Feature

Lila, a college sophomore, is at a party with some friends when she runs into Steve from her English literature class. He tells her how great she looks and asks if he can get her a drink. "Sure!" replies Lila, pleased and excited-she's had a crush on Steve for awhile. When he returns, they head to a secluded corner to talk. After a few beers and some shots of tequila, the talking turns into fooling around. The room starts to spin for Lila, and she decides she's ready to leave. As she looks back for her friends, Steve coaxes her to stay by saying he'll find her a place to lie down and leads her into a back bedroom.

"Pause!" yells someone from the audience. The actors freeze. Another performance of the University of Texas at Austin's peer theater group has begun, and the audience starts to discuss the scene they've just witnessed.

Such performances, along with awareness events, staff, student and faculty training, and counseling and advocacy services, are all part of the university's Voices Against Violence (VAV) program, an innovative effort to combat relationship violence, sexual assault and stalking on college campuses. Founded in 2000, the program is a collaborative effort that involves students, faculty, on- and off-campus housing officials, and both university and Austin police.

Their goal? Raise awareness, counsel survivors and change campus culture.

Since the fall of 2001, the prevention education programs have reached more than 81,000 people, including 45,000 incoming freshmen, according to psychologist Jane Bost, PhD, director of VAV and associate director of the University of Texas at Austin's Counseling and Mental Health Center. "It's very challenging because we get new people on campus every year, but I do think the culture is changing."

The stage is set

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 32 percent of college students report they have experienced violence in a previous relationship, and 21 percent report violence in a current relationship. In addition, 5 percent of college women experience a rape or attempted rape in any given year, and 13 percent are stalking victims, the center says.

But experts agree these crimes are underreported, and these statistics are most likely just the tip of the iceberg. Using current data, researchers estimate that one in four college women is raped.

In response to such alarming statistics, in 1999 the U.S. Department of Justice's (DOJ) Office of Violence Against Women established a grant program to address college campus violence. At about the same time, Bost had been meeting with university leaders to discuss sexual violence on campus.

"We were asking ourselves, 'What is the real picture of interpersonal violence on our campus? What services do we have and can we do more?'" says Bost.

At that point, the university had limited counseling services for students victimized by relationship violence, no advocacy services for survivors and limited peer outreach and training. In fact, despite such an obvious need, the campus center estimated seeing only 10 cases of sexual assault in 2000. Clearly, the campus was not reaching most victims, Bost surmised.

So in collaboration with other campus and community partners, Bost applied for and received a DOJ grant in 2000, as well as two more grants after that, totaling more than $1 million. The grant required them to develop an antiviolence campaign and collaborate with different university departments, the larger Austin community and the Austin police.

By 2001, Bost and her colleagues had developed the Voices Against Violence program, which offers training, outreach and advocacy instruction. The program trains campus security and police to help them deal sensitively and effectively with victims, as well as other first responders-such as academic advisers, health services staff, residence hall advisers, and telephone counseling and referral services staff, who may be the first people victims turn to. The Voices program also offers a strong advocacy component, which arranges for survivors to move to safer housing, contacts community agencies for legal assistance and has a small emergency fund that can help survivors with a first month's rent and groceries in the case of an emergency relocation.

The program's awareness campaign is conducted through information tables on campus, video presentations and discussions, as well as such special events as "Take Back the Night" and Dating and Domestic Violence Awareness Month. But arguably the most effective and exciting part of the awareness campaign is its theater program.

The curtain rises?

The program's peer theater group uses the techniques of Augusto Boal, the Brazilian director who developed Theatre of the Oppressed, in performances to stimulate dialogue between audience and performer on relevant social events. These techniques are adapted to reflect campus issues by student performers and the program's education specialist, Lynn Hoare.

Performers are all current or former students of a special two-semester class. During the fall semester, the class's 16 students learn about the issues they'll be enacting-relationship violence, sexual assault and stalking-the imbalances of power involved and how such factors as sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion play into relationship dynamics. During the spring semester, these actors create multiple scenarios and perform them around campus.

"We have some scenarios that give us a basic framework," says Hoare. "We take them and reinvent them according to the population we're going to present to."

For instance, a scenario for a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) audience touches on issues that arise in LGBT relationships, such as the power imbalance that may occur if one partner threatens to "out" the other.

In another example, a performance the group did for the Muslim students' association posed special challenges, recalls Mashhood Khawar, a former peer theatre performer who helped develop the scenario.

"In opposite-sex interactions among Muslims, there is going to be very little physical interaction, if any," explains Khawar, who is Muslim and was an active member of the students association. "So the challenge was showing an emotional relationship, and abuse without using the physical touch we are accustomed to seeing in typical American opposite-sex relationships."

In the scenario, an inappropriate touch makes the female very uncomfortable and escalates into a rape. The perpetrator uses the perception-common in many South Asian and Arab cultures-that a rape victim is unchaste and impure, and thus shamed, to keep her from speaking out.

"We are constantly trying to get people to see that the root [of relationship violence] is an imbalance in power," says Hoare.

The performances encourage audience participation. Before the show starts, the performance facilitator asks the audience to call for a pause whenever they see something that they think is unhealthy or inappropriate in a relationship. The actors freeze and the facilitator offers everyone a chance to voice their opinions. The audience is also invited to step into a role or change the action of the performance, says Hoare. They're not allowed to step into the perpetrator role, because change doesn't happen that easily, but they might step into a friend role as part of exploring how a friend could help in that situation, she continues. At the end of the performance, the actors remain on stage in character, and the audience can ask them questions, such as how they define themselves or where do they go from here. Then the actors take off their nametags, introduce themselves and share a little bit of educational information, such as how difficult it can be to leave a violent relationship.

Every performance is evaluated by its audience. "In general, people love that it's interactive, that they got to talk about what they were seeing," says Hoare.

But there are some negative reactions. "There tends to be a lot of blame placed on the victim," explains Hoare."Things like, 'She was drunk, so it was her fault.'" Hoare says the actors confront such discussions by emphasizing the idea that "consent is an actual 'yes' and not just the absence of a 'no.'"

The success of the program has not yet been evaluated empirically. However, Beth Pomeroy, PhD, a sociology professor at the university, is conducting a study examining the impact of peer theater on behavior and attitudes.

Anecdotally, says Bost, "I hear about students actually being able to identify controlling behavior in themselves." And, she says, because the number of reports and victims coming in for counseling are dramatically increasing, she believes awareness of relationship violence-and the availability of help-is increasing.

Khawar took the class because he thought it might be fun, but it also opened his eyes and changed his career path, he says.

"I grew up in the inner city of Houston and was very influenced by rap culture," he says. "Growing up, if somebody did something weak, ratted someone out, we would say that was a 'ho' move, things like that."

Khawar didn't realize the impact that such casual misogyny and disrespect can have.

"I was ignorant of the epidemic of rape and violence in our society," he says. "Two months into the class is when it really hit me-I saw a couple in the grocery store, and even though they were speaking in Chinese, I could just tell the man was verbally abusing his wife."

Khawar worked with the Voices program for two years following the class. He has now graduated, but he plans to become an advocate for victims of domestic violence and continues to work with Muslim youth in his spare time in what he hopes is a kind of one-man prevention program.

"By being able to influence them right there and then, maybe I can give them a head start at 16 and prevent them having to learn these things at 21," Khawar says.

Meanwhile, because relationship violence is still in many ways a hidden epidemic, it may be years before such programs can show all that they are accomplishing through hard data. But staff and students know their work is having an impact.

"I know we've reached people because people have come in saying they saw a performance, and this happened to me," says Heather Davies, the Voices Against Violence programming and counseling coordinator. "It's really extraordinary to see the impact."