Consent Education Takes to the Stage
Student actors Natalie Goodnow, Ja’Michael Darnell, and Megan Nevels perform “Get Sexy. Get Consent.” in the Texas Student Union Building. Photo by Marisa Vasquez.
By Kelsey Jukam
For Reporting Texas
“Get Sexy. Get Consent.” is not a typical theater experience. The program, designed to get students thinking about negotiating sexual boundaries, keeps the audience laughing even though it touches on a deadly serious topic – sexual assault.
“I really like sex,” an actress begins in one of the monologues, drawing out the “really.” She continues, emphasizing her enthusiasm and describing a recent one-night stand. The sex begins as consensual, but then her partner attempts an act she wants nothing to do with.
“I didn’t want to disappoint him by saying no,” she says. “I did say no, but I think he thought it was just part of it.”
The program is part of the Voices Against Violence initiative at the University of Texas’ counseling and mental health center. Voices Against Violence provides counseling and legal, medical, academic and housing services for survivors of dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. It also conducts prevention programs across campus.
“Get Sexy. Get Consent.” uses an audience participation format to help students understand that any sex or sexually suggestive act that occurs without consent is considered assault.
Three students — two women and a man — act out a series of sexual situations. Audience members are asked to come up with their own definitions of what constitutes consent, and to say “stop” during any scene they think portrays a non-consent situation. The student actors are trained to guide the audience through the presentation.
“I think of it as building up your verbal toolbox so you know what to say when a situation arises,” said Megan Nevels, one of the actors.
The group is invited to perform for classrooms, athletic programs and student organizations, and gave about 30 performances across campus this school year.
Lynn Hoare, the Theatre for Dialogue specialist for Voices Against Violence, said many UT students come from public schools, where “their sex ed has been extremely limited.” Thus opportunities like “Get Sexy. Get Consent.” help students have “honest conversations” about sexual situations, she said.
“This piece attempts to really give them the opportunity to realize that maybe talking about sex is not that big of a deal,” Hoare said. “Just cultivating a sense that it’s OK to create boundaries and talk about what you want and don’t want.”
In surveys of students who have attended performances, more than 45 percent said they now felt more comfortable in talking about consent, while about 20 percent said they felt only slightly more comfortable.
Leslie Sulcher, a student at St. Michael’s High School in Austin, attended one recent performance with her mother and a classmate. She would like the program, or something similar, to be performed at high schools.
“Society surrounds us with sex, but we never talk about it,” Sulcher said.
Nevels said that issue comes up frequently during the program.
“People say, ‘You know, well, in movies you never see the consent, they were just at the bar, then they’re in the bed,’” Nevels said. “You never see that middle point.”
Glenn Stockard, a program specialist for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said educational programs are important on college campuses, where the incidence of sexual assault is high. A 2008 U.S. Department of Justice study found that women ages 16 to 24 are four times more likely to be the victims of rape than all women and that college women are more at risk for rape and other forms of sexual assault than women the same age who are not in college.
The actual number of sexual assaults on college campuses is unknown. Stockard says that such assaults are “tremendously underreported” mainly because victims are “revictimized by the system.” When a rape is reported, he says, someone such as a defense attorney — even the victims’ peers or family – often tries to blame the victim for what happened.
There were nearly 20,000 undergraduate women at UT in 2011, but only 18 forcible sexual offenses against students were reported that year, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, fewer than 5 percent of completed and attempted rapes of college women are reported to law enforcement officials. In the general population, nearly 40 percent of sexual assaults are reported.
Many college women who were assault victims report that they did not consider what happened to them to be rape. “Get Sexy. Get Consent.” strives to make such situations easier to recognize by defining consent as “an enthusiastic yes.”
In the case of two high school students accused of raping a teenaged girl in Steubenville, Ohio, the defense argued that since the victim — who was unconscious at the time — didn’t say no, the incident could not be considered rape.
One defendant said during the trial that he didn’t really know what rape was.
But Nevels has been encouraged by the responses of students who have attended the UT program.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘I already do this,’ so that’s been really nice,” Nevels said. “Because with everything that you hear on the news, like with Steubenville, you kind of fear for mankind, and then you find out that these young people are already thinking about these things.”
Jaron Alvin Porter, a UT sophomore who has seen the performance, said he thinks it is a “very fresh” way of teaching students that “consent is key.”
“It’s a great idea. You got all of these young bucks eager to go out and get it with whomever catches their eye…it’s human nature,” Porter said. But if one is going to do that, they need to learn the right and proper way to go by asking for permission to do things with a person.”
Incoming freshmen at UT will have the opportunity to participate in “Get Sexy. Get Consent.” during orientation this year, though it won’t be required.
Kristen Jones Harris, associate director of new student services, said one reason the “Get Sexy. Get Consent” program will not be mandatory is because it works better for smaller audiences. Hoare agreed that the ideal audience is 30 students, but said it’s effective for audiences as large as 100.
Hoare said she doubts the program ever will be made mandatory, because too many people might feel it’s not appropriate for entering freshmen. She said there are some “tricky moments” in the performance where certain types of sex or sexual assaults are discussed. “There always needs to be a level of choice about whether you’re ready for that conversation.”
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