Teaching Sexual-Assault Prevention Through Comedy

Sex Signals' improv show focusing on bystander intervention has seen success on college campuses—and is now being adopted by the military as well.
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Something you don’t hear too often in the middle of an improv set: “Okay, and for the next scene, my opening line will be ‘I really didn’t rape that girl’.”

That’s the moment when Sex Signals, one of the country’s fastest growing sexual assault prevention programs, stops being so funny. Employees of the company behind the show, Catharsis Productions, call it the “rape bomb.”

The first half is funnier.

A girl sits at a table. She says she’s had a really bad day. “I just want to be left alone.” But a guy notices her and wants to talk. He gets nervous, doesn't know what to say. So he asks the audience for a pickup line. “The one we get most often,” say Brea Hayes, a program specialist and theatrical director with Catharsis, “is ‘How much does a polar bear weigh? Enough to break the ice.’"

They begin a conversation, breaking off for one or the other to face the audience and share their character’s feelings. The girl: “That was weird, but this guy is cute, I want to get to know him, should I be really flirty or should I be like a hard-ass?"

The guy: “She seems to really like me, should I show her my sensitive side or my tough guy side?”

“They try on these different stereotypes,” says Brea. “The takeaway is that when we put these faces on, nothing is ever going to work out.”

And sometimes it really goes wrong: They try out various scenarios, which are progressively more ridiculous until it’s obvious something’s not right. The audience has been holding up their “Stop” cards—big red road signs handed out before the show that they’ve been told to deploy when the action crosses a line. Finally, the guy says, “I have an idea for another improv. My opening line will be, 'I really didn't rape that girl.'”

“Up until this point, it's been crazy, funny,” says Brea. “The audience is laughing. They’re at a sexual assault prevention show, but they’ve almost forgotten. And then we drop the bomb.”

The girl, a college student, invites the boy over to study. Or, in the military version of the show, to play video games. Either way: they have some beers. Eat a pizza. She kisses him first. There’s some tickling and wrestling … and they end up having sex.

Great, except that she said “stop,” whispered “stop,” and he kept going.

“That’s sex without consent. That’s rape,” Hayes says.

Is that what the audience thinks? Who’s at fault? “Almost all the time they say both. And then so we ask them, well, why? Why do you want to hold the girl accountable for this?” Hayes says.

“The audience gives us their reasons and from there we have a facilitated conversation.

We break down the reasons that they want to hold the girl responsible. All these victim-blaming things: She was drinking, she didn't do more to stop him, she was sending mixed messages. We talk about the difference between reducing your risk from a situation versus being able to prevent that actual situation from happening. We then start talking about why it's important to hold the guy accountable for what he did.”

When we talk about sexual assault in this country, we tend to tell a sad story. One in four women are assaulted in their lifetime; almost all are harassed. Assaults of men, even, are far higher than we previously believed. The picture becomes especially bleak when we consider the institutions traditionally charged with transforming children into young adults: Stories of university ineptitude in handling assault cases have grown so dire as to provoke Department of Justice intervention at dozens of schools; for years, the military has been plagued with headlines detailing a pervasive culture of abuse, intimidation, and silence. We tend to tell a frustrating story, too: Despite decades of effort to curb assaults, it’s difficult to escape the impression that even if things are not getting worse, they’re hardly getting better—we’re left to taking “raised awareness” as a consolation prize, while the horror stories continue to flow in.

But as grim as things can seem today, they were even darker in 1998, when Christian Murphy and Dr. Gail Stern—the founders of Catharsis Productions—met during a play festival where each was performing a one-person show about social justice.

They were impressed by one another’s work.

“One of the things that blew me away about Gail,” Murphy remembers, “was that at that time she was a rape crisis counselor during the day and a stand-up comedian at night. So she had this amazing ability to lure mainstream audiences into talking about feminist issues: sexism, sexual violence, at a time when people weren’t used to talking about those things. I’d overhear frat guys going, ‘Shit, I think I’m a feminist, you know?’ It was really cool.”

For Stern, it was simpler: Murphy was doing a show that seriously interrogated his privilege has a heterosexual white man—long before it was fashionable.

Both were looking for a new project. Murphy, recently returned from a stint in Los Angeles, was trying to rediscover his place in Chicago theater. Stern, after working for years as a rape crisis counselor, was feeling an exhaustion common to that field—burnt out by the burden of victim’s advocacy, and wondering if there was another, more proactive way she could help.

They discovered a niche. “We both felt there was a dearth of decent or engaging sexual violence programs on college campuses,” Murphy explains.

It wasn’t only that such programs were comparatively rare then; many that did exist were unable to win over unreceptive audiences. Others were even counter-productive, reinforcing dangerous cultural tropes like victim-blaming, or conflating risk reduction strategies (“don’t walk alone at night, girls”) with real assault prevention and moral accountability.

“We thought if we can make something more engaging, a show that balanced the tension between something artistically fulfilling but also reflective of the research and the lived experience of survivors, and use humor to make the material more accessible, to bring the audience in, then we could really have a dialogue that galvanized both men and women to work on these issues,” Murphy says.

In 1999, the two began collaborating in earnest., In 2000, after several months of work, the show that would become Sex Signals—then going by “The Sensitive Swashbuckler and Other Dating Myths”—premiered as a late night comedy billing at Chicago’s Stage Left Theater. Despite audiences of drunks expecting lighter fare, the show immediately struck a nerve: Based on audience reaction and the evaluations they collected afterward, Stern and Murphy knew they were on to something.

“A lot of people said, you know, at first I was a little thrown by the whole conversation about sexual assault, but I really loved the humor and I loved the way that you gave us an opportunity to have a sort of candid, frank, honest, safe conversation about it,” Stern recalls.

Encouraged, the pair continued refining the show. They brought in representatives from rape victims advocates and academia for feedback, striving to maintain the vital balance between engaging entertainment, and rigorous, effective education. They got their first college gig: a presentation at The University of Chicago. More followed, as did a collegiate programming agency, interested in representing the show. That first school year (from fall 2000 to spring 2001), Sex Signals was performed eight times on college campuses. The following school year, it shot up to fifty. For 2014 to 2015, that number is expected to top 2,500.

Clearly something is working.

Over the years, Catharsis has developed a host of complimentary programs in response to the latest research and challenges, with titles like Got Your Back, The Hook-Up, and others. Meanwhile, they continue—as they have for 15 years—to update and improve the script for Sex Signals, which still comprises nearly three-quarters of their presentations.

Many of the improvements address and combat the host of challenges familiar to any effort to combat sexual assault: victim blaming, a media culture that can encourage sexual assault, fear of retaliation for reporting, and inadequate infrastructure to address reports.

Catharsis also faces another challenge arising from the particular nature of direct engagement programs. Many Americans may be more comfortable talking about rape and assault in the abstract, but there’s a tendency to recoil when the problem comes too close to home, when “a face is put to the word ‘rape’ with a capital ‘R’”, as Dr. Stern explains. Often, that resistance takes the form of communities closing ranks when accusations are made toward one of their own (see: Steubenville, Ohio) but even before an assault takes place, Stern and Murphy point out, audiences can become reflexively uncomfortable at the suggestion that assault is something they could commit, or even be victim to. That’s why so many programs which focus on consent and communication tend to fail: They alienate their audience before the message gets through.

“[When you focus on those issues],” Murphy says, “You end up with men and women out there in the audience going, ‘Okay, but I am not raping, so why am I here?’

“It’s not an effective teaching frame,” Dr. Stern explains, “If I tell you, ‘Hey, I’m assuming you’re all going to be rapists, so let’s talk about consent;’—well, first, most men don’t commit rape, and the ones that do don’t give a crap about consent. So that’s alienating and ineffective… [Conversely,] when you start talking about sexual violence with women, they immediately assume you’re saying they’re going to be victims. And what they hear is that you’re saying they’re going to be weak or stupid. And people don’t want to feel preemptively accused of anything. So they shut down. And they don’t listen. And you can’t get through.”

The strategy to overcome that challenge underlies the entire prevention philosophy of Catharsis. Instead of placing audience members in the assumed roles of victim or perpetrator, they use and teach the theory of bystander intervention—framing the audience, the potential rapists and victims, as outsiders with the power to prevent assault.

“If I say, especially to a military audience, ‘I want you to be a hero. You signed up because you wanted to do something, to actively step up,’ it makes the message resonate. You say, ‘This is about courage. This is about don’t leave you battle buddy behind,’” Stern says.

Most importantly, bystander intervention gives you something to do, as opposed to a don’t do. “We’re asking them to take a leadership role,” Murphy says.

The increase in demand for programs like Sex Signals suggests that bystander intervention programs produce better results.

But even a successful program isn’t enough on its own, as every Catharsis employee I spoke to was quick to point out. Rather, a show like Sex Signals is only one step in creating a broader culture of prevention. “[The culture we’re fighting] definitely doesn’t get better by a one-stop pop in, 90 minutes, ‘Hey guys, rape is wrong, don’t hurt people, see you next year,’” one employee told me.

To create and help sustain that culture, Catharsis offers an expanded suite of programs beyond Sex Signals: a range of alternative, complimentary, and follow-up presentations, tailored for different audiences and different levels of progress. The idea is to foster the capacity for communities to shift their own cultures and begin improving themselves through a self-reinforcing cycle that does the day-to-day work.

One might ask if, in a world so saturated by messages that enable sexual assault, a self-policing climate in environments like college campuses and military bases, where there is a constant population turnover, can sound a little bit like wishful thinking. But Murphy compares his goals with the largely successful efforts by the U.S. Government to curb drunk driving:

“Back in the 80’s, most people didn't think drunk driving was that big of a deal,” he explains. “People didn’t want to feel accused, a lot of the response was: ‘What is this about? I don’t know why we’re making such a big deal out of drunk driving.’”

But after years of excruciatingly slow progress, “there really has been a cultural shift,” he says, “Does it mean that drunk driving has stopped? Of course not. But I think now people are much more plugged in to the notion that if they see a buddy wasted at a bar pick up their keys, they’re probably going to do something to stop them. A moral obligation was placed on bystanders to say something.”

In the case of drunk driving, the effort worked: Since the 1980s, there’s been a marked decline in DUI fatalities; dropping below 10,000 for the first time in 2011. As Catharsis work has expanded (they’re expected to give just under 3,000 performances in 2014, up from 1,460 last year), the demand has reinforced the company’s hope that their work is helping to create a similar trend in sexual assault prevention.

At Catharsis’s flagship military client—the Great Lakes Naval Base, where the company has been active for two years—anonymous reports of rape have dropped between 50 and 70 percent since the program started. More detailed surveys, usually designed to detect sexual assault instances where people’s willingness to report and conflicting definitions of “rape” can complicate surface statistics, confirm those statistics. In fact, the program has been so successful that the military has begun referring to the program as the “Great Lakes Model,” one they hope to emulate on other bases, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby, who said the work at Great Lakes Naval Base was on the leading edge of “implanting comprehensive, evidence-based methods of sexual assault training and prevention.”

“They’re really a model not just for the Navy but for the whole military,” he told reporters recently.

But, Murphy and Stern are quick to point out, these statistics—while encouraging—are complicated and sometimes even counter-intuitive. Sexual assault reports can dramatically increase after a prevention program begins working, before they begin to subside.

“That’s really important to remember,” Murphy says, “In most situations, if you’re really doing the right thing, you’ll see that your reports go up before they go down.”

“A lot of it is old cases, people who are finally coming forward, who now feel more comfortable making those reports because they feel they’re going to be supported,” Dr. Stern says.

This is a sign of a culture beginning to change. It’s a slow process, but the pair shows no signs of slowing down.

“I hope to go on doing prevention work for a long, long time,” Stern says, “because whenever we get feedback, and we get someone who says, ‘I never saw it that way before,’ or we'll get emails, anonymous, from people who have seen the show on bases who say, ‘I just saw Sex Signals and I now recognize that that thing was bad, and I intervened last night, and here's how I did it.’”

When we talk about sexual assault, we tend to tell a sad story. But it’s one, despite the dark and still-serious headlines, that’s beginning to get better.

“There’s a lot of despair that comes with this kind of crime when it’s perpetrated,” Murphy says, “But we’re constantly looking at the hope in our culture. Even if it’s slow. Because that way, I think, we’re able to inspire people’s better selves.”

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Emmett Rensin is a writer based in Chicago.

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