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Speaking of Sex raises difficult questions: SGA uses theater to revisit sexual assault conversation

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Last Thursday evening found the Pause packed full with students – some there for class requirements, others seeking the double Wellness Center swipe, and everyone curious as to what they were about to witness at SGA’s discussion of sexual assault on campus, “Speaking of Sex.”

A man dressed in jeans took the microphone, introduced himself as “Michael,” and asked: “What is sex?”

Dead silence.

After coaxing out a few hesitant answers, Michael followed up, “Can it be difficult to talk about sex? And I don’t mean, like with your bros or whatever, I mean to have a real conversation about sex. Can that be difficult?”

Clearly, it was.

Two characters took the stage. Nick, the epitome of a drunk frat boy, and Jessica, a hammered and eager first year. The audience watched as the two talked with each other, Nick becoming more and more insistent on taking Jessica upstairs.

Before the characters left, Michael stopped them and asked them to take a seat. He then turned to the audience, inviting any and all questions for the two.

The back and forth questioning between the audience and the characters quickly went from funny to heated. Nick was answering for Jessica, Jessica could barely stay conscious, and both characters dodged the idea that Nick’s intention was to sleep with Jessica. It was clear that the audience wasn’t finding anything funny anymore as they threw accusations and insults at Nick, forcing him to answer tough questions.

This type of back and forth discussion was precisely the purpose of this event. Speaking of Sex allowed the audience to watch, analyze and question a variety of different situations where sexual assault often occurs. The audience was forced to wrestle with what are often considered gray areas.

The event was sponsored by a number of campus organizations, including SGA, the Wellness Center, SARN and Residence Life.

The group invited to perform the show was GTC Dramatic Dialogues. Founded in 1995, the organization was looking for an innovative way to talk about serious issues. Their performances are referred to as “intervention theater.” The group travels around the country, performing different interactive shows centered around drug use, diversity and sexual assault. GTC’s performance was a continuation of the on-campus discussion about sexual assault, heavily driven by St. Olaf’s It’s On Us campaign.

“In conversations with the Wellness Center, it was brought to all of our attentions that interactive theater is one of the absolute best ways to talk about these difficult issues,” said Nick Stumo-Langer, student body Vice-President. “By immersing students in the situations of sexual assault, GTC Dramatic Dialogues was able to help students identify when and where sexual communication broke down between the two actors in a way less socially-charged than the real deal.”

The Sexual Assault Resource Network, SARN, was also very involved in planning the event. Maren Magill, one of the co-chairs of SARN, was very pleased with how it played out.

“Last night’s performance was a very thought-provoking event,” said Magill. “It’s encouraging that several hundred students from all different kinds of social and athletic groups attended the event; this wide variety of student participation highlights that many Oles caredeeply about sexual assault prevention and supporting survivors.”

Jo Beld, a professor of Political Science and St. Olaf’s Title IX coordinator, was also in attendance last Thursday.

“It was just really a valuable opportunity for people to think hard about the complexities of the situations that are often the backstory behind sexual misconduct. I thought that they were realistic portrayals of complicated situations, and I was really impressed with how knowledgeable students were in their responses to the situation and their analysis,” said Beld.

Beld also discussed shifting the conversation away from victim-blaming and towards intolerance of assault. “I think it takes time to shift, or even have a balanced focus,” said Beld. “Since [the scenes] did involve only two people, I think it would have been really interesting and helpful if there had been other people around, so you could’ve also seen the third dimension of the social environment and the social expectations of your friendship circle, and how we can help each other to make good decisions.”

Speaking of Sex was a big hit, and just a part of SGA and St. Olaf’s mission to prevent sexual assault.

“SGA has been very involved this year with raising awareness and bringing attention to the problem of sexual assault on our campus,” said Stumo-Langer. “This event was one in a larger series of events throughout the year to let people know that sexual assault and rape are a problem on our campus, give them the tools to have a productive dialogue on how best to address these problems, as well as help provide an environment for survivors to feel comfortable sharing their experiences.”

On March 1 at 7 p.m. in BC 143, the first meeting of the It’s On Us Task Force will take place. During the fall semester, the campaign was run by the Wellness Senate Subcommittee, but this semester will be a little different.

“By creating a task force, we hope to have students across all areas of campus join our movement so we can keep the campaign alive in future years,” said SGA President Rachel Palermo.

For any victims looking to speak to a confidential resource, the SARN office, Boe House, the College Pastors, Health Services, the Hope Center and the Northfield Hospital are all open to students. To report a sexual assault, the Dean’s Office, the Wellness Center, Public Safety/Student EMTs, Residence Life staff and the Northfield Police are some of the non-confidential resources available to students.

whitford@stolaf.edu

Photo Credit: MAGGIE SHAVER/MANITOU MESSENGER