Campus & Community

Getting our signals crossed:

5 min read

With biting comedy, ‘Sex Signals’ navigates the treacherous terrain of dating, relationships, and sex

Performers Gail Stern, Christian
Professional actors Gail Stern and Christian Murphy perform last Sunday (March 9) in ‘Sex Signals,’ a combination of improvisational comedy, education, and audience participation that explores the issues of dating, sex, and date rape on college campuses. (Photo by Faith Ninivaggi)

In the landscape of dating and relationships, the terrain between “no means no” and “baby, I’m yours” is expansive and treacherous, marked by the high peaks of gender-role expectations, the shifting sands of personal boundaries, and the boggy quagmires of mixed messages.

In “Sex Signals,” a performance at the Science Center Sunday (March 9), performers Gail Stern and Christian Murphy used improvisational comedy, audience participation, and thought-provoking scenarios to help Harvard students negotiate such tricky turf. The well-received event, part of the “Caring for the Harvard Community” series sponsored by the Office of the Provost, complements the efforts of the Committee to Address Sexual Assault at Harvard, which is considering using “Sex Signals” as part of freshman orientation.

Role playing in situations ranging from a pickup at a bar to an alleged date rape, Stern and Murphy engaged the audience with humor and with scenarios that, some audience members said, rang strikingly true to their lives at Harvard.

“It was absolutely relevant,” said Katherine Sorensen ’03. “It’s awkward to explicitly talk about these things.”

Playing the dating game

“Sex Signals” opened with a light touch, as the performers presented witty, self-deprecating explorations of dating and relationships.

The duo solicited suggestions of the cultural messages delivered to each gender. Women, audience members called out, don’t kiss on the first date, are quiet and shy, sit demurely with their legs crossed, and are sexually inexperienced.

“We’re virgins,” said Stern. “Every time.”

The audience described men as powerful, aggressive, emotionally closed, and sexually promiscuous.

As Stern and Murphy adopted these gender roles and enacted a meeting at a Harvard party, audience members were asked to flash red “stop” cards when the scene made them uncomfortable.

Cards began waving the moment Murphy approached Stern, giving her a drink. They flew again as he began his pushy pickup, holding her hand on his lap and stepping up his pursuit when he learns she’s a freshman. Their performances, while over-the-top, launched a discussion of mixed messages.

“The way these twisted mating games are being played these days, who can keep up with the rules?” said Murphy.

Laughter continued as the pair played out exaggerated ideals of the opposite sex. Stern, with a set of falsies pushed under her sweater, portrayed a sexually aggressive Victoria’s Secret model who loved to watch sports on TV, adored her boyfriend’s farts, and invited him to live out his fantasies with her aerobics-instructor girlfriends.

Murphy tried to strike a balance between confident, romantic, sexy, and worldly to portray the ideal man. Missing the mark, he took to heart the audience’s suggestion that he incorporate subtlety and sincerity into his ideal man.

“You’re really attractive,” he cooed to Stern, suddenly jerking his attention away to an imaginary emergency: “But oh, my God, a child needs to be helped!”

Dating turns ugly

“Sex Signals’” mood changed abruptly as the duo focused on date rape. Playing the host of a TV talk show called “I’ve Been Wronged,” Stern gave Murphy, a contestant accused of date rape, the chance to tell his side of the story.

As “Matt,” a student from the University of Montana, Murphy admitted that he did have sex with Joella, another student, but denied that it was rape. He had met her in a class and thought she was “everything I wanted in a girlfriend, but I figured she was out of my league,” he said.

They connected at a party, however, and the following weekend she invited him to her apartment for dinner. Matt was pleasantly surprised when she initiated physical contact with him, kissing him first, and the two wrestled playfully on the couch. She protested mildly, but when Matt offered to stop and leave, she continued the wrestling.

“It got really passionate really quick and the next thing I know we’re having sex,” he said. Although she said “stop” once, “it was really quiet,” he said. “I’m not that much bigger than she is, if she didn’t want to have sex, she could have hit me.”

“I like this girl,” he added, clearly smitten and hurt that she hadn’t responded to his calls. “I’m not going to rape her.”

Yet, said Murphy, Matt did rape Joella by the letter of the law, which calls rape sex without consent. To members of the audience, the majority of whom responded that they had “no clue” whether Matt had described a rape or not, the scenario brought the fuzziness of date rape into sharp focus.

“A lot of people see rape as the thing that happens when a guy jumps out of the bushes in a ski mask,” said Stern. While that certainly happens, she said that 85 percent of rapes are between people who know each other.

Our discomfort in talking about sex with someone we’ve just started dating, compounded by unclear personal boundaries and judgment-clouding alcohol, opens the door to date rape. While audience questions sought to clarify the legal distinctions of rape and date rape, Stern and Murphy encouraged the audience to think about the issue not in the black-and-white of legalese but rather in the shades of gray their skits presented.

“We’re challenging you to look beyond the legal issues and say, ‘What can I do?’” said Stern.

Susan Marine, Harvard’s coordinator of sexual assault prevention services, said many responses to audience surveys lauded the show for its sensitive treatment of this complex issue, providing not pat answers but rather more questions.

“That’s a good outcome,” she said.