Is There a ‘Right Way’ to Address Issues of Sexual Violence Through the Arts?

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Analysis Violence

Is There a ‘Right Way’ to Address Issues of Sexual Violence Through the Arts?

Kim Tran

When it comes to survivor narratives, activists are specific about what makes accountable, ethical, and potentially radical storytelling.

“The script made me want to cry for all the wrong reasons.”

Tracy Camp has spent the last few months talking about a play she’s never seen. But based on the script she obtained, she told Rewire.News, “I knew I couldn’t watch it.”

In September and October 2017, the Marin Theatre Company (MTC) produced Thomas and Sally, a highly controversial piece that portrayed Sally Hemings, the child slave of Thomas Jefferson, as his consenting—and indeed desiring—sexual partner.

Camp, a Bay Area-based actor and activist, saw an early advertisement for the show on Facebook. According to her, the image depicted Hemings as coquettish and significantly older than historically documented. She said both the play and its marketing “perpetuated the idea that this 14-year-old girl was so happy to get raped. It’s written like a really bad porn.”

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What truly concerned Camp was the theater company’s reaction to criticism from her and others on social media. An early tweet responding to criticism of the advertisement includes an image that reads, “Don’t judge a book by its cover. My math textbook had a picture of someone enjoying themselves on it. I did not enjoy myself at all.”

Camp told Rewire.News that the responses “were flippant. Some of them were joking.” MTC did not respond to multiple requests from Rewire.News for comment.

The MTC situation sheds light on a broader conversation within and outside of the arts community. Nationwide, there is an ongoing reckoning with sexual violence. From #MeToo to #TimesUp, the current political climate demands transparency, conversation, and survivor representation. With the proliferation of victim and survivors’ stories, there’s an equally important related issue: Is there a “right way” to talk about rape, especially when it intersects with other issues of power?

Camp boycotted Thomas and Sally. Before shows, she handed out informational leaflets that detailed the realities of Hemings and Jefferson’s non-consensual relationship in front of the theater. Before long, she was joined in her efforts by a group of Black women and allies who went on to form the Coalition of Bay Area Black Women Theater Artists. Together, they penned an extensive open letter excoriating the play, calling it an “irresponsible, deeply harmful project with no accountability.”

MTC has been in ongoing talks with the coalition about changing the company’s structure and diversifying its staff. But coalition member Tierra Allen says the fact that the show happened at all is telling.

Allen told Rewire.News, “If you are a company or person committed to collective liberation, if you are concerned with the lives of marginalized people in your community and doing work, that environment isn’t going to produce this” play.

When it comes to survivor narratives, Allen is specific about what makes accountable, ethical, and potentially radical storytelling. She explained, “If we’re going to explore stories of gender-based violence, people whose bodies are the most likely targets of that violence both in the past and present need to be the writers, the directors, the ones in control of theaters.”

Advocate Kyra Jones agrees that it’s important to center the voices of survivors themselves, but thinks that isn’t always enough. She noted to Rewire.News, “Being a survivor doesn’t make you trained or certified to provide a safe space.”

Jones works at the Center for Awareness, Response, and Education (CARE) at Northwestern University. She reviews plays and works with directors, actors, and playwrights to create safer environments for audiences and artists around sexual assault. Jones says one example of the biggest issues she sees is when directors and playwrights depict acts of sexual violence, rather than referring to actions that occur offstage. Jones told Rewire.News that the choice “itself leads to victim blaming and gives the audience the opportunity to judge the survivor based on how they acted during the assault …. There is no need for it, other than to be provocative and shock the audience.”

She added, “We can all imagine in our heads what happened.”

As a corrective, Jones advocates for education. The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence hosts a consolidated list of webinars, training, and events on sexual assault. In the first week of April, they gathered over 40 entries. Jones bases many of her suggestions for artists on similar training. She encourages production teams and venues to issue information to audiences and actors that include, as she put it, “proper trigger warnings [and directions of] how to get out if they have to leave.”

In addition, Jones emphasizes diversity when it comes to depicting how victims survive. She said, “Not everyone cries in the fetal position or can’t get out of bed for days. Some people use humor to cope. Others just want to go on with their lives in order to distract themselves.”

Many others in the community stress the need for similar preventive steps. Allen says creative teams must create systems for accountability that can gather and integrate feedback about disparities in racial and gender power dynamics in both artistic content and its performance. Without such existing measures, she described the process with MTC as an uphill battle: “It’s taken so much pressure and so much work from Black women and the support of thousands of people who signed our letter.”

Moreover, Camp says that when given, criticism about these topics should be free of penalty. She said, “There needs to be a system in place that keeps people from being blacklisted. I feel really lucky that I have a day job that allows me to speak up as much as I do.”

But critique for critique’s sake is not the end goal. Allen said, “It’s not that we shouldn’t tell those stories.”

When it comes to art about rape, she continued, “If the content is confusing and perpetuating rape culture as opposed to clarifying—those concerns speak to how we have to handle stories that are dealing with these subjects.”