“Look around you,” says Marc Rich, standing in front of a room filled with over 1,000 Marines. “You’re all dressed almost exactly the same.”
Not an especially perceptive way to open a workshop—unless you’ve been contracted by the Navy to use participatory theater to educate sailors on consent and rape prevention.
“If rape happens to people dressed in camo, to elderly people, and children, it has nothing to do with how you look or dress,” Rich continues. “It’s about is dangerous predators looking for easy targets.”
In 2014, Rich, the director of interACT, an educational theater group based out of Long Beach State University, was hired by the Navy to lead role-playing workshops that essentially try to teach sailors not to rape—or how to avoid being raped—while on active duty.
Two years later, Rich and his troupe have traveled to more than a dozen Navy bases around the world—from Camp Pendleton to 29 Palms to Guantanamo Bay—reaching an estimated 50,000 sailors and Marines.
“We go from ‘I don’t want to be here’ to standing ovations,” says Rich. “The response has been amazing.”
In 2013 a Pentagon survey shocked the world by showing an increase in sexual assaults in the military from 19,000 in 2010 to 26,000 in 2012.
These statistics sparked public outrage, leading Congress to demand the military take a more aggressive stance on rape prevention and prosecuting criminal behavior. The Navy’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office was told they needed to step up.
The military’s rape-prevention program has long been criticized. Posters with messages like “Wait ’Til She’s Sober” seem to support rape culture more than challenge it.
One mandatory educational video depicts a terrified Marine running to a fellow soldier after barely escaping an attack: “Why didn’t you have a buddy with you?” he asks her, accusingly.
“We’ve gotten a bad rap,” says Jill Loftus, the Navy’s SAPRO director, “partially because we’ve been so proactive.”
“PowerPoint presentations don’t work,” says Loftus, who cites the advent of Rich’s participatory theater workshops as proof the Navy is responding to these critiques.
“The great thing about this is it puts sailors on the spot,” Loftus says. “It’s one thing to sit in a chair and talk about how you would have handled a situation differently. It’s another thing to have to get on stage and try it out.”
“We put young actors on stage that sailors can relate to, can laugh with,” Rich says. “Then, when the mood changes and one of those actors sexually assaults a woman, the men watching are caught off-guard. They want to know what this says about them.”
That's why the program works for at least reporting more assaults, Loftus says. It gives sailors practical examples—not just abstract scenarios—for when they have to turn in a friend or a superior.
“It’s hard to go against your peers,” Loftus continues, “or stand up to someone senior to you—no one wants to break up the party.”
“As a concept theater is an amazing tool,” says Amy Herdy, a journalist who began exposing sexual assault in the military in 2004, “but you can’t teach a rapist not to rape.”
Three years after the Pentagon’s game-changing 2012 report, millions of dollars have been funneled into rape prevention in the military, but a debate is still raging about whether these programs have made any actual difference.
“The problem is that most sexual assaults in the military are power plays,” says Herdy. “An officer abusing their rank or a victim incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. Participatory theater isn’t able to address situations where there are no bystanders and no opportunity for intervention.”
2013 showed a 50 percent increase in reporting of sexual assault in the military—numbers military officials often show as proof that their efforts are working. But only 484 of those cases actually went to trial, and a mere 376 resulted in convictions.
“Without prosecution prevention strategies can create a false sense of safety,” continues Herdy. “This may sound harsh but most survivors would much rather see their perpetrator prosecuted than watch a skit teaching empathy.”
“If the military really wanted to end this epidemic, they would court-martial the sex offenders,” says Herdy. “It really is as simple as that.”
Sharon Mixon was 17 when she joined the National Guard. She was later accepted into the Air Force Academy and sent to Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm.
Then, in 1991, while preparing to return to the United States, Mixon was drugged and gang-raped by fellow servicemen.
“I didn’t want the military to get a black eye,” says Mixon. “So at first I didn’t push it with my command.”
In 1999, at the encouragement of her therapist, Mixon began to speak out about the crimes committed against her. It was then that her life completely fell apart. She was harassed, tormented and even went through a period of homelessness.
“I was a decorated soldier,” says Mixon. “I served 12½ years, but because of what happened to me I lost my career. I lost everything.”
Service members who report crimes of sexual assault are 12 times more likely to experience retaliation than they are to see an attacker convicted, says Human Rights Watch. This includes shaming on social media, threatening text messages, and vandalism.
“For one thing, prosecution needs to be taken out of house,” says Mixon. “When a rape is reported it’s the commanding officer that decides whether it will go forward—and they’re almost never impartial.”
Since interACT started leading theater workshops for the Navy, Rich has seen many of the challenges of preventing sexual assault first-hand.
“We need to help potential victims look for the right warning signs before things escalate,” he says. “Predators are constantly looking to cross boundaries. This can be as simple as someone asking to buy you a drink and when you refuse he continues to insist.”
Rich says theater isn’t a silver bullet. The program has to work in tandem with other rape prevention techniques for systemic change to take hold.
“We’re one piece of the puzzle,” he says. “My hope is that the other pieces will be addressed as comprehensively as the prevention side.”
According to the Military’s 2014 Annual Report, sexual assault has dropped 23 percent since 2012, yet nearly half of the assaults reported were not “unwanted sexual contact,” groping or verbal abuse. They were “penetrative sexual assaults,” a percentage significantly higher than previously believed.
“We’ve seen an increase of reporting of over 121 percent,” Loftus continues. “A tripling of male reporting in the last two years.”
“My job,” says Loftus, “is to create a safe environment for sailors and Marines to do their jobs. But we’ve become numb as a society to violence and sexual behavior that is inappropriate.”
Next week is the 24th anniversary of Mixon’s gang rape.
“I do feel hopeful about the increase in reporting. But I also feel angry that the military never seems to get to the heart of the problem,” she says.
“This theater—these workshops—are checking a box to say they’ve done something. What they need to do is hold enlisted men and women accountable.”