A Class Aims to Eliminate Shame Around Rape Through Theater
by Mary Bakija
“A lot of students become empowered by the pen.” — Barbara Cassidy
The character declares: “Big ups to the girls who were told they were too loud, too bold, too loving, too much, too intense, too sensitive, too emotional, too angry, too hard, too excited. You were just being yourself.”
The speech continues, reaching its crescendo, and then the lights come up. The audience stands to applaud, some hooting, come crying—it turns out an evening of theater called “Seeing Rape” could be moving, inspiring, and even fun. But it’s the fact audiences show up at all, and are open to discussing the topic, that is most important to Professors Shonna Trinch and Barbara Cassidy, who teach “Sex, Gender, and Justice: Seeing Rape.” The course, which just began its fifth year as part of John Jay’s Interdisciplinary Studies Program, culminates with this annual spring performance of a selection of their students’ final projects: short, dramatic plays that are now performed as live staged readings at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater.
“For many, it’s surprising to see how common experiences of sexual violence are,” Trinch said about the conversations she’s had with students from other classes and general audience members after the performances. “It’s also surprising how candid the students are after they see the plays, how they feel that a space has been opened up that allows them to have a discourse without shame.”
Bringing attention to rape, both the topic and the word itself, is difficult to do in the theater, but no less so for a class. Even Jasmine Garcia, who had long-range plans to work with victims of domestic violence before registering for the class last year, thought an entire course dedicated to rape seemed daunting.
“It was difficult at first,” she said, describing a classroom full of students like her, all unsure of the right thing to say. “I was pretty apprehensive, but topics that make you uncomfortable are important to discuss. Being silent doesn‘t make the issue go away.”
That’s part of the power for Trinch, whose background is in linguistic anthropology. When she and Cassidy, a playwright who’s delved into the topic of rape in her artistic work, first conceived of the class several years ago, they focused on the idea of exploring how rape is discussed and defined both in everyday life and in fictional accounts. “In order for us to see it, we have to look at how it’s being shown,” Trinch said.
Students in the course examine representations of rape across a spectrum of media, including novels, movies, plays, podcasts, documentaries and other research materials. Throughout the semester, they keep a journal of interpretations, reactions, and ideas, some of which may help inspire their final short plays, which may ultimately be chosen to be part of the spring performance. With students from so many different backgrounds and experiences, the projects tend to depict characters, situations, and other aspects of sexual violence that aren’t normally portrayed in the media.
“Our students’ work speaks to young people of many different backgrounds—ethnically, racially, economically, sexually,” Cassidy said. “And in the language of youth.” Cassidy says the final project allows students to shine in previously unseen ways—those who struggle with essay writing may express themselves in a wholly new way with a play—allowing different types of students to succeed. In many ways, though, the benefits go beyond the academic. The class, and the performance, can be therapeutic as well.
It’s really heartening to see how passionate the students become about this topic.
— Jeenie Yoon
“I’ve had so many students tell me that they were raped, and how just writing and thinking about it has empowered them,” Cassidy said. “A lot of students become empowered by the pen. This isn’t a self-help group; this is an academic class, and we’re making art. But art can heal. A lot of shame can be removed.”
“Those who have suffered sexual violence, or those who are in fear of suffering it, are not the ones who need to walk around with the shame of it,” Trinch said. “A colleague of mine, psychologist Katie Gentile, suggested that the plays allow students to hand the shame to others, which I thought was really powerful. That might be what the students are saying—they’ve been liberated by being allowed to talk about it, being allowed to represent it with all the language that comes with it, language they’re not allowed to use or isn’t typically used in a classroom.”
Students say the empowerment comes not just from the work itself, but from the instructors, who handle what can be an emotionally wrought topic with respect, sensitivity, and the realistic perspective that life continues after trauma—and that life can still be enjoyable.
“They are amazing,” Garcia said. “They are so comfortable with themselves, and it provides nothing but confidence in the class.”
Accolades for the professors—as well as the students and their work—extend beyond the John Jay campus. In the spring, Cassidy and Trinch were invited to Gracie Mansion to meet with New York City’s First Lady, Chirlane McCray, during an event where she spoke about transforming rape culture. Naturally, they brought students with them to share the spotlight and to attend the event alongside their organization and partners.
“It’s really heartening to see how passionate the students become about this topic,” said Jeenie Yoon, Senior Campus Sexual Assault Coordinator at the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault, which has partnered with the class to offer expertise including facilitation training to students. “That is a big testament to Barbara and Shonna’s work. Watching students go from ‘I’m taking this class for credit’ to ‘I think I might actually want to do this after I graduate’ is really amazing.”
Cassidy and Trinch are committed to making sure that students become the messengers of the knowledge they gain in the course, both through their creative work and in simple day-to-day conversations. To that aim, the professors bring in experts from places like the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault, the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, and Womankind to teach student ambassadors how to pass along what they’re learning to their peers.
“Having a younger person talk about this, the message will come through much stronger,” said Hannah Pennington, Assistant Commissioner of Policy and Training at the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence. She and her colleagues, along with those from the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault, have trained “Seeing Rape” ambassadors on how to facilitate group discussions among incoming freshmen at John Jay, students at their former high schools, and more.
“It’s helpful to have young people in the community who know what’s happening on the ground inform how we provide education and do prevention work,” Pennington added. “But we’re not just talking about prevention; we’re also trying to improve connections to services for survivors. It’s just as important for survivors to have somebody they actually feel comfortable talking to. It really helps change the culture in an exciting and hopeful way.”
The desire for a cultural shift in perceiving rape is the essence of the program. It’s a natural fit for John Jay, the professors explain, because the students in their class now will be the counselors and law enforcement officers working with these issues in the future.
“Ultimately, we’re interested in justice, and how students can become better professionals—we’re training people who are going to work in the justice field, whether in the police force, social services, or wherever their paths take them,” Trinch said. “We hope that as they concede different representations of rape, they will go into the field and not believe their stereotypical versions.”
“We’re thinking about how we can continue to have students engaged even after they graduate,” said Josie Torielli of the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault. “How can we keep them working in the field, always considering these conversations about rape and sexual violence, no matter what area they go into?”
Another long-term goal of all those involved in the project, aside from “the lofty goal of eradicating rape,” as Cassidy puts it, is no less ambitious. They’re looking for grants and funding to help expand the reach of “Seeing Rape” by developing it into a model program that can be adapted and incorporated into any school’s curriculum.
“The students who write these plays sit through a whole semester-long study of rape, and then they’re able to put
something on paper that resonates with their classmates,” Trinch said. “That kind of connection is important, and we feel this is the kind of program that can be replicated anywhere there are students.” JM