Sex and Sensitivity

My eyes followed the boy as he checked out the girl from across the party.  My fingers twitched as he pointed her out to his friends as a potential target.  My arm flew up as the boy laced the girl’s drink with “some of that special stuff,” and I held it even higher as he slung his own arm around her and drew her to him even when she shrunk from his touch.  “STOP,” read the scrap of paper in my hand.

The facilitators of Camp Harvard’s Sex Signals had handed every freshman in the audience an identical “STOP” sign to display when he or she detected something inappropriate in the skits the group presented that night.  After the scene described above, the actors asked the members of the crowd at what point they had felt compelled to display their signs.  A few people called out, “When he roofied her drink!” or, “When he grabbed her!”  Another yelled, “When she wouldn’t hook up with him!”  The the first two comments inspired quiet murmurs of assent, but the last garnered a number of loud laughs and even a smattering of applause.  The actors chuckled along.

We have heard it said time and time again: rape isn’t funny.  Recent statistics from Harvard’s “Playing It Safe” report this fall revealed that about four rapes were reported to the Harvard University Police Department annually between 2008 and 2010 and that about 11 more rapes per year went unreported.  In light of this and especially in the wake of two stranger rapes on and around campus in August alone, it seems shocking that freshmen receive their sex education by joking about assault.  So why does Harvard bring in a set of actors who do exactly that year after year?

Sex Signals needs to make students laugh to make them listen.  If freshmen were corralled into a room every year to hear a somber lecture on the causes and effects of rape and other forms of sexual assault, many of them might not even show up, and some of the ones who did would likely zone out—texting, surfing the web, or simply daydreaming.  A dynamic, joke-filled performance, on the other hand, keeps the audience interested and entertained.

What’s more, the Sex Signal actors’ jests are designed to expose and then dispel stereotypes or to reveal the ridiculousness and even disgustingness of certain situations.  For example, by having the male in a scene insist that the female take on the role of “Beyoncé trapped in a meat locker,” the Sex Signals troupe explores the concept of the ideal woman (slim, sexy, and submissive) along with the concept of objectification.

The root of the trouble with the Sex Signals program, then, lies in the way students respond to the skits they view.  Of course, the interactive aspect of Sex Signals helps draw the audience into an important conversation they might otherwise ignore.  But when kids use the opportunity to participate as a chance to impress their peers by letting loose with insensitive, sexist jokes, they contribute to a culture in which women are devalued and sexual assaults considered less condemnable.

The one-liner I mentioned earlier does little harm on its own, but it preceded similar stunts throughout the program.  (“What should the girl do next in this situation?” a performer asked at one point.  “Hand job!” a boy enthusiastically replied.)  The fact that not only many of the freshmen in attendance but also the actors responded positively to those antics may have taught some students to mock what should be unmockable issues.

Unlike the performers, the students shouting out disrespectful words in Sex Signals every year lack noble, productive motives for their actions.  That is why, instead of laughing with those students, the performers should take it upon themselves to call out offensive student comments and explain to the crowd why those comments are problematic and where they can lead: to the legitimization of the very sexual harassment the show aims to sensitize the audience against.  Freshmen would still play as big a role in the discussion as they desired, but flippant, rude remarks would end up teaching the class just as much as more thoughtful student input and as the performers’ own wisecracks.

Catharsis Productions, the group behind Sex Signals, advertises the show as “Laugh Out Loud Serious.” In some ways, they may be on the right track—although Sex Signals performers quip about humorless subjects, they do so in an effort to engage the crowd and drive home a larger point about the true gravity of sexual assault and the importance of consent.  But when students chime in with crude comments as well, their jokes are not geared toward a meaningful end.  Rather, by encouraging other undergrads to make light of rape, such japes only benumb the community to one of the most relevant and significant problems it faces.  If the Sex Signals company is not willing to help prevent this, Harvard should find a group that is.

Molly L. Roberts ’16 is a Crimson editorial comper living in Holworthy.

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