- Exploring and Sharing Strategies for Staging Affirmative Sexual Consent: 100 Shades of Grey and Beyond
During the last five years there has been an emergent shift toward affirmative consent-focused training and rhetoric as a paradigm in sexual-assault-prevention programming and law in the United States, Ireland and the United Kingdom. As Charlene Muehlenhard et al. argue regarding sexual-assault cases in universities in the United States and Canada, “Often the complaining student and accused student both acknowledge that sexual contact occurred; the issue of contention is whether this sexual contact was consensual” (458). To address this issue, educators and activists have tried to respond with better education regarding sexual consent, with an emphasis on what it is and how it is attained. Under affirmative consent standards, “no does not mean yes; silence does not mean yes; only yes means yes” (465). At the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway), where I teach, a recent survey revealed that “50% of NUI Galway students would not verbalise what they are comfortable with sexually with sexual partners” (“Smart Consent”). Educators and activists subsequently have been using a variety of programming approaches to highlight the intricacy of verbal and nonverbal cues shared between partners and how their communication is undergirded by coercive gender and sexual norms.1
This essay investigates the expanded opportunities for theatre as a mode of campus or community education around sexual assault in light of this shift toward affirmative consent. I will do so by analyzing multiple stages of the development and performance of a devised play on these themes titled 100 Shades of Grey that I co-created with multiple ensembles of undergraduate and postgraduate students at NUI Galway during 2014–16.2 I consider the relationship among affirmative sexual-consent educational paradigms, theatre, and university education at a time of heavy coverage of persistently high rates of sexual assault within educational contexts, particularly at the university level.
By using the process of 100 Shades of Grey’s creation as my central case study, I identify how our various ensembles’ theatrical process of working proactively and deliberately with the discourse of affirmative consent shaped the dramaturgical structures of our play over the course of its several iterations. Based on these experiences I offer the Brechtian and feminist theatre approaches that we employed as a productive pairing with affirmative consent’s invitation to critically evaluate “sexual scripts” that underlie the dynamic of gaining and giving consent between sexual partners. Sexual scripts play out “normative cultural expectations and behaviors,” which, when isolated, make evident “the cognitive schema of a normative progression of events in a sexual encounter” (Johnson and Hoover). These scripts, as commonly understood in the social sciences literature, are highly gendered and heteronormative, as the “traditional sexual script presupposes that the man advances the sexual contact, and the woman resists and serves as the gatekeeper of sexual activity” (ibid.). Kristen Jozkowski and Zoë Peterson emphasize that affirmative consent–focused approaches must also have a critical gender dimension as “women and men are socialized to communicate and interpret consent in different ways” (518). For sexual scripts to change, sexual relations and gender norms must be viewed critically and performed with a difference. It is this challenge we attempted to stage through 100 Shades of Grey. [End Page 137]
Affirmative consent’s emphasis on not only what sexual relations are but what they could be were most productively amplified by our ensemble through combining the working methods of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre (particularly its nonlinear dramaturgy) and the concrete political and aesthetic strategies of feminist performance practice. These dramaturgical frames allowed us to interrogate sexual scripts enacted by individuals from a variety of subject positions (survivor, perpetrator, bystander) and link them to a wider social and cultural context as part of a network of social relations. Our ensembles also prioritized the representation of LGBTQ and other minority sexual perspectives, including that of male survivors of sexual assault. This challenged what my various ensembles and I perceived as the heternormative bias of sexual-assault-prevention education models that we had experienced previously or studied as part of our devising process.
The intersection between feminists and...