any contact that makes you uncomfortable ends. I figure using my own eccentricity as the model is a hell of a lot less imposing than “Do you have a history of abuse that makes strangers touching you emotionally and/or physically painful?" “Is it OK if I tug on your butt-d-ring?” seems like very little effort to ensure a student’s comfort. And that’s my job: to help people build the skills and confidence to do what they want to as divers, to ensure their safety and their perception of safety above and below the water. It is not my job to cop a feel and ruin someone’s experience with diving and dive instructors forever. “Does anyone ever say no?” asked a student once, laughingly. No. I admitted. No one ever has. But they might. And I always want to make sure that I’ve established a relationship where they feel safe in the knowledge that if they ask me to stop tinkering with whatever I’m tinkering with, I will. Right away. No questions asked. That feels important to me. I can not even imagine feeling that vulnerable, with that difference in the power dynamic of student and teacher, feeling taken advantage of in some way, feeling you need to push through something that hard and/or triggering because you think you are supposed to, or ignored or unheard when you want to cry out. Can’t hardly imagine that would be a terribly enjoyable class, nor do much for a person’s enthusiasm for the sport. I’ve known dive instructors over the years who feel like a little leer or a little grope, their eyes or their fingers always lingering a little too long, from time to time is one of the perks of the job. I’ve heard DMs bragging about it. I’ve heard people who were just trying to enjoy their vacation complaining about it. I’ve heard shop owners bury it; just as often as not it was the shop owner what done it. I can’t stress this enough: Fuck those people. (Incidentally, if it’s someone you suspect I know even passingly now… no. I do not currently know any douchebag who thinks that way. Thank god.) As I was talking to the student who had asked whether anyone had ever preferred that I not touch them another instructor happened by. A widely experienced and deservedly well-respected instructor and instructor-trainer; a woman. I asked her into the conversation of consent and whether she always asked. After a brief pause to think about it she explained, “No. I don’t ask. I tell people there will be groping as a warning, but I don’t really ask. But I’m a girl.” After a bit more we agreed that they dynamic for a female instructor vs. a male one - for better or worse - is different. She agreed that for an instructor class she would, indeed, explain to her instructor candidates that asking is best-practice anyway. I like being in an area where the level of professionalism is as high as it generally is; working around so many people who think carefully about these sorts of things. It’s a hell of a relief over being in the sort of area where a woman showing up for a DSD in a bikini sets the whole crew atwitter with who is going to get to hold onto her BCD’s shoulder strap for the whole dive.

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