Taoseña Shana Natelson knows when it comes to preventing sexual assault, just talking about sex is the first step.
Natelson is the executive director of Speak About It, a theatrical show about consent, boundaries and healthy relationships. And though the whole troupe wasn’t with her, those are the messages she shared with the local chapter of PFLAG — Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays, on Tuesday (Feb. 10).
Shana Natelson grew up in Taos, played ice hockey and graduated from Taos High in 2006 and then from Bowdoin College, in Maine, in 2010. When someone asked her what she wanted to do for the rest of her life, Natelson responded, “I want to talk about sex.”
“Sex is one of the few universal things,” she told The Taos News on Monday (Feb. 9). “We’re all here because someone had sex. But we don’t talk about it. Most people first learn about sex from their guidance counselor and porn, and neither of those are realistic.”
Speak About It is both a funny and serious show featuring super heroes and personal stories of exploration, assault and survival. But it is primarily a tool to teach people how to actively prevent sexual assault. To date, over 50,000 students in the United States have seen them perform on college and high school campuses from South Carolina to Maine, Indiana to California.
Natelson got the rights for the show after its first run at Bowdoin through a string of coincidences, helpful people and asking the right questions, she said. With a script in hand, she launched Speak About It as a company in 2011. It’s now a registered nonprofit.
Last year, the show had a total of 17 actors, with three different groups of actors performing nonstop during the fall orientation season. Natelson said it’s vital the cast is diverse — both visually with actors who are LGBTQ and people of color, as well diverse in personal experiences. The hope, she said, is to have students relate to some part of the show even if it’s just seeing someone who looks like them.
When they visit a campus, they train peer educators and residential assistants, and also customize the script for whatever resources, clubs and groups exist on the campus and in that community. Speak About It wants people to know how to prevent sexual assault in their own community and circle of friends.
But the basics get covered, too, like the fact that sexual assault happens anytime someone’s choice is taken away — from legally punishable sexual crimes to an unwanted kiss.
“When we first started developing [Speak About It] in 2009, we were just starting to talk about sexual assault prevention. And that meant just acknowledging there was sexual assault on campuses that needed to be prevented.”
But with just about every young person plugged into their smartphones, Natelson said, “the lid’s been blown off that. Young people are thirsty for information about what to do.”
The show makes a point to show how sexual assault can happen anywhere, not just in heterosexual relationships.
“Maybe it’s the Taos in me, but I think most people are good people and they just lack the confidence and the language to ask for consent.”
Natelson cited how most cases of sexual assault against young people are perpetrated by someone they know and trust, even people they’re in a relationship with. “We’ve all heard that 1 in 5 women in college will be sexually assaulted. Now, if we heard that 1 in 5 laptops were stolen at colleges, people would be outraged,” she said.
“Consent doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. It’s a lot less awkward to tell someone you’re having a good time and ask for that kiss than to not ask for it and having both of your feelings hurt,” she said.
“This is not far from home,” she said. “Everyone has a story about sex and too many people have a story about sexual assault. If after our show just one person has the courage to ask for consent where they wouldn’t have otherwise, if just one person uses language to feel sexy, then we’ve done our job.”
In Feb. 2014, Natelson visited family in Taos and took an afternoon to speak with about 200 students at Taos High School. They covered the basics of anatomy — “how to drive that car” — but also strategies for how to develop healthy relationships if you’re a young person in Taos.
“I grew up here and I made plenty of trouble in high school. There’s a lot of room in Taos and not a lot going on,” she said.
It’s better to acknowledge the realities of sex with young people, she said, instead of pretending it doesn’t happen. And when it comes to experimentation, Speak About It helps people understand that just because someone “checked off a box or gave consent one time, you don’t need to do something because it’s expected.”
Speak About It wants people “to find partners who respect who you are, your boundaries and what it is you desire,” she said.
And while plenty of people don’t like the show because they find it too in-your-face or its topics against personal convictions or religion, the information in the show is worth keeping in mind even if the first time you have sex is on your wedding night, she said.
“If we talk about sex,” she said, “then it isn’t taboo.”