Photo: Katt Webster for CPT.

 

 

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

 

Writer and performer Alissa Cooper doesn’t tell us what the man is called. She dodges around it, as if applying a title to him solidifies his actions, makes them concrete around her and traps her in. She talks to us but behind her on a screen the words “I can’t say his name” repeat over and over.

Visually arresting and emotionally knackering, this moment guts you.

Sexual assault has become part of our daily conversation. It’s in every newspaper. It’s crawling out of every surface. Speaking up carries so much weight and yet so many are dragging themselves through it. Change feels tangible.

Awareness is vital and it’s both breaking down horrific cultural norms and revealing monstrous actions, but the unrelenting news cycle and debate can be exhausting, particularly if you are surrounded by people who disagree with you, or if you have personal experience of assault.

So talking about it can be tough. Putting words down makes it present all over again.

Because one night, one action, one choice to ignore someone’s refusal can mean that it loops around your head for a long, long time after. A repeated sentence or image, projected again and again onto the back of a wall.

“I can’t say his name.”

There are signs of boldness and unique experimentation that break away from the classic autobiographical one-person show in Love Songs: “Never Have I Ever”; the projected writing on the wall; an appliqued jumper standing in for another character; witty moments of audience interaction. Cooper eloquently links porn and pizza while vilifying the hypersexualisation of East Asian women, and uses a hula hoop to express her emotions when words won’t do, in a way reminiscent of Edinburgh’s hit show Hot Brown Honey.

Though the experiments don’t always land, they hold the most weight. They extract the original meaning of a game or an object and replace them with something that is entirely hers.

For a show with sexual assault at its heart, Love Songs is surprisingly sweet, like a bitter pill covered in layers of sugar, in an attempt to show that she is far more than what happened to her that night. The show is largely about navigating love. It’s jolly, bouncy, self-mocking and funny. When Cooper reveals just how in love she is today, the unbound joy is not even a tiny bit cringe worthy, it’s just delightful.

Cooper is most comfortable when she is dancing around the stage, putting the audience at ease while making us giggle, little winks and nudges tucked into lip syncs. Her humour is charming and her bravery admirable.

There are chunks of the show that aren’t as cleverly curated, where the aesthetics are scrappier, the language slightly throwaway and the poetry unable to stand up either for comedic or theatrical purposes. But ultimately Cooper creates an environment where we really care for her, to the point where we’re happy to listen to cheesy love songs all night and are genuinely thrilled for her happy ending.

 

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“Sexual consent row as feminists accuse Bristol University of downgrading workshop to online quiz”

“Feminist group furious over Bristol University’s ‘reckless’ changes to sexual consent workshops”

These were just two of the headlines last week from newspapers reporting changes made by the University of Bristol to its face-to-face sexual consent classes. But there is more to the story than the headlines might suggest.

Optional consent lessons are still being offered, though they are now taught alongside other topics including drug and alcohol awareness, personal safety and community living. Meanwhile, a section on assault and consent has been added to the mandatory e-induction for all students moving into university accommodation. In previous years, attendance for the classes was low, but the new efforts have increased numbers.

Consent lessons are regularly accused of being patronising, demonising and simply unnecessary, but the ultimate value of a well led session – that it has the potential to prevent someone from committing rape – cannot be underestimated. They offer a platform for difficult questions to be asked, away from porn, Reddit or ill-informed, exaggerating friends. They teach that rape and sexual assault don’t only occur in dark alleys, and that perpetrators are more often than not known to their victim. They teach about homosexual as well as heterosexual assault and about victim blaming, revenge porn and sexting. They teach about rights and responsibilities, and where to get help.

In its current form, sex education in Britain is something to be ashamed of, with the Local Government Association describing it as a “ticking sexual health time bomb” and students as young as 11 demanding better. At the same time, one-in-three female students in the UK reportedly experience sexual assault or unwanted advances on campus.

Every year as freshers’ week rolls around there’s a new article in a university newspaper from a young man denying the need for consent classes, but the hideous statistics speak for themselves and prove the need for these discussions. Any efforts to increase awareness around issues of consent should be welcomed.

Lumping consent into a talk with a number of other topics may suggest it’s not deemed worthy of deeper discussion. However the university reports that attendance for the new classes has doubled. Last year the uptake for the consent lessons was 40% of the 6,000 freshers living in student accommodation. This year 80% attended. Surely it is better to engage disinterested students through the lure of the other topics, while making the most of the opportunity to present them with information about consent?

Online, the e-induction has the potential to engage better with nervous freshers. Around the world, online-only services such as the Nigerian information provider My Question and the Arabic educational service Karaz have proved popular among young people, providing a platform for them to ask questions they are otherwise too embarrassed to ask. It’s not hard to believe that offering a more private space for students to learn about consent could be more effective than a Powerpoint presentation with a group discussion. At the very least, the obligatory course serves students the facts and would perhaps promote a discussion or two over the kitchen table.

Ultimately, it is the content of a consent lesson that makes the difference. As the optional classes have doubled in attendance and the online course is now mandatory at Bristol, these efforts to engage students through new formats should be celebrated. They are an attempt at positive change, not a reckless disregard for victims.

Original: Politics.co.uk

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L’Origine du monde by Gustave Coubert in 1886. Isn’t it great?

When we were in school they used to show us a video of a group of school kids on a tube train. One of the kids would be on a different carriage and encourage the others to join them there. So one by one they would jump over from their carriage to the next, leaping over the gap between them and being pulled through by their friends. Then one of the kids, I think it was a girl, goes to jump but she’s nervous. Her friends yell at her and she is pressured to jump, and then there’s a sort of crackling and crashing and the video changes to one of a watermelon being squashed into thousands of squelchy little pieces as it gets trapped between the tube carriages and smashes to the ground, the tube racing on ahead. That watermelon was meant to be that girl’s head.

Watching that video is what the script of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. feels like.

Revolt. is a piece of fiercly strong feminist theatre that would have much of Twitter exploding with calls of feminazis. Revolt. is about how we talk about sex, gender, and consent. It’s about how we deal with women, and how we deal with being women. It started its life at the RSC in 2014 with a series of other plays that had the provocation: ‘well behaved women rarely make history’.

So I’m going to talk a bit about women, and consent, and being well-behaved.

A few weeks ago I had sex (woah IKR- I swear this gets more interesting). Then – for various reasons that are explained probably too openly in the link below- decided I didn’t want to have sex and asked him to stop. More than once. He did not. I saw, and still see, this as a form of assault because it was non-consensual. I wrote something about it, and it was clear that not everyone agreed with me. I was sent a few messages.

troll1

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Which was fun.

But that’s not the point, I’m not the point of this. The point is- yes, it’s a tricky subject, and yes, what happened to me “could have been worse”. But that doesn’t mean that it’s okay. If that’s okay, where do you decide draw the line? Is it only not okay if the girl is crying? If she’s bleeding? If she’s shouting for help?

What Revolt. does is say this isn’t okay.

Revolt. reveals the language of control between genders that might make us think these things are okay. Because if we have an unbalanced language we use for sex, how can we expect people to know that those words translated into physical actions aren’t okay too? When I said stop, I was no longer a person having sex, I was an object being had sex with. By inverting the language and switching up how we talk about sex on stage, Revolt stands up and says, look, do you see these things aren’t acceptable?

Which I really needed to hear.

So perhaps this production will mean more to me than others, but there are plentiful reasons why I think it is still an inspiring play for a wide audience.

‘I want to make Love to you

Or

With?’

(This article on the patriarchy of sex is great too.)

I hadn’t read Revolt. before seeing it, but interviewed director Erica Whyman for AYT about it when it premiered. (I particularly remember because Lyn Gardner retweeted it and that was very exciting.) In that interview, Whyman said this:

“On the one hand [this provocation is] an interesting thought about women now, and whether we’re still expected to behave differently to men, and whether we have to behave badly in order to get noticed. But the other provocation is that their plays don’t have to be well behaved and can experiment with form.”

Birch’s script does both of these things. It swears and spins and screams and says this which is stunning:

‘Lie down and become available. Constantly. Want to be entered. Constantly. It cannot be an Invasion, if you want it. They Cannot Invade if you Want It. Open your legs and throw your dress over your head, pull your knickers down and want it and they can invade you no longer.’

The script also has a form similar in style -when looking at it on a page- to the work of Sarah Kane. The power of Revolt. undoubtedly lies in it’s script and its revolutionary call to celebrate vaginas in a way that manages to make the audience rock with laughter. It twists the norm and makes you reconsider the way you speak, and what you expect from others.

So then, the production. It has ups and downs. It’s like it chokes you and holds you up against a wall and you can’t breathe and then suddenly drops you, runs away to get a Sainsbury’s meal deal or something, then comes back a while later and picks you back up.

Everyone in Edinburgh is talking about Lucy McCormick’s Triple Threat, the play about sex and gender with lots of on-stage fingering. (I haven’t seen it but everyone who has is *very* keen to discuss). Next to Triple Threat, it feels like little else at the Fringe could be called radical, but the staging of Revolt.– which by it’s very nature, and the provocation it’s responding to, should be radical- doesn’t even get close to claiming the word.

(But it’s on at the Traverse so perhaps that’s not unexpected? Or is that unfair on the Traverse? But that’s a whole different conversation.).

The staging for the first few sections of the script revolve around beams of light, which I think look pretty cool, but apparently this has been done a lot before, better. It puts the focus on the words, the subtleties of action, the swing of a chair or the writhe of a hip. Anyway, I like it.

But the light beams aren’t used very much and afterwards, any sense of coherent style evaporates. The script suggests no props should be used but Whyman’s staging disobeys this, bringing on all the objects the script vaguely refers to- watermelons and bluebells and potatoes rolling around the stage- and it feels a bit GCSE.

In Birch’s script she has headings, great headings like:

REVOLUTIONIZE THE LANGUAGE (INVERT IT).

which they project onto a massive screen in this production. It feels a little too easy. Shouldn’t we have to guess these, aren’t they sort of stage directions rather than words we should see or hear?

Then there’s the ending. It was building well, the cast were saying things that made so much sense. Then they laid the table and suddenly became a grandma, mum and child and what they were saying didn’t seem to mix with what they were doing. The passion had suddenly disappeared and it wasn’t weird enough to be swept up in nor naturalistic enough to believe. I’m still not sure what we were meant to think of that scene. Finally all of the individual sections are thrown together in a conglomeration of cries and rants and a spinny chair. It feels thoughtless, it’s simultaneously not messy enough and too messy, it’s organised fun. Watermelons are smashed all over the place and I don’t understand why, and all I can think about is that video of the girl’s head as the watermelon as it’s smashed between the tube carriages.

I want to leave the theatre feeling invigorated, wild, like I do after the first two scenes (particularly the first), but instead I’m a little confused, a little deflated, a little unsatisfied. I hope I get to see this play again in the future in different hands, and perhaps those final scenes will make sense to me. But I’m very grateful to have seen this play, because I needed something bigger than another person to look at me and say it isn’t your fault, that’s not okay.

Revolt. She said. Revolt again. And again please.

(Seen on 17/08/16 at the Traverse at the Edinburgh Fringe)

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Notes: A) Trigger warning for descriptions involving sexual assault. Please don’t read if you think it might be upsetting for you. B) I know Zero’s cast and production team but would hope that personal knowledge doesn’t affect my judgement.

You’ve always believed that words have superpowers. They can bring out the strongest emotions and form the most elaborate stories. They can create new worlds, make people laugh, help you fall in love and spread empathy and understanding.

But what if your words aren’t listened to? What if you say stop but he doesn’t hear, so you say it again but this time he chooses not to? What if he thinks he knows what you mean and he thinks you mean the opposite?

If that one syllable can be misunderstood, mistaken or ignored – if someone can put their orgasm before your consent – then what’s the point of using any words at all?

The law acknowledges that it takes a few seconds for a man to gather his wits and pull out or away, but this is longer than a few seconds.

You tell him to stop because it’s too loud and you don’t want your family to hear and you tell him again and you mean it and you’re more nervous now and he’s not stopping and you’re not turned on anymore and as your body reacts to your brain it’s not exactly painful but it’s not feeling good and he’s not listening and it’s like when you’re on your phone and someone’s talking to you but you don’t really hear them because you’re too engrossed in the conversation and it’s not an excuse and you can see from his face that it’s going to end soon so you stop saying no and you give up and you look to your wall by your right side where there’s a bunch of photos of you and your friends from school and you’re all smiling and you wait and you’re silent and he doesn’t even notice and he finishes and he’s triumphant and he has no idea.

It’s maybe only a few minutes but for those few minutes you don’t want to be there, and you told him that by saying no. He gets louder when you want silence and now he’s gone and you can’t deal with the silence so you distract yourself by putting on a scary TV show to scare yourself in a different way.

That night you send him a message. He should have stopped when you said stop. You curl up in your sheets and hug the teddy who has been with you since you were two. You get out of bed and drink a lot of water and brush your teeth until the taste of him is gone.

He gets your message in the morning. He hadn’t realised what he’s done and begins to apologise so much you think his fingers will weave an enormous sculpture of the word sorry and his mouth will turn into a stitching patterned in the same shape. You thank him for accepting it and not being defensive. He says he would never do that. But then he says he only continued because he thought you wanted to.

He didn’t think you meant it when you said no.

You keep wanting a shower.

When you ask directly, he admits he wouldn’t have said anything if you hadn’t told him. He doesn’t really realise it’s wrong until you point it out. He says he wants to cry. You tell him it’s okay. You find yourself comforting your – no surely, can you call him that? He’s still your friend, isn’t he? But he did it so surely that makes him-?

You’re fine. You’re not scarred for life. You tell him that. You try to joke. But as you say that you wonder if maybe you are just a little bit. If you’ll be more hesitant about going home with someone from a club, or be more wary of dating, or if you’ll ever be able to trust a boyfriend so completely that you know they’d never do that, that they wouldn’t be with you like that without your consent. That they would stop if you asked them to. You wonder if you should give a contract to every boy you ever consider messing around with, make them sign an oath that they will never do that. Insert a chip into their neck that automatically pulls them back to the opposite wall as soon as you say the word stop.

You would say it’s a conversation we don’t have enough, but we do. Everyone knows it’s wrong. And of course he thinks it’s wrong too, it’s just that he didn’t see that he was doing it. He was ‘lost in the moment’. And you talk to a friend and ask if that counts as rape and the friend says yes and you google it over and over on incognito and the time between you telling him to stop and him stopping was only maybe a few minutes so surely it’s not that bad, you think, but those minutes have been playing on your mind and made you feel like you need to hold yourself together slightly in case you fall apart. You hide how much it affects you so as to save him from more concern. To be fair, you’ve just accused him of something pretty hefty, so he’s got thoughts of his own to deal with. You carry on talking and after he’s apologised a lot more you start to talk and joke as normal. Your approach to most things is sarcasm, and gradually it re-emerges, but it’s hard to forget those few minutes and carry on joking.

You’re constantly being told off for being too PC, for jumping on everyone’s comments in case they could seem the slightest bit derogatory. And you can’t tell if you’re overreacting, because you both wanted to have sex and up until that moment it was completely consensual, and it wasn’t as if he hurt you or treated you abusively. He just put his own desire over everything for a few minutes. Is a few minutes really that bad? And you need to write it down in order to make sense of it. Because you kissed him after and you meant that kiss and you like him and he’s not the type of person to do that at all, and you’d never expect him to hurt you or anyone else, and neither would he, and he’s horrified that he did it, once you told him. He’s probably more scarred from the realisation than you are. And he’d never do it again. But he still did it.

You don’t want to tell your best friend or your mum because you were one who went searching and you’re worried they’ll say you kind of brought it on yourself, by putting yourself in that position. But you also realise how dangerous that view is. That is only a step away from saying a girl shouldn’t drink because if she gets raped it’s kind of her own fault for not being aware or sensible enough.

And you carry on talking and joking but you still feel uncomfortable and you tell him you don’t want to have sex with him again and he understands and apologises again. Then you tell him you want space because his continuing to message you with kindness and smiley faces feels uneasy. Because however nice he’s been to you for the rest of the time you’ve known him, you don’t want to be reminded of those few minutes. But he doesn’t seem to understand that’s the reason and sends another smiley face, expecting to hear from you soon.

You’ve just been through a sad break up and you told yourself when getting involved this time – nothing serious, it was just fun and not stressful – that you wouldn’t let yourself get hurt. You thought that meant not getting too many feelings. You thought that meant restricting yourself in some way.

Maybe it’s not that big a deal. Maybe you’re overreacting. Maybe you should just forget about it and not let it affect you. Or maybe you can do without guys for a while, until you’re ready to trust someone else with your body and then maybe your heart, because you really don’t fancy either of them getting hurt again anytime soon.

He sends you another message. ‘Are you just not wanting to have someone at all?’ Yeah. Yeah that’s what you want, for a while at least.

Writing it down helps. Words may not have had much impact in that moment, those minutes, but maybe in the aftermath they really do have healing superpowers.

***

The above is the mindset in which I walk into Zero, a one woman play about broken hearts, broken confidence and broken trust. Those, and sexual assault.

We sit on the curb with Beth as she escapes her 21st birthday party for a moment. Grace Vance plays the gobby birthday girl with a mixture of poise, defiance and shattering vulnerability. She leads us through her story, chatting absent-mindedly and thinking back over the past few years of her life, jumping into the characters she introduces, switching accent with ease and skill.

Beth’s story shows the delicacy of relationships and how easy it is for them to be manipulative. It considers how sex and consent must be treated with such tenderness because when they fall out of balance it’s like everything turns to eggshells. Above all, her story shows how difficult it is to simply forget and move on.

Debut writer Rachel Ruth Kelly has an incredible awareness of youthful language which gives Beth’s monologue an ease to it. There is nothing strained about Vance treading over Beth’s story for an hour, getting worked up and calming herself back down. As Beth’s secret is slowly revealed, Kelly uses witty, dry humour to prevent this from being a self-pitying wallow in her misfortune. She picks up on traits of female language that I see my friends using all the time, habits and mannerisms that slowly wear down self-belief.

The thing is, in these types of situations- and I’m not comparing myself to Beth, she’s had it far, far, worse- it’s a feeling of worthlessness. When the feeling of wanting to be cleansed is gone, it’s the worthlessness that prevails, that jumps into your mind as the person you’re talking to looks over your shoulder for someone more interesting, or as you dig your nail into your skin every time you see a couple holding hands. If you’re dumped or ignored or are lying right there with someone you like and they don’t even hear you, or choose not to listen, or in Beth’s case far worse, it makes you feel like you may as well not be there. It brings your confidence levels down to zero and in Beth’s case, where she doesn’t have anyone close enough to help her build them back up, there isn’t a lot of hope for what happens when she gets up and walks back inside the club.

Zero (made by an all female production team) gives a voice to a young woman rendered silent by the media, by bullies at school and by a man who took advantage of her youth, devotion and desire to be loved.

(Zero is at Underbelly, Cowgate at the Edinburgh Fringe)

***

He sends you another message. ‘Are you just not wanting to have someone at all?’

At first you think: Yeah. Yeah that’s what you want, for a while at least.

But on second thoughts: I have plenty of someones in my life already.

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