Shift Network

#MeToo Dialogues with Tonya Pinkins

One of the most traumatizing experiences is to feel retraumatized by not being able to speak. It makes a woman totally defenseless, has her avoid situations where she could find herself in that spot, limits her range of play, limits her range of experimentation, and further limits her speaking.
— Kasia Urbaniak

This interview was part of The #MeToo Dialogues, an online event featuring host — acclaimed actress, author, rape counselor, and educator Tonya Pinkins™ — talking openly and intimately with more than 30 women and men — including Tarana Burke, Eve Ensler, Alicia Garza, Rosanna Arquette, Marisa Tomei, Michael Beckwith, MJ Rodriguez, and more — who share their powerful stories of healing, brave acts of breaking silence, and what’s next for the #MeToo movement. For more information, please visit This recording is a copyright of The Shift Network. All rights reserved.

Tonya: There's so many things I want to talk to you about. You were the first person who, when I mentioned that I freeze, too, that you understood what that was. How did you know about freeze?

Kasia: When the Harvey Weinstein story broke, we were in the middle of teaching a class specifically on space invasion, when a man invades your space, manterrupting, mansplaining. All of the moments where a woman feels very aggressive or put on the spot. What became really evident in the classes and working with students on a case by case basis, working with their bodies, their modes of expression, the ways they respond, it became really, really clear that there were two very different things happening. One was, a woman in a situation she doesn't want to be in, but she chooses not to speak. She chooses, she makes a choice. "Right now I'm not saying anything." She feels like there's a lot at stake, wants a chance to step away from the situation and assess, doesn't know how to play it out, and that choice is not only her choice. It can be very empowering.

There's another thing that I watched happen over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again, which is she'd know what she wants to say, even if it was just, "No, I don't like this. Stop." Her entire body would start shutting down, she'd lose access to language, and she'd freeze. She wouldn't be able to think. There'd be 1,000 thoughts and sentences in her head, circularly, rapid. Wouldn't be able to catch a single one to phrase it.

The choice not to speak and the choiceless silence, that distinction is so critical, and it's been something that I felt really passionate about speaking to people about. When men ask the question, or people ask the question, "Why didn't she speak up earlier?" Yes, there are consequences, but my question is, "Why didn't she speak up in the moment?" As a human woman in this world, I experienced what I call a freeze 100,000 times in my life.

One of the ways that it usually ends playing out is I freeze and then later I beat myself up for freezing. "Why didn't I say something? Why didn't I say something? Why didn't I say something? Why didn't I say something? Why didn't I say something? Why did I miss the moment? I'm going to say something now. Five, four, three, two... Okay, wait. No. Ah!"

As I watched the students, I saw this experience being so common and universal. We would do role plays in front of the classroom. I'd watch their bodies freeze. We're not playing pretend. We're not playing pretend, this isn't a real man in your life. This isn't a real situation. Even then they could get triggered into totally shutting down, losing access to language, losing agency. We began to very, very, very aggressively fine tune the tools we already had to flip the power dynamic, to make them very specific for those moments where a woman can't speak. Can't. Just can't.

Tonya: Yeah, I'm really curious about that, because for me, it's literally like I'm up in the air watching myself talking, and the person who's with me would clearly think that I am present and engaged with them, and I am not there. It's like a Stepford something has taken over.

Kasia: Yeah, and in that moment, it becomes really complicated, because if that moment isn't addressed, what the other person is seeing might legitimately be interpreted as consent. We have this big consent conversation going on. This big consent conversation doesn't address the moments where people shut down and can't speak. The complexity of it grows when you have an entire culture of men or people in positions of power who have been getting feedback that looks like consent. The thing is that humans are social animals. We are social animals. You give us a list of rules to follow, and behaviors to apply to our lives, it takes a tremendous amount of discipline to catch ourselves in the moment doing something that's a violation, especially if we already have the running habit of being a certain way, having a certain attitude, and doing certain things.

The best way for a human being to learn something is feedback in the moment. If you step on something hot and it burns, ouch, you learn that thing is hot. If you overstep a boundary and somebody else goes, "Ouch," you go, "Oh, that hurt that person. Now if I continue, I'm hurting them." If the feedback isn't there, the education is weak. The social education, the way human beings learn best, is absent.

My current mission is getting women to break out of the freeze and speak in the moment, not just speaking later. Speaking any time, about boundary violations and sexual assault is so, so, so, so important. There's also this entire realm of human behavior that is not necessarily such an aggressive, intentional, evil form of perpetrator behavior. There's a whole spectrum that's traumatizing women anyway, and one of the most traumatizing experiences is to feel retraumatized by not being able to speak. It makes a woman totally defenseless, has her avoid situations where she could find herself in that spot, limits her rage of play, limits her range of experimentation, and further limits her speaking.

This one critical moment where a woman's put on the spot... In the school, the primary focus is studying power dynamics, and when a woman's put on the spot, she's in the submissive position. The name of the game in that moment is to get her into a dominant position where she's controlling the narrative and controlling the conversation, even if only for a moment. When a woman's frozen, you could say her attention is stuck inside herself, her instruction is stuck inside herself, her agency is stuck inside herself. She's talking to herself about what she should do.

To move in a power dynamic from a submissive place to a dominant place requires putting your attention on the other person, your instruction on the other person, with enough pressure so they retreat, and even if for a moment, put attention on themselves. With this lessening of pressure, when a person in that position on the spot can put the other person on the spot, even if it's for a moment, by asking a question about where they're coming from, or their shirt, it doesn't even matter. As long as it switches where the attention is. On an animal level, hierarchies are built on networks of attention. How people lead and what people are paying attention to. We're animals, right?

In that moment, when she's able to switch the power dynamic, even for a moment, her freeze is broken. In really simple terms, there are people who work on helping people break out of this freeze by naming things in the room. This is much more powerful. Your attention goes out, you find language to things outside yourself. In a relational dynamic, where this is happening because another person is triggering you, to call attention to them, even in the most delicate and subtle way, so long as it draws their attention to themselves, even for a moment, you regain your ability to think, speak, and act.

Sometimes saying something like, "Why are you asking me that right now?" Is enough to have a woman gain enough agency to leave the room. If you're frozen, leaving the room is oftentimes not even an option.

Tonya: That's true. For me, my predator is not aggressive. I mean, anytime anyone meets me with aggression, I'm going to meet them with aggression. My predator is very gentle, very caring about me... everything they're doing is about my self interest. They want to help me.

Kasia: Right. All of their attention's on you. All of their attention's on you, and how lovely you are, and your needs. It's still all attention on you. It doesn't matter if it's negative or positive.

Kasia: In the language of the school, dominant attention is neutral. It's not even more powerful to be dominant, or better, or worse. It's not more powerful to be submissive, or better, or worse. They can contain anything, but who's leading and who's following is the deciding factor. "Tonya, I see how much you work, and I see all of the things that you need. You are so lovely and so wonderful. You really need to trust me here as I blank, blank, blank, blank, make you do this. Do this to you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you." It's still a dominant and submissive power dynamic.

Tonya: I want to get this clear for people, because when I was listening to you talk about it, it resonated with me. I know what happens to me sometimes is that I'll find myself blabbering, blabbering, blabbering, blabbering, and the conversation is, why are you talking, why are you talking? You talked about that, that when people put their attention on you, that is a triggering thing and puts you in this submissive place where they can have their way, manipulate you. Can you explain that dynamic more?

Kasia: Well, it goes both ways, right? It's also really beautiful to be in a surrendered and submissive place where you're telling your story, and you're being transparent, and you're exposing yourself, and you're being vulnerable, and you're speaking truth about your experience, your attention's on yourself, and you're feeling yourself moment by moment. It can be an incredibly powerful and beautiful thing. It's when somebody else is leading you in a direction you don't want to go that it becomes necessary to flip the dynamic.

A really simply metaphor here is conversation. You and I are having a conversation. We're looking at each other through a screen, and I'm looking at you, you're looking at me. Generally, in a conversation that works phenomenally, the power dynamic is not only equal, it's fluid. What I mean by that, is when I speak, if I'm good with dominant attention, I am speaking and watching to see if you're following me. I'm watching your body language, I'm seeing if the words are sinking in.

My attention and my instruction are out on you. If you're reciprocating, right? If you're on the other side of the power dynamic, just while I'm speaking, you're surrendered. You're feeling, and listening, and trying to gage inside of you if the words are landing. "Do I understand? What does this mean to me?" Until something interesting gets triggered and you want to say something, so you want to say something, you say something. You ask me a question. You put your attention on me. Now when you're speaking, you're paying attention to me to see if I'm getting it. I'm sitting here as the person in the submissive state of attention. "Do I understand the question? What is this making me think about?" My attention's on myself.

In a beautiful, rich, dynamic, enlightening conversation, someone's always the dom, someone's always the sub, and they're constantly switching in accordance with the need that the conversation presents. In accordance with the dynamic. It's when things get blocked, when a dom stops paying attention to their sub. Somebody speaking, somebody stroking, caressing, somebody proposing something, stops being able to see the signs in the other that the person's uncomfortable, checking out, experiencing resistance. If a dom has their attention on themselves, but their instruction out there, bad dom. The power dynamic starts collapsing.

The other thing is that if you're in a submissive, surrendered state, and you don't like what's going on, but you're not responding, like you don't know what's going on, not giving the information, or not flipping the power dynamic to take the superior position for a moment to lead the situation elsewhere, then we have a collapsed power dynamic. I'm looking at places where power dynamics, at their best, collapse. One place is when the dom doesn't notice what's happening to the sub, and the other place is when the sub can't be legible, can't broadcast the authentic reaction or experience that they're having, nor can they flip the power dynamic so that they're in the lead, and they're taking it where they want to go. One of the culprits is, in women, the freeze.

One of the culprits, in men or let's say, gender neutral, one of the culprits is when somebody in a higher status position, male or female, loses the ability to feel their sub.

Tonya: Empathy, compassion. There's a whole program in Spain called virtual embodiment where they take domestic abusers and allow them to be inside the body of the person, the intimate person in their life, because they say that sometimes these people who are abusive actually just don't see the people that they're abusing to see the fear or terror in them at all. They just don't see it. I mean, that feels incomprehensible to me. How does that even happen? How do you not see that?

Kasia: Yeah, well, you're a live wire, you respond to every movement in a room. It's your nature and your profession, and who you are. It's incomprehensible to you to think of the kind of numbness that has you overstep the moments where other people are literally going, "Ouch." There are lots of people out there like that, and there's even a lot of research about how people who are in positions of power for a while begin to lose their ability to feel others. It begins to deteriorate. They call it the relational circuit and the power circuit. You spend a lot of time in the power circuit, it's a different set of brain chemistry.

The necessity to teach men and people in higher status positions to continue to be able to feel. It's not an act of kindness. It's actually also a move towards more effective leadership. One of the things that's a tragedy is when a leader cannot feel the people that they're responsible for. You call it empathy, but empathy also has a huge opportunity in it. When you can really feel somebody, you understand what resources they have, what inner resources they have that can make their work a much greater contribution. You make somebody do something against their will because you're using your authority. The kind of outcome that happens is very different from when somebody has their heart in it. They're using their imagination fueled by their childhood dreams. It's fueled by their desire to belong and their loyalty.

It's night and day. It's night and day, and we have a world of bad leaders where everybody's protecting their own asses and a really corrupted idea of what power is.

Tonya: Yes. Tell us about your definition of power, and how we, as a society, have corrupted that.

Kasia: In the language of what I've said already, a bad dom looks powerful, but is actually using force. Force is not powerful. Force is never powerful. Why? You look at a dictatorship. Look at a nation that's run by a dictator: in order to get the will of the people to submit and obey, it takes a tremendous police force, it takes tremendous military, it takes tremendous economic pressure to squash the people to obey, and those countries rarely economically flourish. What happens is the application of force and sustained force becomes necessary. The moment there's a little let up of force, there's rebellion.

Power that's not connected is force, and it's incredibly wasteful. When a leader, or a person in charge, or even a person who's taking the dominant position in a dynamic, just for a moment, like in a conversation–whether we're talking really small, minding your conversation, really big, a nation–when the person in charge has their attention and instruction out, when they're following what's happening to the body of the masses or the body of the other, they are able to influence. They are able to move the person in front of them. They are able to see what's there and use it to get from point A to point B.

What happens then is synergy. Synergy creates more energy than the initial investment, right? That is power, literally. You plug into the electric socket, there's power, electrical power. You can't call something power when the setup itself leaks power. It wastes energy. It wastes resources. Our brute force idea of what power is not only gives power a bad name, it gives people who should be in power an internal taboo against wanting power, wanting to assume a position of power.

Tonya: It's interesting you say that, because I feel, as a person, like I have power in the sense that I know my value, I know what I will and won't do, but I certainly don't have the ability to influence other people. That was something you talk about, is how to make alliances.

Kasia: Yeah. The definition of power in the school is you have all of the relationships in your community and your network are powerful relationships, where you give to others what you value and they value receiving it, and other people give to you what they value and you value receiving it. That the exchanges are such that what's being exchanged is valuable. A powerful relationship is not a powerful relationship unless that power dynamic is fluid and switching, and that each person has an opportunity to lead and follow in their own way.

Tonya: How do we get into-

Kasia: Sorry, this is also one of the reasons that I don't call my school female empowerment school. There's something that happens around language when we're talking about power. People want to soften it. People want to say, "Oh, I feel powerful." First of all, it's not true. You are powerful. You influence people, but there's this idea that we can kind of sequester ourselves and work on our ourselves, and become empowered, and own our experience, and full stop, that's it. Now that I feel powerful in my own bedroom, and I go out into the world and feel powerful in the presence of others, that's not enough. It's actually through connection. It's literally like electrical power. If it's not connected, it's dead.

"I'm empowered" is a conversation I'm having with myself about my own self-esteem. It doesn't flow through the community, it doesn't have that same kind of network effect. What we want is power that's connected. In that sense, it doesn't matter at the moment who's in a dominant position, who's in a submissive position, who's receiving, who's giving. That has to be fluid and has to switch, it always done. Even in hierarchies where that boss will always be the boss. That employee will be the employee. There's a way to have those relationships be powerful and connected.

Tonya: Now, you also talked about how women feel like we have to answer questions, and that that's one of the ways that this tension stays on us, because we don't know how to question the questioner. I think that's what you call it.

Kasia: Yeah, so this comes from an older thing. I think that people talk about the objectification of women. There's a long standing habit of calling to attention to how women are versus calling attention to what men do. It's really easy to say something like, "That guy's a jerk, but boy, can he get things done," and to a woman, "Man, she's a bitch, and she's a harpy," or whatever, like full stop. When boys and girls are raised, you can see this, too. "Look how lovely Mary is. Look how pretty her dress is. Look how lovely her demeanor is." Then it's, "Look what Billy did." What this does is it creates a habit where women's default tends to be to put attention on themselves. Something goes wrong, "What did I do wrong?"

Tonya: You say that, we're putting attention on ourselves, and I think of women as being always attention on other people, "What can I do for you?"

Kasia: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. That's the other side of a collapsed power dynamic. What women tend to do is... attention in and attention out always balances itself some way, it just doesn't always balance itself out in a powerful way. Attention in is, "What am I supposed to do? What did I do wrong? How did I lead this guy on?" Attention on self, right? Attention out happens, women seeing an entire group, seeing a family, and logging and tracking where everyone else is at. Holding space. That's attention out. That's not attention and instruction out. That's not the dominant state of attention. It's holding space. It's something in between. It's like, "Here is my life energy. My attention is my life energy. Here is my life energy. I am giving it to all of you," and it's a beautiful thing to do, but it has to be noted that it's a tremendous act of generosity. Tremendous act of generosity just to give your attention, your fundamental consciousness energy, your fundamental, who you are is your attention.

Our entire economy is run on attention. Think about the language we use: interest, appreciation. All of it actually refers back to attention. Here we are, we put attention on everybody's comfort, everybody's mood, and it's such an incredible skill, but without instruction, it's not the dominant state. It's not hunting for the next move that the person needs in order to get from point A to point B, of following that impulse of what needs to happen next. Using your agency, not just a receiving of the information, but using your agency to lead.

Tonya: I used to believe, as I started these interviews a few months ago, that predation was a function of being animals. As I've been talking to people, I now feel like the kind of predation we're experiencing is more a function of capitalism. It's a function of, "I can pay for this," or, "I can make money off of this." That's really what fuels it. It's a power dynamic that's fueling it. It's not about, "I need to eat that to survive, or to feed my family." It's a corruption that, I don't know, does it exist even in other animal species besides the human animal?

Kasia: We are a unique, godlike, animalistic, paradoxical phenomenon on this planet. I don't know any animals that behave the ways we do, and are as disconnected from the life forces we are. One of the main goals of this school is to have people, in real time, follow what's alive. What's the next thing? What's the next most alive thing? What's the next most alive thing? In conversation. I mean, it's the thing that makes the students who start to really play powerfully in their conversations, in their negotiations, in their relationships, start feeling playful. It becomes very moment by moment, feel what's alive, feel what's alive. The immense imagination that comes from that kind of freedom is essentially playful. It's the play of children, even in the most difficult situations.

The capitalistic structure of power dynamics. I mean, the truth is that right now, even talking about women, in my work, I see that this is actually way beyond gender. There are men competing with men. There are men competing with women. There's race involved. There's so many levels. It's almost like any time there's a status differential, fluid switching between dominant and submissive states of attention has the potential to get hampered. In that moment, improvisation, and the life force, and the playfulness, the power dissipates. When there's no connection, there's no power.

Tonya: Now, a lot of me, I've heard from friends who've got to the times that men's meeting, that they're full of fear. They're like, "Oh my god. I don't know what I did when I was 19. I was a real jerk then. I mean, how am I supposed to remember? You know, I'm sure I did something some time in my life." Dave Chappelle says there's going to be a backlash. Right now they're scared, but there's going to be a backlash. What are women supposed to do? I mean, it's not okay just because they didn't know, so what do we do?

Kasia: Well, there's two things I want to say. One is, I know that America wasn't ready for it, but it would've been really great if we had this brilliant idea to do something like truth and consequences, where any man who comes forward, by coming forward, he gets exonerated. If he comes forward on his own, he has a chance at redemption.

Tonya: I like that. I've been working on a theatrical piece called Truth and Reconciliation Between Women, because I think that women can begin to model what that looks like. They're fictional, historical pieces. I think that the Truth and Reconciliation project they did in South Africa. We need something like that. I was at an organization yesterday with people who were interested in information escrows, which are information banks where people can anonymously report the behavior. One of the things they were saying is their higher ups, they were pretty sure, had done some things and would want to kibosh this idea, because it would be a threat to them. I silenced myself in the meeting, but the thought to me was, "Well, wouldn't it be great if they came forward and said, you know, 'This is what I've done, and I'm sorry, and here's the act I'm taking with my organization to help other people, who may have been victimized by me or others who unconsciously did things that I know I did.'"

Kasia: Yeah. I mean, there's a few things here. One is, if you allow the perpetrator that act of agency, then all the energy stored in that can go for good. The thing that's kind of a pity, is we have currently a very aggressive capitalistic culture that... I mean, I heard Tarana Burke speak recently. One of the things she said is this was not about the perpetrators. This is about the victims getting a chance to speak openly and connect with each other, with their stories of sexual assault and violence. What became really obvious to me was how much money gets made of telling a good story about a-

Tonya: Oh, yes.

Kasia: Here's the thing. I'm trained to look at things systemically. Even as a Daoist, there's yin and there's yang, and there's a drop of the white in the black and a drop of the black in the white. You can't have one part of the system move without moving the other. You also can't have one part of the system be wounded. Now, this is a very controversial thing to say, but I believe it with my whole heart: you can't have one part of a system wounded without seeing that the other part of the system is wounded, too.

The perpetrators, they are the first people that should be called sick, wounded, in need of rehabilitation and healing. It's just we don't live in the kind of culture that's willing to say that the perpetrators need healing, and we don't even have an idea of what that would look like. What does it look like to take a Harvey and have a process of rehabilitation happen? What does that look like? We don't have that. It's so meager and spare, and yet they're the ones causing the problems? If you have women undergoing this huge transformation, what's happening to men? The masculine on this planet is not wounded?

I'm not saying we have to pour all our attention into men right now, but acknowledge that if we're having this thing happening to women, it's affecting the men, too. To not look at that is dangerous, because it only moves one part of the system, and how the other part of the system gets affected becomes very unpredictable, which is why I was like, it would've been great if it was an alternate reality, but it would've been great if part of what's happened allowed men to come forward, and their confession be their exoneration, or their confession be at least some way of having them participate.

In the school, everything I teach women, I teach them to use relationally or with another. Any skill or tool she's using, she's using with another person, and in order to influence another person, first you have to connect them to their own experience. In a lot of ways, I'm really proud that this work that I'm doing, and this work that the students are doing, as they practice, they're healing the person that they're talking to. One of the things that they all... I mean, most of the things they do is they relate to men that they feel like they're in stuck power dynamics. Whether it's bosses, or sons, or husbands, or brothers.

In doing so, in using this work to bring reality, compassion, and fierce authority to these relationships, the men are getting educated. They're getting realtime feedback, and they're getting instruction.

Tonya: Is there any sort of exercise, demonstration that we could role play together right now? I guess I'd be the perpetrator, because you've got the skills. Could we do something? I could be Harvey and you could demonstrate verbal self defense?

Kasia: You know how you said that your particular weak spot is not something aggressive?

Tonya: Right.

Kasia: There's two ways that women get put into compromising situations. One is a direct hit, right? It's like, "Shall we continue this meeting in my hotel room?" That's still a little bit ambiguous, but you get the point, right?

Tonya: Well, let me be that person. "Kasia, it is so nice to meet you today. You know, I'm running a little late. I really want to help you get this business of yours going, can you come up to my room for a minute? I've got to just make this quick call."

Kasia: There's two ways I could do it, right? I could do it by hitting right back, or I could do it by locating the situation. It seems like you don't have quite enough time to give me the attention I need, is that true? It seems like your hotel room might not be the best place to speed through a meeting, is that true?

Tonya: "Kasia, no. No, honey. No, Kasia, baby. I'm so sorry. I didn't even mean to use that kind of language. Kasia, I really want to take the time, and this call came up out of the last minute. My time and attention is for you. I mean, if you want to wait in the lobby, I mean, it just doesn't make sense for you to wait in the lobby. I've got this beautiful room with this absolutely-"

Kasia: The first thing I did is location, and it's very safe. The direct hit back would be, "Do you realize that it may make a woman uncomfortable to invite her directly to your hotel room, even if for a minute? Did you think about that? Did you think maybe I would feel a little bit more comfortable waiting for you in the lobby? Let's have a quick conversation on the way out." Did you, could you, that's a direct question, and then the location tool is easy, because when you can't find something penetrating to ask, you can just say, "It seems like you're in a rush. It seems like you want to get me to your hotel room. It seems like we're crossing a boundary between business and private life." Then, asking for verification, "Is that true?"

Tonya, you know how you said that your weak spot is when people are softer with you? That pattern is several ambiguous statements said at the same time to imply a request, but not directly propose one. Actually, the ambiguous communication is what, if you look at the Harvey transcript, is what he did. He implies, "I have lots of friends." That's one statement. "I help my friends. I'm a powerful man in the industry. Come to my hotel room. I won't do anything." That moment, it's better for location than a direct hit. It's like, "It seems like you really want to get me to your hotel room. Is that true? What did all the other women who came to your hotel room do for you? What did you get out of it?"

"It seems like." These things end up being really simple if you have the first entry question sort of habituated.

Tonya: We have to make that entry question up for ourselves before we go into any potential-

Kasia: No. I have an entire online verbal self defense course that has pictures of creepy guys show up with the lines. You get to scream back at the screen and get coached all the way through on how to practice within a power dynamic.

Tonya: Okay, so as we wrap up, when can our listeners, viewers who will be seeing this in July, when can they come and take a training with you, Kasia?

Kasia: Okay, by then, definitely, I think September will be sold out. I have a class right now for September, late September is getting sold out. I honestly would just say you have to go to the website, because we have a really long waiting list.

Tonya: Okay. Well, I'm going to get on that waiting list.

Kasia: Awesome. See you in class.

Tonya: Thank you so much, Kasia, for taking the time, and for sharing these skills. I encourage people to go to Kasia's website, where you can see some videos, and she gives some free tips for how to handle some of these sticky situations. I think that's part of your cornering Harvey Weinstein. Have a beautiful day. Thank you, Kasia.

Kasia: You, too. Thank you.