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.

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Emmett Rensin is a writer based in Chicago.

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