Speak About It: Making Safe Sex “Sexier” at the College

Guest post by Nicki Jannah, Delta Gamma

A performance-based presentation about consent, boundaries and healthy relationships.

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Over the past several months, the College has seen tremendous efforts by student, faculty, and administrators to spark productive dialogues surrounding the complex intersections of gender, alcohol, and sex in student life.  On March 26th in Commonwealth Auditorium, following the highly attended town hall meeting and preceding Sexual Assault Awareness Week, W&M harkened a novel ensemble, aptly named Speak About It, to campus.  Through a combination of humorously provocative skits, interactive dialogue, and powerful monologues, five members of Speak About It engaged a diverse W&M audience—hailing impressive student representation from varsity athletics and fraternity and sorority life —in an educational, performance-based presentation centered around promoting healthy relationships among young adults. Effectively demystifying the traditionally taboo topics of consent, sexual assault, sexuality, and bystander intervention, the nationally-acclaimed troupe’s plethora of healthy-relationship wisdom demonstrated not only what healthy sex can and should look like, but also how to spark dialogues about it.  The Speak About It mission: to initiate a conversation about having a conversation about sex, which leaves the student body feeling educated, entertained, and empowered to create positive change on our campus.

The performance was tailored to reflect the dynamics of our student body and did well to poke fun at W&M’s distinctive campus culture.  In my humble opinion, the most revolutionary aspect of this particular approach to sex education is its portrayal of monologues and conversations derived exclusively from real student experiences.  Recognizing that each individual has unique a story about their experience with sex, they validated differences by sharing a range of stories that represented diverse attitudes and histories around sex, from long-term monogamous relationships to same-sex assaults—including what the healing process can look like for survivors. Many of the monologues were poignant and wrenching—tales of empty hookups, a boyfriend’s anguish upon learning about his girlfriend’s experience of sexual assault, a bystander’s regret over not intervening to help a future victim.  However, the majority were stories of pride—stalwart virginity in the face of peer pressure and the enlightened discovery of sexual orientation—highlighting students’ maturing attitudes about theirs and others’ sexual choices.

I was particularly impressed by the program’s inclusive language, which reinforced the notion that healthy relationships are the right and responsibility of all human beings, regardless of gender or sexuality.  From one scene to the next, an actor morphed from a male-identified, heterosexual fraternity brother into an ambiguously-gendered, bisexual athlete.  Similarly, one actress segued seamlessly from a twenty-two-year-old virgin, to a responsibly promiscuous underclassman, to a bicurious sorority sister (with a particular interest in three-ways).  While the humor inherent in such dramatic transitions was not lost on the audience, neither was the underlying significance of such juxtapositions, which elucidate the dynamic, continuously evolving nature of human sexuality.  Just as individual preferences, likes and dislikes, are reevaluated and adjusted over time, consent to intimate acts must also be constantly renegotiated—everything from a flirtatious arm graze, to a first kiss, to the an earth-shattering orgasm requires proactive, unequivocal approval from all involved parties for consent to be valid.  In any relationship, be it an 8-year, common law marriage or a one-night stand—regardless of age, gender, or lifestyle choices—consent is the presence of a yes, not the absence of a no.  And, as my favorite dialogue in the program emphasized, the process of giving and getting that unequivocal “yes” is both arousing and empowering.

As the program demonstrated, there is no “one size fits all” recipe for success when it comes to healthy relationships and mutually-rewarding sex.  However, by educating ourselves on ways to effectively communicate with partners about desires and limits—through engaging in dialogues like Speak About It which remind us that informed sex is good sex—we enhance our sexual competence and probability of relationship success.

 NOTE:  Speak About It began as an interactive program for the students of Bowdoin College, comparable to Orientation programming here at W&M.  The first script was developed when the performers put out a call for confidential, personal submissions from among the Bowdoin student body. Since then, it has shifted as new actors and material are added.  In the wake of Sexual Assault Awareness Week, I urge anyone who feels comfortable and inspired to visit the Speak About It website (speakaboutitonline.com) or Facebook page (facebook.com/SpeakAboutIt) where you can share your own experiences, access additional information about resources on our campus, and learn more about the organization.