Sexual assault: How do you change the script?
Drama and performance can play a role in teasing out the grey areas of consent, and changing hearts and behaviour
Picture the scene. It’s hot and busy with oh, say, 800 US navy crew crowded into the hall. Is it an assumption to say there is a lot of testosterone and posturing kicking about? On the stage there are, variously, three men and two women, plus a presenter, joined at times by audience members. A scene unfolds: the men are slagging, which tips over into goading, whipping up suspicion and antagonism; two female friends – including one of the fellas’ girlfriends – join them.
Later, it turns out, she is raped by her boyfriend.
Each character has a distinct role in this story – there is a protagonist and an antagonist, for a start. But which is which? In the shifting sands of these scenes, who is the baddie, who misjudges, how could events be handled better, where are the turning points in the story, how could what happens be prevented? And what about the bystander? Is there anything he could have done to have been more effective? At every turn of this story the audience is brought into the action, to offer interpretation, to play characters, or, for example, to verbalise the internal voices of the woman – a brilliant empathy-building tool – who has, though she can barely believe it herself, been raped by her boyfriend.
This is interACT, a performance troupe based in California State University Long Beach and led by Prof Marc D Rich, who developed its provocative violence-prevention peer-education method. Interactive, role-player based prevention programmes – there are a number well documented in the US, but we are far behind – have been proven to raise awareness about violence and predatory behaviour, debunk rape myths, build empathy for survivors, and give audience members strategies and confidence to intervene. Bystander intervention is really critical in preventing rape, as the forthright interACT presenter points out.
Now, when I say picture the scene in that hot crowded hall, I’m picturing it too. Because actually today InterACT is performing not for 800 navy personnel but at a symposium in NUI Galway – its first time in Ireland – for a large gathering of academics, theatre people and activists deeply engaged in how to use performance to tease out the grey areas of consent.
The audience here is of the converted and the informed; but, as points are made during the interactive performances, you can see how they skilfully build empathy and expose points of view, try to alter behaviour, and trace out how a situation can escalate. InterACT has done a lot of work with the US navy, US college campuses and military bases worldwide since 2000, and tens of thousands in audiences have taken part in their “proactive” (the highest level of audience involvement) shows.
The social justice performance troupe’s presentation is powerful and thought provoking in many ways; one of those ways is exploring the role of the bystander, and forcing the audience to get involved in the action in front of them, and to think in advance of strategies for how, as a bystander, you can influence events.
The issue of consent has never been so pressing. One in four women and one in 10 men have been sexually assaulted. #metoo has highlighted the pedestrian prevalence of non-consensual sex; the rapist is rarely a psycho jumping out of the bushes with a knife, and forced interactions which might not have been recognised as assault in the past are now being recognised as chillingly common.
PornHub’s chilling statistics, for 2018, show Ireland is the fifth-highest consumer of porn in the world
Then there’s the alarming role of porn culture, where “no” often doesn’t mean no, and intimate behaviour is often not mutual but brutal; younger men and women’s knowledge and expectation of sex is increasingly informed by porn. PornHub’s chilling statistics, for 2018, show Ireland is the fifth-highest consumer of porn in the world.
How do you fight that tide? Swaying hearts and attitudes is one way. Dramatisation offers the chance to show, not tell.
In what’s clearly been a fertile relationship, NUI Galway’s Drama and Theatre Studies and School of Psychology have built a robust and well thought-out thread of activity that incorporates pyschology’s Dr Pádraig MacNeela and Dr Siobhan Higgins’s consent workshops, and Charlotte McIvor’s theatre and video work. Thus the university’s multidisciplinary Smart Consent research team uses workshops for intervention, and the arts as a dynamic channel for attitude and behavioural change.
Message of consent
Their message is that Consent=OMFG – that consent should always be ongoing, mutual, and freely given. The aim is to give students knowledge and confidence to make informed and ethical choices about consent in their sexual lives, in all kinds of relationships.
Many of these strands came together at a recent NUI Galway symposium, Negotiating Sexual Consent Today: What Role Can Performance Play In Changing the Script?
If InterACT dissected interactions at the symposium, in a different way Smart Consent’s new short films are very accessible mini-dramas that chime with daily dilemmas.
McIvor’s stylishly made interactive videos, developed with theatre students and co-directed with Mick Ruane, involve common sexual scenarios such as a Tinder date or the aftermath of a night at a club. (Tom and Julie, and Jake and Kieran are already on YouTube; another couple are in the works.) At each juncture where there is a decision – to stay on, to go home together, to get a condom, to pull back or press ahead – the viewer makes a call, and watches the scenario unfold.
It’s a good way to tease out crunch moments, and the what-might-have-beens (if you watch the roads not taken, too: each film has three possible endings). Interspersed are nuggets of research that back up the dramatised crossroads on screen.
McIvor offers: “We wanted to use film to capture the complexity of how consent is negotiated between partners and portray just how many decision points there actually are within any given sexual encounter. The films invite viewers to experiment actively with the idea that one sexual encounter can have many possible outcomes when it comes to the negotiation of consent between partners.”
It’s the fake ‘no’ that can throw off some kids because they don’t understand
In some ways, this is an attempt to counteract some prevailing cultural norms. Take porn. Kate Dawson, working on a PhD in the psychology department, outlined the Porn Report survey of students’ porn use, and the high numbers who say their behaviour – how they initiate or behave during sex, the roles of men and women during sex – is influenced by porn. One comment from the qualitative research, about the negative influences of watching porn scenes where “no” is ignored: “It’s the fake ‘no’ that can throw off some kids because they don’t understand. They weren’t thinking oh this is acting, this is part of the script . . . so you’re kind of taught from a young age that the chase is part of it and ‘no’ is up for debate.”
Lisa Fitzpatrick (author of Rape on the Contemporary Stage) talks about how performance can be used to challenge persistent common beliefs and attitudes about rape. These deeply embedded rape myths – which shape the way we understand the world around us – include the idea that rape is an attack by a stranger, in a public place, by a man against a woman, using a knife or gun, and involving violence aside from sexual violence.
“These kinds of attacks are commonly part of television dramas and films, and are communicated in the visual trope of the camera following the female character into a dark alleyway, or the female character hearing footsteps behind her on a dark street.” The perpetrator in the mythological “real rape” is recognisably a villain; the victim is often a “good girl”.
Proving how deeply these rape myths are internalised, are the men who admit having non-consensual sex but who dismiss the idea this makes them guilty of rape; they believe rapists are monstrous but believe they are not guilty of rape because they know they are not monsters, and so they also disbelieve accusations against other men like themselves.
Fitzpatrick points out that in contrast to the mythological “real rape” scenario, the Smart Consent research and interactive films chime with what is actually the most common rape scenario in Ireland, where the two people know each other, have gone willingly alone or with others to a private space, where there’s been some sexual contact and they’ve been drinking. So pedestrian. So common.
‘Asking for it’
Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It, adapted for stage by Landmark Productions and the Everyman Theatre, and coming to the Abbey this month, also explores acquaintance rape. The story is about teenage friends, whose world is shaped by the ubiquity of online porn, and the social media harassment of the central character Emma, who is gang-raped at a party after having consensual sex with one of the rapists.
Fitzpatrick observes that “the play examines the complexity of consent in those circumstances: Emma and the young man, who is a local GAA star, are both drunk and stoned. However, she is attracted to him and is flattered by his attention. In watching the performance, the audience are placed in the situation of foreseeing the danger Emma is in, to which she is largely oblivious.
Her misplaced trust in these boys, whom she knows, and whose families she knows, is tragically apparent to the spectators. Her vulnerability is hidden beneath a veneer of flirtation and vanity, and her innocence of the impending disaster marks her as still a child.” Fitzpatrick describes how on the night she saw it in Cork, when after the rape Emma’s mother declares “They’re good boys really,” it drew gasps from the audience.
The play dissects the victim-blaming after rape accusations when the accused is high status or a celebrity, and Fitzpatrick quotes Susan Ehrlich’s (the author of Representing Rape: Language and sexual consent) terse phrase, that accusers are “constructed as victims [when the perpetrator is heinous] and agents [when the perpetrator is respectable]”.
Fitzpatrick says strategies used by women playwrights in writing about rape, and which challenge the myths, include satirising social attitudes that excuse rapists, critiquing violent pornography and examining its contested relationship to sexual violence, dramatising rape from the survivor’s perspective, staging incest, date rape and street harassment, and exploring ways to represent a victim’s confusion, panic, disbelief or inability to react.
At the NUIG symposium looking at how performance can change the script in sexual consent, young members of the Asking For It cast discussed the complexity of working on a play that challenged preconceptions. Charlie Maher, who plays the alpha male sports star in a small town (and knows that world as he’s pretty sporty himself), talked about parking his judgment and the importance of not playing his character like “a big bad wolf” but as a real person who might not himself believe initially that there was a rape. Venetia Bowe, who plays Emma’s friend, mentioned her experience of the toxic legacy of single-sex education where people are segregated, the prevalence of male entitlement, and “privileged boys”.
All of the young cast, including Lauren Coe (Emma) and Kwaku Fortune (Eli), agreed its depiction of sporting culture is accurate, and said in their experience sexual consent is just not talked about. They built the characters in a neutral way, seeing the situation through their characters’ eyes, allowing the audience to see the action from multiple angles; “it’s important to get people to engage and not be defensive”. They were moved by weeping in the audience. Coe recalls a tweet remarking how the Sean and Dylan characters were so funny, that you forgot they are rapists. All of this reflects how a nuanced play can reflect the complexities of real life, where that rapist isn’t the guy with a knife in the bush, but can be your friend down the road, whom you quite fancy.
McIvor says that for sexual scripts to change, sexual relations and gender norms have to be viewed critically and performed differently, which she attempted in a devised production, 100 Shades of Grey, which she and her students first developed in Drama and Theatre Studies at NUIG in 2014. The ensemble used Brechtian and feminist theatre approaches to shape the play. So they interrogated a series of vignettes from different positions (survivor, perpetrator, bystander), linking them to a wider social and cultural context.
She says it was “part of a theatrical chain reaction” at the time, with more awareness of the perpetuation of rape culture in popular entertainment and persistently high levels of sexual assault on and off college campuses, including Nick Payne and Carrie Cracknell’s Blurred Lines at London’s National Theatre (which riffed on Robin Thicke’s controversial hit song Blurred Lines), and South African Yael Farber’s testimonial theatre piece Nirbhaya (which toured to Ireland), where an Indian cast and creative team addressed the 2012 rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey – known as Nirbhaya (“fearless one”).
100 Shades of Grey’s vignettes featured multiple characters with conflicting viewpoints. One physicalised the victim-blaming voices with which a survivor of assault lives, another interwove the reflections of a male and female heterosexual couple, where he has been pressured into sex and she brags about it; in another a queer woman dates a few people before meeting someone who’s willing to take sexuality at her pace, which for her is as erotic as it is revelatory, so she joyfully concludes, “I needed to be asked to know that I was sure. I could say yes. And that made all the difference.”
100 Shades was, McIvor says, aiming “to demonstrate the mutuality, pleasure and humour involved in negotiating ongoing affirmative consent between two consenting parties, rather than its deadening effect”.
The work is ongoing; McNeela last week presented the NUI Galway submission to the Joint Committee on Education and Skills on the timeliness and effectiveness of consent education for higher education institutions, describing the Smart Consent initiative, and emphasising their multi-method approach to engaging students. The team’s work has been innovative, and they hope there will be some State-level commitment to cementing policy at third-level.
Drama is a strong way to present alternative, more nuanced scenarios, and contribute to busting rape myths. Lisa Fitzpatrick says: “Performance is a useful tool, because it presents difficult and complex issues in human form. Sympathetic characterisation can ease the process for the spectator of confronting troubling and upsetting information that may challenge deeply held beliefs.”
Because it’s fictional, there’s a “mediation that removes it from real world consequences to allow for an affective, intellectual, and/or philosophical engagement with issues”.
The spectator can leave, or remind themselves it’s fiction if the performance is too discomfiting. But “the public nature of the performance means spectators are aware of each others’ responses to the materials and that they may engage with each other in the interval or after the show. Staging, by its nature, is a public process, so a topic may seem less taboo.”
Landmark Productions and the Everyman in association with the Abbey Theatre and Cork Midsummer Festival, present the world premiere production of Asking for It by Louise O’Neill, adapted for stage by Meadhbh McHugh in collaboration with Annabelle Comyn, at the Abbey Theatre from November 9th.
For more information about NUIG’s Smart Consent, see nuigalway.ie/smartconsent