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‘Sex Signals’ Turns Campus Laughter on Rape Culture #Vaw

In this rape-bystander training, audience members become part of the sketch. When they hesitate to speak up in the auditorium, for instance, they help dramatize real-world complicity with sexual harassment or assault.

 

Actors performing ‘Sex Signals.’
Sgt. Frank Sanchez III for the Herald Post on Flickr, under Creative Commons

 

LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)–For the first sketch of the hour-long program, the male actor, Chris Beier, asked the audience of roughly 250 University of Southern California students for a pickup line.

“Do you go to USC? Wanna see my Trojan?” shouted by one audience member got some laughs, but Beier went with the next suggestion.

“You look like my aunt,” Beier said, adding, “that apparently turns me on” to open the improvised scene in Catharsis Productions‘ recent performance of “Sex Signals” for the college audience.

The female actor, Jordan Puryear, asked the audience for input. “Should she play the scene ditsy or tough?” And both actors, who look like college students themselves, asked the audience to help develop their characters for the college party pick-up scene.

“I chug beer and cry beer. And watch porn and watch football,” Beier grunted, as he took on the characteristics suggested by the audience.

“I will not poop, or fart, or sweat; just glisten (and) I’m a virgin,” Puryear said.

Flexing biceps, batting eyelashes, the performers comically acted out and exaggerated the character traits as quickly as audience members called out the familiar, if stereotypical, behaviors and attitudes associated with dating or hook-up situations.

The program set a surprisingly humorous tone for a discussion of sexual assault on the campus of one of the 106 colleges under federal investigation since 2014 for under-reporting or mishandling sexual assault. One in five college women and 1-in-16 college men are sexually assaulted, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

“The first thing people generally want to do is distance themselves from a program on rape, but humor fosters intimacy,” said Gail Stern, chief academic officer of Catharsis Productions, in a recent phone interview. Her Chicago-based company sends the “Sex Signals” program to between 250 and 300 college campuses each year and takes a similar program to military bases across the country.

Stern co-created and first performed “Sex Signals” more than 15 years ago and now trains and supervises a staff of 30 performers, or “educators.” She said laughter often arises for reasons that go beyond amusement. “Sometimes it’s because someone has said something so true that we didn’t want to admit it. Then we laugh because we see truth and find agreement. It’s simultaneously shocking and disruptive of our pattern of belief. And when we laugh we internalize the material differently.”

The performers gain the audience’s trust through “scaffolding concepts from easiest to most complex,” said Stern, a former stand-up comedian, who holds a doctorate in education.

“They start with: ‘Do you see this the way we do? Have you ever felt awkward when approached by someone, or as the approacher? Have you felt conflicted as to what to do?’ The audience can say ‘yup.’ They recognize it.”

It’s the structure of the observations joke, used by such comedians as Jerry Seinfeld, she said.

“‘Have you ever noticed this one thing?’ ‘It’s kind of like this other thing.’ ‘And this other thing.’ Then the punch line.”

The punch line, however lightly, conveys the final idea about acceptable behavior.

“Rape is wrong” is the punch line in “Sex Signals,” Stern said.

Audience Starts Sensing Danger

As the hookup scene progressed in the crowded college auditorium, Beier’s character came on strong; Puryear’s character became obviously uncomfortable. Paper stop signs — which had been given to everyone in the audience to hold up if they sensed danger — began to go up. Initially just a few went up and the performers ignored them and went on with the scene. But as the tone turned from awkward to creepy to something else, about half of those in the audience held their signs high and the performers ended the sketch.

Beier and Puryear spoke first about how their characters felt: trapped in expected gender stereotypes and behaviors, unsafe. Then they asked the audience how it felt to be bystanders to this scene and why some had not help up their stop signs.

“Why are we reluctant to intervene when we see a similar scenario in real life?” the performers asked.

“It’s not socially acceptable,” offered one audience member.

“You don’t want to be a cock block,” said another.

“There are some cocks that need to be blocked,” Beier replied.

The audience had become part of the program: the frat party goers, the bystanders who by hesitating to act in the auditorium – as in their real lives – allow such sexual harassment or worse, sexual assault, to persist.

When Stern and Catharsis Productions Executive Director Christian Murphy first started performing “Sex Signals” they tried to create a male character with whom the audience could identify, Stern said.

“Fifteen years ago, we thought these well-intentioned nice guys . . . once they learned that what they were doing was hurting others, they’d stop (because) they wanted to be nice,” Stern said. “Then we learned of the serial nature of the individual rapist and we discovered that we (as a society) have a tolerance for sexual coercion by perpetrators.”

So today, the male character in “Sex Signals” more closely resembles that perpetrator, who knows what he’s doing is wrong and doesn’t care. And the show is more about “actively critiquing the social norms,” Stern said.

In addition to taking its unconventional rape-prevention programs to college campuses and military bases, Chicago-based Catharsis Productions, which is a private educational company, also works with schools and law-enforcement agencies.

Stern affirmed what some researchers in the field find lacking from sexual-assault prevention programs that are based on “affirmative consent,” a major component in California and New York’s college sexual-assault laws, and policy at universities across the country. Affirmative consent, or “yes means yes” programs are based on the idea that sexual assault is a result of miscommunication, its critics say.

“No theory of sexual assault suggests that rape occurs because of a misunderstanding of consent,” said Paul Schewe, director of the University of Illinois Interdisciplinary Center for Research on Violence, in a phone interview.

“All theories of rape are one person exerting power and control over another,” said Schewe, who helps schools and organizations evaluate their sexual-assault prevention programs and has worked with Catharsis Productions. “The consent theory … may have made sense in the 1950s, when wives and children were considered property of their husbands, (and) women didn’t want men to force sex on them. That’s when ‘no means no’ was timely.

“Most men who commit sexual assault understand consent (but) knowledge is not enough to change behavior.”

Focus on Changing Norms

Schewe said programs that focus on bystander intervention, as “Sex Signals” does, are more effective. “Teaching violence prevention is not about educating individuals. We need to change norms (and address) rape culture.”

The sketch that followed the hookup scene on the USC stage, while performed by Beier and Puryear with some of the same comedic flair, cut more to the chase.

“For the next scene, my opening line will be ‘I really didn’t rape that girl!'” Beier said.

“Hello and welcome to ‘Not My Fault,’ the show that gives people the chance to prove they’re not responsible for hurting someone,” Puryear began. “Today we meet a charming young student who was recently accused of rape.”

“I really didn’t rape that girl,” Beier began, in character, and laid out the scenario for the “studio audience.”

Beier’s character and his accuser, “Amy,” had met while working on a class project and he invited her to a party at his house. At the party, they chatted as Amy got drunk on punch. Then Amy suggested they go somewhere quieter to talk. Beier’s character took Amy to his room where Amy made the first move; she kissed him. But when he took her to his bed and started to undress her, she said stop. He stopped for an awkward moment, then he proceeded to have sex with her, during which she whispered stop again, Beier told the host and audience.

“I fully admit that she said stop,” Beier said. “But then she didn’t do much to back it up . . . If she didn’t want to have sex with me she should have kicked me or punched me or screamed in my face.”

Audience members asked questions about how drunk Amy had been, whether she’d been drugged, if Beier’s character was also drunk, how emphatic her “stop” really was.

Most concurred that, “yes,” a rape had occurred.

But when Puryear’s host asked whose fault it was, many of the USC students said both were to blame.

Following the show, students sometimes take the performers aside to share their personal stories, said Murphy, a former actor, whose partnership with Stern began shortly after they met at a 1998 one-act play festival, where each was performing a one-person piece about social justice.

“We listen to them from a place of compassion, but if someone has had sex with someone else who was passed out; that is rape,” Murphy said. He added that the performers will refer students to appropriate counselors or law enforcement as needed.

“The notion of false accusations is such an easy place for people to go to,” Murphy added.

Only between 2 percent and 8 percent of reported rapes are falsely reported, which is the same rate of false reports for other felonies, according to FBI and Justice Department reports.

“There is no other crime that brings up the kind of venom and hostility as sexual assault. Other crime doesn’t have the same discourse,” Murphy said. “(And) there is a big difference between someone who has morally committed sexual assault, or rape, and whether they are legally guilty. There is a huge place between proof of guilt and innocence.”

While Murphy and Stern contend that their “Sex Signals” program may be a small part of the solution to the colossal problem of sexual assault on college campuses and in the military, they say they are continuously scrutinizing and reworking the show to make it more relevant. On the drawing board currently are changes to integrate LGBT concerns, they said.

“I love being able to challenge people in their beliefs and still get that giant laugh,” Stern said.

Elizabeth Zwerling is a professor of journalism at the University of La Verne in Los Angeles County.

http://womensenews.org/story/arts/151108/sex-signals-turns-campus-laughter-rape-culture/

 

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