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Play, groups examine sexual assault

Kathleen McDonnell | Wednesday, November 15, 2006

In the second of three post-performance panels, the student-organized production “Loyal Daughters” sparked a discussion about sexuality and assault at Notre Dame Tuesday.

History professor Gail Bederman moderated the discussion between anthropology professor James Bellis, Annie Envall from the S-O-S Rape Crisis Center, theology professor Robin Young and “Loyal Daughters” author Emily Weisbecker. About 50 people remained after the performance to hear and participate in the talk, which lasted for a little over an hour.

An audience member thanked Weisbecker for including different perspectives in the play, indicating a monologue about forgiveness for past sexual experiences and another regarding a conversation with Mary at the Grotto as particularly compelling for her on a Catholic level.

“I was very happy about the fact that so many people with very different perspectives came in and talked to me, so I felt like I was able to represent a really broad range of people,” Weisbecker replied.

She also expressed gratitude for the students whose stories comprise the play – particularly those of male students.

“The fact that they were all so open and trusting so that their stories could be shared and experienced by the community is profound,” Weisbecker said. “I was very honored that males would come forward especially and tell me their experiences with sexual violence.”

Opening dialogue like this play and panel, Bellis said, is a key step in moving toward change.

“[…] A discussion like this seems to me like what needs to happen. You [Emily] as the writer have generated far more spontaneous discussion then I ever had in my class,” Bellis said.

Bellis said a crucial element in curbing sexual violence is communication. He mentioned the culture clash in the American mindset between traditional values and perceived cultural norms as problematic in shedding light on the issue.

“Whenever I have talked about sexuality, mating patterns, marriage or violence, my classes go stone silent – whether they be 10 students or 150,” he said. “One of my greatest clues to a deep-seated concern is their response – almost not breathing while we talk about it.”

Silence about sexuality and assault can lead to victims not feeling comfortable reporting crimes, Weisbecker said. One monologue made a striking comparison between duLac’s treatment of consensual sex out of wedlock and that of rape according to University standards. Bellis spoke out against this regulation.

“A college or institution in which a policy that promotes silence to benefit the public presentation of the group over protecting the individual victims is an example of the individual being sacrificed for the good of the organization,” he said.

In denouncing pre-marital sexual relations as worthy of expulsion and placing committing rape (though not being raped) under the same punishment, all talks of sexuality become in danger of being silenced, and this may lead to the stifling of crime reports, he explained.

This lack of communication may also play a role in the physical assault itself, Envall said, because embarrassment over the situation may prevent a victim from crying out.

“Embarrassment is extremely big,” Envall said. “I think it has a lot to do with someone not wanting to actually be happening to him or you, that you let yourself enter a situation where you’re being victimized.”

She also said that no one could know how he or she will act in an assault situation until it happens – some people’s bodies “simply just shut down,” she said.

Weisbecker expressed hope that students can increase their self-confidence and therefore feel in control enough to be open about sexuality and violence.

“I’d like to boost everyone’s self esteem because I think that’s one of the things that really affects these situations,” she said, “they know right from the beginning that this isn’t a comfortable situation, but as you heard from so many of the scenes, he’s telling me it’s what I’m supposed to be doing … people feel conflicted.”

“If people can become more comfortable and positive within themselves, they would become more alive,” she said.

Weisbecker said the over-achieving aspect of high performance Notre Dame students can be dangerous as they, having had so much success, see failure as that much more frightening.

“There’s a fear of failure or of doing anything wrong. We feel like there’s a specific path we have to follow but we’re not sure if we’re on it,” she said.

Weisbecker also expressed the desire for a change in the campus culture’s focus on alcohol. Many of the monologues expressed alcohol-induced assault situations, suggesting that lessening the degree to which alcohol is consumed could create a safer environment, she said.

Bellis echoed Young’s expressed sentiments about the particular opportunity Notre Dame has as a leading institution to set an example.

“Notre Dame has an extraordinary central legacy that can enable it to be very different – for the good of the commonwealth and of all,” he said. “It takes more than a claim to be different for that to happen – you actually have to live out these principles.”

The third and final panel discussion will take place tonight after the performance in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.