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Professors, playwright discuss sexual assault

Amanda Michaels | Tuesday, November 14, 2006

As a testament to the discussion-sparking ability of the student-controlled play, “Loyal Daughters,” the panel discussion following its Monday night premiere had to be cut short in the interest of time – almost 90 minutes after the play ended.

The panel – modeled after the kind added to last year’s performances of “The Vagina Monologues” – included anthropology professor Cynthia Mahmood, philosophy professor Jim Sterba, Associate Director of the University Counseling Center Rita Donley, “Loyal Daughters” playwright Emily Weisbecker and history professor Gail Bederman. Almost 40 members of the play’s initial audience, cast and crew were present to hear the discussion and add their own questions to the mix.

“For years, people have been saying it’s time to tell the truth about sexual assault and [other sexual issues] and this [“Loyal Daughters”] is it,” said Bederman, who acted primarily as moderator. “It’s what ‘The Vagina Monologues’ would look like if Notre Dame students spoke.”

Mahmood, the first panelist to speak, aimed to put sexual assault at Notre Dame in perspective with the greater global issues of conflict and violence.

“I wanted to salute the brave and honest students who put together a play that was enlightening, entertaining and disturbing for all of us,” Mahmood said. “Looking at its comments about American culture – a violent and patriarchal culture – it’s unsurprising that rape and sexual assault is prominent here, especially on college campuses.”

What was disturbing about “Loyal Daughters,” Mahmood said, was its unflinching presentation of the truth, as it placed on stage real stories of “things many of us would rather not know.”

“A culture in which male bonding, degrading joking and ritual games are prominent, combined with a culture in which females have issues of self-esteem and a sense of a lack of access to power, becomes a toxic culture in which sexual assault can flourish,” she said.

Mahmood then shared her own experience with the “culture of silence” at Notre Dame, which occurred after last year’s Edith Stein conference, when she discussed her own gang rape and torture at the hands of a band of roving police while she was in India. It was the first time she had told the story publicly, and while her story appeared on the front page of the South Bend Tribune, she said she was met with “total silence” from fellow faculty members and administrators.

“It was as if nothing had changed, though I had just told about a horrific episode in my life,” Mahmood said. “I didn’t know how to interpret their silence. Did they not know what to say? Were they ashamed?”

She pinpointed this silence about sexuality as the starting point for the University’s work on the issue.

Sterba took a different approach to the problem, offering, as a “practical philosopher,” “something practical that could make things better for women and men” at Notre Dame.

He said many non-stranger rapes are unprotected, first-time sexual encounters often caused by misunderstanding and miscommunication. Therefore, he said, Notre Dame should explicitly prohibit a person from engaging in unprotected sex with someone other than their spouse, unless the couple had had previous unprotected sexual experiences or unless both parties had clearly expressed consent. Punishment for such violation would be dismissal.

“Applying a condom requires some break in the action and allows both people to reassess the situation,” Sterba said. “Such a regulation would reduce the incidence of date rape.”

He said condom use in this circumstance at Notre Dame would not necessarily be antithetical to Catholic teaching about contraception, but would be used to protect women and men from rape.

Donley, who spoke from a psychologist’s perspective, opened her section by emphasizing “the only way this issue [sexual assault] is ever going to change is if people care about it and stop making assumptions about it.”

She said the most dangerous part of Notre Dame was precisely the perception that it was perfectly safe.

“When I first came here, people thought rape only happened if a drunk townie crashed through the gate, grabbed a woman and raped her in the bushes,” Donley said.

But, she said, it is clear now that that is certainly not the case – and Notre Dame needs to address that.

Donley then explained the consequences of what she called the campus’s “drink and collide” social policy.

“People are not talking to each other, negotiating, and in that is where so much miscommunication and violence end up happening,” she said. “If you’re with a partner, you need to be making choices and saying them out loud.”

There is also a prevalence of stereotypes, she said, pointing out that a virgin is made fun of, but any female with sexual experience is “a slut and a whore,” and men are assumed to “want it anytime, anywhere, with anybody.”

As the writer behind “Loyal Daughters,” Weisbecker invited questions from the audience.

She was asked how putting the play together affected her, through the process of conducting the personal interviews to the time the performance ended tonight.

“From the start, it was a very emotional experience […] I was very honored that people were very ready to share their personal, very painful stories with me, but sometimes it was quite difficult to be experiencing their pain with them,” she said.

There were several questions about rape statistics and what the trends over the last several decades have looked like.

Bederman said while she thought rape had always occurred on college campuses, she felt it happens far more often now than it did when she was in school because of a different “alcohol culture … and sexual culture.”

Sterba said date rape is one of the most unreported crimes, difficult to prosecute because of set-up of the legal system.

“It really is one person’s word against another,” Weisbecker said. “Unless you have a handful of steaming sperm, [rape] can be pretty hard to prove.”

And the frequent involvement of alcohol in sexual assault cases, Sterba said, makes already blurry lines even grayer.

“Many times, because the woman or man is drunk, there can be the idea that maybe they’re consenting,” he said. “But think about it this way: if you had signed a contract selling your house while you were drunk, it would be declared legally void. So why would you be able to get sexual consent from an inebriated person?”

Mahmood said when she read “Loyal Daughters,” she was surprised not by the level of sexuality involved, but by the level of drinking.

“I guess I thought there’d be more drugs and less drinking,” she said.

When asked whether Notre Dame and its panel-identified “culture of silence” is “particularly worse” than other universities, Bederman said while drinking and rape are not unique to Notre Dame, other schools have more room to work with when laying out sexual assault policies.

“Other schools, they say, ‘This is sexual harassment, these are the rules. If you’re going to have sex, wear a condom. If you’re going to hit on someone, make sure they’re all right with it,'” she said. “But I’ve heard of people leaving Notre Dame and getting in trouble for sexual harassment in the ‘real world,’ because there are lines we just can’t draw here.”

Two more discussions – with new sets of panelists – will follow tonight’s and Wednesday’s performances of “Loyal Daughters.”