Sex signals | March 18, 2011 | Pleasanton Weekly | |

Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - March 18, 2011

Sex signals

College students discuss those assaults that often go unreported

by Jessica Lipsky

When Amy invited David over to study, she didn't think her classmate would rape her.

The two had been drinking and flirting all night when the previously stop-and-go action reached its climax in unwanted intercourse. Amy whispered that David should stop, but the popular student chose not to listen and was later told that Amy was telling her friends that she had been raped.

"I didn't rape that girl," David said, adding that if Amy really didn't want to have sex she would have been more forceful in letting him know.

This scenario was one of many presented by actors Courtney Abbott and DeRante Parker at Las Positas College as part of Sex Signals, a sexual assault awareness program that combines improvisational comedy and audience interaction to provide a provocative look at dating, sex and the core issue of consent.

What followed the skit was a heated discussion where the audience and the performers talked about the oft-gray area of date rape, a common form of sexual assault that is most prevalent among college-age adults. Although there were a total of 30 reported rapes in Pleasanton and Livermore in 2009, Amy's incident wasn't one of them.

"This is an opportunity for our students to take a look at themselves and each other by examining the world of dating in a provoking and alluring style," said Danya Barbero, student health center coordinator at Las Positas, which hosted the presentation the night of March 9.

The college partnered with the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department and the Livermore Police Department as part of the Young Men of Strength campaign, which encourages young men to live a life based on equality, caring and respect. Officers handed out Smarties (for making smart decisions), buttons that asked "Can I Kiss You?" along with Hershey's kisses and informational fliers.

"Las Positas is a pretty safe campus because we do preventative measures," said Jeff Reters of the Fire Department. The last sexual assault reported to campus police occurred in 2007. He also agreed that fewer such assaults may take place at commuter colleges where students live at home.

"College students are at an elevated risk for sexual assault, especially when alcohol is involved," said health professor Elizabeth Hopkins. "The means of the presentation resonates with students."

The auditorium was almost at capacity as students filed in for the 90-minute presentation, which also dealt with power, stereotypes and societal expectations.

"Women don't want to be seen as a piece of meat, well, men don't want to be seen as animals that just eat meat," DeRante said before asking men -- who made up about half of the audience -- how they'd like to be seen by women. Independent, passionate and intelligent were the top responses.

To show how unrealistic these expectations were, Courtney portrayed a docile girl at a party alongside DeRante's uber-macho man and requested that the audience hold up red "STOP" cards when the scenario became too intense. A sea of red soon filled the room when DeRante's character began touching Courtney inappropriately and forced her to drink a beverage that might have been spiked with a date rape drug.

Like much of the presentation, this scenario dealt with the notion of power between the sexes and who had the responsibility to ask for consent. While DeRante's piggish caricature was obviously in the wrong, his David character solicited more mixed emotions.

"The rape scenario was very confusing," said Dianne Lennon about the It's Not My Fault skit, in which an otherwise nice and popular student commits acquaintance rape. Adding to the confusion was the fact that both were intoxicated and the lack of fight from Amy, the victim.

"We're so quick to excuse someone's actions when they're charming," Courtney told the audience, some of whom said Amy should have physically assaulted David if she didn't want to have sex.

"In real life, I've been in situations where ... I didn't feel like I could say 'stop,'" said Rachael Hastings, a psychology major. "When people said Amy should have (been more forceful), it made me angry."

These are the sorts of statements that put blame on the victim, Courtney said. "We want to find a way to make rape not have happened, which creates a society where it's really hard for victims to come forward."

The Amy-David situation was a realistic and common scenario, the audience agreed, though it is one that often goes unrecognized and underreported. Because acquaintance rape it is not the traditional idea of rape -- which is violent and between strangers in a public locale -- it is harder to manage.

"A lot of people don't know if they've been raped because of their guilt, so it's good to have these conversations to specify what's rape and what's not," said San Ramon resident Brittany Colston.

Although they didn't give a concrete set of circumstances and qualifications for rape, Courtney and DeRante advocated for enthusiastic consent, or the explicit asking and receipt of permission in intimate situations.

"These situations occur all the time," Rachel Hastings said. "(DeRante and Courtney) put it in our faces that you see this happening on a daily basis, so what are you going to do about it? It was a call to action in a way."

Participants said they often didn't step in to defend potential victims because they didn't know how, were worried about their safety or just didn't think it was any of their business.

"It's always worth stepping in," Courtney said, suggesting casual conversation or acting as a third wheel to break up a potentially dangerous situation. "Be an active participant instead of a bystander in making us a safer community."

The performers closed the presentation by suggesting the audience take part in an extreme consent challenge, in which students must ask for explicit verbal consent when they want something -- be it a kiss or a drink of water -- and respect whatever response they get.

"You often take consent for granted, so this makes it easier in an intimate situation," DeRante said.

Theater arts major Matthew Hofsted said he enjoyed the performance and realized its importance in keeping Las Positas safe. He said it will encourage people to report what might be going unseen, adding, "Knowledge is power!"

While students left Sex Signals with new and clearer ideas of what constitutes rape, the Los Angeles-based performers left Las Positas equally impressed, calling the crowd awesome.

"The audience was very engaged, a very honest crowd that really spoke about how they felt," DeRante said.

Courtney said she liked that there was a diversity of opinion in the crowd, and that they responded to each other with astute observations.

"This is happening whether it's being reported or not. No matter how safe the community is, no many how many blue lights and call boxes you have on campus, it's happening in places you can't police," she said. •


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