By Leah Siskin, Assistant Director of JCADA and AWARE® Facilitator
Last Tuesday evening after work, I arrived at Warner Theater in downtown DC to see SLUT: The Play. If you haven’t had the privilege of seeing this show, you may wonder if this is an appropriate topic for an AWARE blog post. As explained on stopslut.org, SLUT: The Play “follows the journey of Joey Del Marco, a 16- year-old girl who is raped by three friends during a night out. Through Joey’s story and those of girls in her community, audiences witness the damaging impact of slut culture and the importance of being heard.”
As I watched the play, I was drawn into the story by the emotional and honest performances of the actors, who were all teenage girls. My chest was so tight as I watched one actor in conversation with her mom defend Joey’s decision to hang out with the three friends. Her mom believed Joey put herself in a bad position. Later, I realized I was holding my breath when another actor asked her brother why he didn’t help Joey as he sat in the cab while his friends assaulted her. After the final scene, in which a girl who had never before disclosed her own sexual assault thanked Joey for speaking up, I wanted to run up to the stage and give the two actors a hug. I was not alone in my emotional response, as I heard sniffles and crying around me in the audience. The audience was full of students from over a dozen schools in the DC area. The play was created based on conversations with the actors about their experiences and the experiences of their friends. I kept thinking how these characters could have been any of the teens I've worked with over the past 10 years.
Theater has a remarkable power to start conversations, but also to validate the feelings of audience members without them having to say a word. To paraphrase one of the actors during the Q&A after the show, in a society where rape culture, victim blaming and slut shaming goes unrecognized by many, young people don't often have the opportunity to discuss these issues as they are experiencing them. It is so important to open the conversation and de-stigmatize this subject matter for all genders. Everyone has to be part of the conversation -- it's not just a conversation for girls, for victims or for "at-risk" populations. With 1 in 3 teens experiencing dating abuse and 1 in 5 girls being sexual assaulted by the time they are 18 -- we are all affected because, whether we realize it or not, we all know someone. For most of us, we know many someones.
Waiting until college to start talking about this is too late. We must start these conversations in age-appropriate ways in elementary, middle and high school. I'm proud that AWARE is engaging youth today in conversations about healthy relationships. We work with ten, eleven and twelve-year-olds about what it means to be a good friend and how to stand-up for a friend or yourself, even when it is hard. With students in high school and college, we discuss healthy relationships and warning signs of abusive relationships. We equip participants with tools to help them talk to a friend they are worried about and empower them to seek help. At every age, we talk about the role of the bystander, which is often the role we play as friends, and how to help or provide support to others. We break the tools into small actions everyone can do such as saying, “Hey, that’s not cool,” when you hear conversation that perpetuates rape culture and slut shaming or asking, “Are you okay? Can I help?”
This play reminded me that we are just scratching the surface when it comes to education about healthy relationships, consent and dating abuse. There is a famous quote from Rabbi Tarfon that appears in the Talmud. He says “It is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to idle from it.” To make cultural change happen, it takes time and hard work by many. When I read a story in the news about another teen life cut short due to dating violence or a sexual assault on a college campus, I imagine building a bubble around my future children to protect them from our culture of violence. I'm sure that’s how our parents felt about us. But I know the bubble won't help. What will help is dialogue; education; training for teachers, guidance counselors, camp counselors, campus police and the many other categories of professionals youth turn to; and supportive adults -- parents, educators, family members.
If you have a chance to see SLUT: The Play, please go. And even if you can’t see the show, you can still be part of this important culture change by starting the conversation with those around you. There are a couple easy ways to show that you believe in healthy relationships and consent education.
First, if someone tells you they have experienced sexual assault, rape, slut-shaming or any other traumatic experience, there is one message they most need to hear, “Thank you for trusting me. I believe you. I’m sorry this happened to you and it is not your fault.”
And second, think about what you are posting, sharing and liking on your social media. This is an easy way to promote positive messages about relationships, friendships and consent.
Click on these links for more information about Slut: The Play, consent education, or the Stop SlutCoalition. For more information on AWARE®’s healthy relationship and friendship workshops, click here.