N.J. woman opens ‘Uncomfortable Conversation’ to model ways of talking about sexual assault

     Sarah Beaulieu listens to Patrick Tiernan, with the Theta Delta Chi fraternity, talk about educating students around sexual violence.(Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    Sarah Beaulieu listens to Patrick Tiernan, with the Theta Delta Chi fraternity, talk about educating students around sexual violence.(Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    Launching “The Uncomfortable Conversation” is not Sarah Beaulieu’s first time wading into the swirling public discussion about sexual assault.

    In 2013, she began an initiative called the Enliven project, aimed at helping survivors of sexual violence come out of the shadows.

    As a part of that project, she put out what she thought was a harmless infographic showing statistics about false sexual assault accusations.

    “Like, look guys, you really shouldn’t be concerned about getting a false accusation because you have a much better chance of raping someone and getting away with it,” she said. “Little did I know that I was stepping on the third rail of the sexual violence conversation.”

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    The graphic went viral, and soon Beaulieu was at the bottom of an internet pile on. Slate, the Washington Post and numerous opinion blogs critiqued her work from all sides.

    “And it made me think, well, maybe that’s not the best place to start the conversation.”

    In her day job, New Jersey resident Beaulieu is a peppy fundraising expert, but she also survived sexual violence as a child and has been an advocate for victims since college. So, rather than discourage her, the online vitriol pushed her to rethink her approach to the topic.

    In 2016, she gave a TEDx talk at MIT that opened up a new window into the kind of tools people wanted. Beaulieu came to present a general framework for how to talk about sexual violence.

    But, after dry runs, she would inevitably be approached by someone in the audience who had a specific situation they wanted to address. “Every person asked me for a practical suggestion,” she said.

    Out of that experience, “The Uncomfortable Conversation” snowballed. Beaulieu recruited actors to mock-up dozens of 1- to 2-minute videos showing people having nuanced conversations related to trauma, consent and sexual violence.

    She hopes to tailor the videos for distribution to  educators, colleges and businesses that want to spur communication on the topic of sexual violence beyond obligatory discussions on defining rape or sexual assault and how to avoid it.

    Many of the more than 50 videos in the works for “The Uncomfortable Conversation” deal with the ways that a sexual trauma or talking about sexual trauma may come up in all types of relationships, informed by Beaulieu’s own life.

    “The amount of time that I was actually physically sexually abused was very small compared to the way that plays out in the other parts of my life and my identities,” she said. “There’s a richness in the dialogue that I think is missing from the way we talk about this issue. What does this mean to me as a parent? What does this mean to me as a partner?”

    Gathering feedback

    On Thursday morning, Beaulieu gathered a small group that included a fraternity administrator, a law student and a former candidate for Philadelphia district attorney in a glass walled conference room in Center City. The first three videos had launched online that day, but Beaulieu wanted feedback from people whose lives touch sexual violence on other films still in the works.

    In one, a guy asks a woman he appears to be friends with, “How does sex work after you’re raped … does it happen?”

    Rather than get defensive, she responds calmly and the conversation blossoms as others chime in. Another shows a man telling a friend that he thinks he was sexually assaulted.

    The videos explicitly target men — both as friends and as survivors of sexual assault themselves. One in six young men are sexually abused, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource center. For girls, the number is one in four.

    Afterwards, the focus group debriefs and offers suggestions. That video about a tough conversation at the gym — it would be more realistic in a bar. Some of the videos feel too didactic, but those with the best reviews showed — rather than told — the viewer ways to respond in an emotionally charged situation.

    “I loved it,” said K.G., a University of Pennsylvania law student, of a clip showing a man encouraging a survivor to take out her anger by hitting a pillow with a baseball bat — and then a sword.

    “I actually did that” during therapy after she was sexually assaulted, said K.G. “It was very real.”

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal