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Using Laughter to Drive Home Tough Lessons About Sexual Violence

Two people laughing.
Two people laughing.

Dr. Gail Stern is funny. And she uses that in her work, teaching college students, members of the military, business people and others how to prevent sexual violence.

Stern says she began doing standup comedy as a teenager and found that getting people to laugh also got them to open up about difficult topics. "There's something deeper there than just being funny," she says.

With her creative partner, Christian Murphy, Stern has spent the past 20 years developing Catharsis Productions, which stages live shows and also offers educational videos that help people question their assumptions about sexual assault and acceptable behavior.

The program reaches people, she says, because it "gives people permission to acknowledge ridiculous behavior simply by laughing." And the laughter, she says, helps the audience get involved without feeling like they're on the hot seat.

Stern says the current sex scandals plaguing Hollywood, politics and the media have not changed much about the way Catharsis programs are taught.

Before this, she notes, there were sex scandals involving others: basketball star Kobe Bryant, comedian Bill Cosby, or presidential candidates. "If it comes up in conversation," she says, "we address it."

One benefit that today's landslide of sexual harassment allegations has provided: more conversation. For better or worse, Stern says, "It seems like the rest of the world is catching up to where our field has been for decades."

Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles on Nov. 12, 2017.
Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles on Nov. 12, 2017.

Training sessions

When Stern or any of the company's 28 educators conduct a session called "Sex Signals," they include an interview scene.

"Before, in older versions of [the show], the educator was interviewing the accused rapist," Stern says. "The audience would always blame the victim. Now that we interview the 'bystander,' the whole audience realizes they are bystanders."

In a video clip summarizing a "Beat the Blame Game" session, an instructor asks the audience, "When someone says they are sexually assaulted, realistically, what kind of attention do they get?"

She answers herself: "It's usually pretty negative."

The instructor is light-hearted, energetic. Her college-age audience is engaged, answering and laughing at her jokes.

The session explains to students how victim-blaming works, using a less anxiety-producing analogy such as bike theft.

"Victim-blaming is that tendency to try to solve a problem after it's already happened," another instructor says in the same video. "So, if your bike is stolen, there's a chance that you have a really helpful friend who loves you dearly, who's gonna say, 'Yeah, but did you lock your bike up right? Did you put it in a bad neighborhood?' And when they ask those questions, they may not even realize that what they're doing is implicating you in the crime of which you were a victim."

Ultimately, the goal of the session is to create a community where a victim can come forward without fear if she or he has been sexually assaulted. "Because who are they afraid of?" the first instructor asks her audience. "Us. They're afraid of us."