In order to better communicate to freshmen the dangers of sexual harassment and assault, the University this year removed “Sex Signals,” an educational performance featuring professional actors, from freshman orientation and replaced it with a short film shot on Yale’s campus presenting fictional scenarios of sexual harassment.
“We felt we could create a film with local context, local meaning and local traction,” Yale College Dean Mary Miller said. “And we wanted to show it to students at the earliest opportunity.”
But after viewing and discussing the short film Saturday, freshmen and their counselors had mixed reviews of the film. Two counselors said the film was at times ambiguous. The video was also limited to heterosexual encounters, they added, which may have made it confusing or inaccessible.
The film, directed by Reid Wittman ’09, shows three incidents depicting possible sexual assaults. In one, a female student tells her boyfriend she does not want to have sex, but then makes an advance. After he initiates intercourse, she asks him to stop and later accuses him of rape. In another, a girl blacks out after her freshman screw and wakes up the next day in bed with her date, with no memory of what happened.
Miller said she charged University Registrar Jill Cutler with producing a short film at the beginning of the summer addressing the question of consent and how alcohol complicates that interaction.
The idea for the video came out of a May 2008 report from the Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention and Education (SHAPE) committee, which specifically suggested that University administrators work with Catharsis Productions, which produces the “Sex Signals” performance, to create a more Yale-specific program. Catharsis had been tweaking the performance for several years prior in an attempt to better fit the University culture, Catharsis artistic director Christian Murphy said, but administrators eventually decided not to bring back “Sex Signals” and instead tailor their resources specifically to the experiences of Yale students.
“My interest has been all along to find a way to develop programming that would be more Yale-specific,” Miller said, adding that she has never seen the “Sex Signals” performance.
Murphy said he understands the University’s desire to have a program specific to Yale culture, but said research has shown interactive programs such as “Sex Signals” are more effective in changing students’ attitudes and behaviors.
The film screened before freshmen Saturday, and afterward freshman counselors discussed the themes introduced. Freshman counselors interviewed for this story had varying opinions on the effectiveness of the film and the discussions that followed.
Two counselors said that even though the film made an effort to put sexual assault into the context of Yale campus life, many of the references went over the new students’ heads. “Not a lot of them knew what the screw was so they didn’t understand that part,” Trumbull College freshman counselor Nick Albino ’10 said.
Jocelyn Traina ’10 said she felt the video ignored significant aspects of relationships prominent at Yale, such as the pressure of classes or the prevalence of homosexual relationships. Emma Vawter ’10 also said she felt homosexual relationships should not have been left out.
“It didn’t show any events that were homosexual and it didn’t show any events that were not related to alcohol,” Vawter said. “It was very heteronormative and alcohol-normative.”
Still, Vawter and others agreed that the video did a good job of facilitating discussion among their freshmen. Rishabh Khosla ’10 used the discussion time to address issues not depicted in the short film, such as homosexuality.
All five freshmen interviewed for this article said that the film was effective in leading to discussion and that its relevance to Yale life made the issues more real.
Marlena Vasquez ’13 said the film’s associations with traditional Yale events will linger.
“Now I associate [freshman screw] with that video,” Vasquez said, “which is sort of unfortunate.”
The SHAPE committee convened in February 2008 after an incident the month before, when 12 Yale students rushing the Zeta Psi fraternity posed for a photograph in front of the Yale Women’s Center with a sign reading “We Love Yale Sluts.”