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‘Speak Up’ offers victims a voice

By Kaylen Strench     11/10/15 3:46pm

Wiess College senior Vicky Comesanas boldly entered the campus conversation on sexual assault last winter when she directed “The Speak Up Project,” a series of monologues delivered by actors and written by student victims of unwanted sexual experiences. The project was so well received that an encore performance was included in the Houston Fringe Festival in September. Now, Comesanas is looking for submissions for this year’s production, leading to questions about the project’s future and how it fits into the recent discussion on campus about sexual assault.

Comesanas said the production’s format will stay the same: Rice University students who want to participate can submit their stories. Shortly after, Comesanas will assign the monologues to actors, who will perfect their delivery over a couple of months. Then, the cast will perform the monologues to an audience of Rice students, followed by a group discussion of sexual assault on campus.

Comesanas said the main change is that the performance will run two nights instead of one, and will take place at the end of Sexual Assault Prevention Week, Jan. 29-30. Comesanas said one benefit of this change is that the integration encourages audience members to engage with the topic before the show.

“It will get people thinking about the issue before they even come to the Speak Up Project,” Comesanas said. “I think that it will facilitate really good discussion after the show.”

Comesanas said this year’s show is even more important now in light of discussion surrounding the recent release of the Survey of Unwanted Sexual Experiences.

“I think as a campus we’re moving forward, and it’s really, really great to see that people care about this issue, especially when it wasn’t emphasized as much in previous years,” Comesanas said. “But it seems like the voices of the victims are still missing.”

Comesanas said she thinks the stigma associated with victimhood discourages people from coming forward. One problem with this, she said, is that energy is completely focused on preventing future assaults when current victims exist and need support now.

“Everyone is so horrified at the thought of sexual assault on campus,” Comesanas said. “But the fact is, even though we’re trying to prevent it from happening in the future, it’s already happened. We need to think about how we support the people who it’s already happened to.”

Comesanas also pointed out that policies intended to combat sexual assault on campus can be very triggering for victims.

“Policy can backfire for the victims,” Comesanas said. “[For instance,] Sexual Assault Prevention Week is like, the most stressful week for victims. How do you make policy in a way that’s safe for the people that have had these experiences?”

Comesanas said infusing victims’ voices into the greater conversation is the only way to ensure policy both helps prevent future assaults and supports victims.

“The more we have victims’ voices available, the less harmful [policies] are going to be,” Comesanas said. “Even with all of these steps, you still need to have the victims’ voices in the conversations and you need to remove that stigma that comes with being a victim.”

Comesanas said the Speak Up Project addresses this problem by allowing sexual assault survivors to share their stories with the community without having to come forward publicly. 

“You don’t have to raise your hand and say, ‘This happened to me,’” Comesanas said. “But by putting the story out there and saying this happened to someone on campus; that’s incredibly powerful in helping to remove that stigma.”

Comesanas said she experienced the impact of the show firsthand when she directed it last year.

“People came up to me after the show and said, ‘Wow I didn’t know this happened on campus,’” Comesanas said. “And writers came up to me afterward telling me how cathartic it was for them.’”

Finally, Comesanas urged current students with stories to submit this year.

“You need to write [your story],” Comesanas said. “You need to write it because, in the end, you’re the only person who knows your story. It’s good for you, and it’s good for the community to know that these incidents are out there.”

To submit or get more information, visit http://on.fb.me/1PyVEKn or email director Vicky Comesanas at vcomesanas@rice.edu.

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