It’s 8 AM on a Monday morning. Around me, teenagers yawn and snipe at each other, stretched out in blue plastic chairs. I’m at a south London school to watch a pioneering theater workshop that teaches 16-18 year olds about sexual harassment and assault—even though some attendees seem less than interested in the learning opportunity. “I’m tired, this is a good opportunity to sleep,” says one gangly student to his friend.
He manspreads more than I’ve ever seen anyone manspread in my entire life; his legs wish-boning with teenage bravado, pressing into the blue plastic chairs in front of him. “Shut up,” he mutters at his mate, who says the same thing back. I feel like a narc in police-issued baggy jeans, going undercover in a school with only Urban Dictionary and a rudimentary understanding of Snapchat to guide me.
Today’s performance is part of a twelve-part pilot to be conducted at schools across London and the northeast. Though the project—a collaboration between Durham University, Doll’s Eye Theater, Rape Crisis South London, and feminist organization Purple Drum—has been months in the making, the timing feels auspicious. Post-Harvey Weinstein, we're finally talking about sexual abuse and harassment, even if some of those conversations haven’t yet translated into meaningful action.
Compulsory sex and relationship education won’t be taught in UK schools until September 2019, even as an widespread sexism and violence takes place in classrooms across the country. A 2016 British parliamentary inquiry found “shocking” levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence in English schools. Twenty-nine percent of 16-18-year-old girls had experienced unwanted sexual touching in schools, and 71 percent of the same age groups heard the words “slut” or “slag” used regularly.
In the absence of formal education on sexual assault and harassment, the organizers of today’s performance are stepping in. Over the course of the pilot, an estimated 1,500 students will watch an hour-long play which consists of short scenes exploring different situations—on the bus, in the supermarket, on a train—in which sexual harassment and assault can take place. If all goes to plan, they hope to secure further funding to roll the play out nationwide.
"It’s hard to be knocking on doors all the time, asking for funding,” says Dr. Fiona Vera Gray, the Durham University academic whose fieldwork shaped the play, as we wait for the actors to take the stage. Gray has also partnered with Rape Crisis South London to produce a set of four lesson plans building on the areas covered in the play, like the differences between banter, harassment, and a compliment. “It’s about giving young people an ethical framework to make decisions about sexual consent in."
The teenagers fall silent as the play begins. The scenes vary: In one, a female care home worker talks about being told to smile by strangers and co-workers alike. In another, an embarrassed and upset girl is told she should be flattered after an older man masturbates at her in the supermarket.
One scene in particular cuts through: A woman is on a bus home from a night out, and the man in the neighboring seat won’t stop pestering her. He taps her on the shoulder, asks her intrusive and unwanted questions, demands to know her name and pulls her headphones out of her ear.
Until now the teens had been watchful but wary—I even heard the odd snigger. But now they’re rapt and fully engaged. It’s a situation they’ve seen, or even experienced, before.
Another sketch, involving a saccharine YouTube vlogger encouraging her viewers to “dress like a boy” and practice “neutral face” when walking home at night, draws laughs from the crowd. (At the vlogger's request, her viewer puts on multiple pairs of baggy tracksuit bottoms and falls over, expertly skewering the central premise of rape culture—that women should behave a certain way to not be assaulted.)
Whilst most of the play focuses on the impact of sexual harassment and assault on women, one scene in particular addresses the culture of omertà that exists among men and prevents them from speaking out. Two boys are playing a video game, eyes intent on the screen.
“It’s messed up isn’t it, what happened to Tig,” one boy ventures to the other. It becomes clear that Tig is a girl at their school who’s been the victim of revenge porn, and that the two boys helped share her photographs.
To my right, my formerly disinterested, manspreading neighbor sits forward, chin cupped in the palm of his hand.
After the performance, the students participate in a workshop to discuss what they've just seen. The girls in the room want to talk, their hands shooting up as they share their stories. “I’ve been catcalled on the bus,” volunteers a girl with multi-coloured dreads. Another says she has been stared at by a stranger on a train. Everyone has stories to share.
The boys mostly stay silent but respectful. One or two ask questions like, "How do you ask out a girl you like without harassing her?" Read her body language and back off if she’s not interested, the actors leading the workshop suggest. "What do you do if your friend is behaving disrespectfully to other people?" Challenge it, says a girl from the front row.
Sixteen-year-old Dwight (the school requested we withhold his last name) was one of the few boys confident enough to speak publicly during the workshop. “I think it was really good. It opened my eyes and made me look at how I talk to girls," he says.
The subject matter is serious but deftly punctuated by humor: The vlogger scene, in particular, made the students laugh. "We try to have enough lightness in there so we’re not just hitting them over the head,” explains Amy Ewbank of Doll's Eye Theatre, the director of the play.
Sixteen-year-old Ashani, whose surname was also withheld at the request of the school, found the play enlightening. “I feel like I’d speak out more now because if people aren’t aware about it, nothing will get done. Like the scene where that guy was staring at the girl on the train, I didn’t know that was sexual harassment."
After the avalanche of allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other famous men, women are speaking up about sexual violence more than ever. But all this talk doesn’t help much if it’s not being translated into meaningful preventative work, particularly in our schools—beginning with education-based initiatives like these, which present sexual violence in all their messy complexity.
"We didn't want to make things black and white," Ewbank says. "Today a lot of students asked, 'What should I do?' but there's no right answer. We can't always tell them to intervene, and we can't always tell them to stay silent. The main thing we can do is start to talk about it and give it space."