'Sex Signals' aims to eliminate sexual assault

By W. Wayne MarlowApril 2, 2014

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1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Actress Jessamyn Fitzpatrick steps out of character to ask the audience how participants in the previous scene could have handled a situation differently during a presentation of "Sex Signals" hosted by First Army April 1 in Heritage Hall at Rock Isl... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
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2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Jessamyn Fitzpatrick (left) and Ardarius Blakely perform a scene during a presentation of "Sex Signals" hosted by First Army April 1 in Heritage Hall at Rock Island Arsenal, Ill. "Sex Signals" is a dramatic, interactive play used by the Army to comba... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
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3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. -- First Army ditched the PowerPoint and embraced the powerful.

The unit hosted "Sex Signals," a dramatic, interactive play designed to combat sexual assault, in Rock Island Arsenal's Heritage Hall April 1.

While the Army has increased sexual assault prevention training in recent years, most of it has been in PowerPoint format, either in classrooms or online. That's not the case with "Sex Signals," according to Lt. Col. Jennifer Schmaltz, First Army's Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention program manager.

"They used humor. That was a big part of it," said Schmaltz, a native of LaCrosse, Wis. "They incorporated improvisation, education and audience interaction to provide a provocative look at dating, sex and consent. This was a little bit more fun than what we do with most of our training. "

While "Sex Signals" is entertaining, it addressed a tough issue directly, and Schmaltz noted, "This may have made some people very uncomfortable."

But that discomfort is no reason to shy away from the subject, said Ardarius Blakely, one of the actors in the two-person production.

"It's an issue we don't really talk about, and we need to," Blakely said. "It's a funny script and approaches it in a different way. It encourages people to talk about a tough subject."

Staged by Catharsis Productions, the play first explores how gender stereotypes and preconceptions can contribute to tensions while dating. The actors voiced their inner thoughts to the audience, showing how people can perceive the same situation in different ways. Next, the actors show how many factors can lead to sexual assault. The actors periodically step out of character to get audience feedback on what they just saw and how assaults could be prevented.

The play concludes by encouraging attendees to come up with solutions during a brainstorming session.

The audience participation is one of the play's main attributes, according to actress Jessamyn Fitzpatrick, who made her Sex Signals debut in the Rock Island Arsenal production.

"What makes it so cool is that there's a scripted portion, but the audience has such an integral role," she said. "They really help set the tone. That interaction changes the direction the show goes."

The play was first performed on college campuses, but was adapted to the military, in part because many Soldiers are college-age.

"It was last year that the Army realized the PowerPoint and classroom training it had been doing hadn't made a huge difference," Schmaltz said. "So the Army had a huge stand-down and, since then, we've seen a change in terms of how this is addressed."

That includes taking the onus off the person being assaulted. "In the past, the focus was on the victim," Schmaltz noted. "They were told, 'Don't dress this way. Don't act this way. Have a buddy when you go out.'"

Now the focus is on the perpetrator, as well as any bystanders who happen to witness the incident. "It's about everybody being accountable and not allowing harassment and assaults to occur. It's about everybody taking responsibility and realizing sexual assault is not acceptable," Schmaltz said.

Schmaltz, who has been in the Army 20 years, said what was once acceptable language and interaction is not anymore.

"Locker room talk and innuendo are absolutely not acceptable. We have found a link from innuendo to escalating behavior," she said.

A sequel to "Sex Signals" called "Got Your Back" focuses on the bystander intervention that the original play touches on. "Got Your Back" is expected to come to the Arsenal in August.

First Army, as FORSCOM's designated coordinating authority for implementation of the Army Total Force Policy, partners with USAR and ARNG leadership to advise, assist, and train RC formations to achieve Department of the Army-directed readiness requirements during both pre-and post-mobilization through multicomponent integrated collective training, enabling FORSCOM to provide Combatant Commanders trained and ready forces in support of worldwide requirements.

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