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'Sex Signals' Performance Debuts for Review

By Sarah M. Seltzer, Crimson Staff Writer

Instead of watching a video made for a 1980s audience, next year’s first year students may get to laugh and interact with performers for the safety training portion of their orientation.

“Sex Signals”—an educational performance—had its Harvard premiere last night in the Science Center.

At the end of the show, over two hundred audience members filled out forms that asked, among other questions, whether they would approve of the show’s use during freshman week next year.

“I want to see what the evaluations are like before I endorse any one program” said Susan B. Marine, director of sexual assault prevention services. “But this was entertaining and interactive. I understand that things like safe community night are good but not interactive in the same way.”

Students and administrators said they felt the show’s interactive, entertaining approach was an improvement over the traditional “safe community night” program during freshman orientation week.

During the show, actor/educators, Christian Murphy and Gail Stern acted out a number of skits involving dating, gender relations and date rape, engaging the audience in every scene.

The scenarios they constructed focused primarily on the mixed messages men and women send each other while attempting to date. The audience laughed at scenes, including one in which the male character, standing at one end of a bar with his friends, said, “She looks bored and desperate for my attention,” while the female sitting alone said, “Boy, are those guys losers.”

While the “couple” tried clumsily to interact at the bar, the actors asked the audience for help making decisions about what pick-up lines to use with each other or whether to “come on strong.”

But as the show progressed, the topics grew less broad and humorous, finally focusing on the story of a student accused of date rape.

After that final skit, Murphy and Stern asked the audience questions about rape, taking a poll on how many students thought the scenario was rape, how many thought it wasn’t rape and how many weren’t sure.

Though most of the audience fell into the third category, the performers said the scenario was definitely a case of rape. But they said the audience’s confusion was reflective of confusion that men and women in date rape situations experience.

The actors explained that the show’s structure—relaxed, humorous interaction followed by the serious discussion of rape—was structured to parallel a date in which flirtation becomes a serious violation in an instant.

They also took questions from the audience and discussed both the legal and personal implications of rape.

The actors stressed that more than a crime, they saw rape as one person hurting another—in the case of date rape, often a person they like.

And although the tone of the evening changed from laughter to silence with the introduction of the date rape scenario, the show from its opening moments had been leading the audience towards the issue.

Throughout the performance, which included slapstick comedy and a Titanic spoof, Stern and Murphy urged students to hold up red “stop” signs when they felt uncomfortable.

Students held up their signs during one scene when the male character gave the woman character a drink.

“That drink could contain lots of things—roofies, GHP, special K, alcohol,” Stern joked.

And after the laughter over the male character’s aggressiveness with the “freshman” female died down, Murphy asked the audience, “How many people have seen something like this at a party?”

Most of the audience raised its hands.

The show was advertised widely over the e-mail lists of groups on campus that deal with rape and over several House open lists. One psychology class—Psychology 1703, “The Psychology of Human Sexuality—also required its students to attend the program.

Marine said she had seen the show earlier in the year and “thought it would be interesting to see how Harvard students would receive it.”

Members of the Coalition Against Sexual Violence (CASV), who have been lobbying for a changed awareness program during freshman week, said they felt that “Sex Signals” was a step in the right direction.

“We’re definitely excited that the administration is looking towards new avenues of the freshman week presentation,” said CASV member Alicia C. Johnson ’04. “There were lots of aspects of this show we’d like to see incorporated into the program.”

Johnson said CASV members appreciated the show’s freedom for audience members to participate on varying levels, the opportunity for questions and the knowledgeable presenters.

“Sex Signals” was sponsored by the University Provost’s office as part of its “Caring for the Harvard Community” program, which extends into next week.

—Staff writer Sarah M. Seltzer can be reached at sseltzer@fas.harvard.edu.

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