The film is uncomfortable to watch, intentionally so. Actors recount real stories of sexual assault on college campuses across the country with no censor. The details may be jarring, but it had to be this way, says Profesor Michael Whalen ’89, who directed it. To do the victims justice, you have to be truthful. To change a harmful culture, you have to shatter it.
“We don’t want to put people into mental or emotional distress,” Whalen says of Can’t Thread a Moving Needle. “But we wanted the film to be tough enough, honest enough, so that people couldn’t dismiss it.”
The project that became the film started almost 10 years ago, with nine students, one alumna, and Professor Barbara Fraser gathered in the stuffy attic library of Mayer Theatre for a playwriting workshop. The class was a collaborative initiative between Fraser, now associate dean for the college of Arts and Sciences, and the Office of Student Life to develop an orientation program for first-year students about sexual assault.
Fraser and her students emerged from the meeting with an ambitious vision of how to give voice to victims who are often silenced. They spent 10 weeks interviewing more than 100 people from across the country who were affected by sexual violence—victims, perpetrators, relatives, or friends—and from the research Fraser wrote Can’t Thread a Moving Needle. The title came from a phrase used by a 19th-century gynecologist and medical officer who insisted that unless a woman squirmed to avoid unwanted sex, it couldn’t count as rape.
The play was performed for five years at freshman orientation before the film was commissioned, thanks to a grant from Avon Foundation for Women. The film premiered at Santa Clara in January 2015 and is now shown at orientation in place of the play. Nearly 200 universities and nonprofit organizations across the country have used it.
A QUESTION OF EMPATHY
The goal of Can’t Thread a Moving Needle was to broaden the conversation on sexual assault and offer nuance to a complex topic by using real examples. The stories encompass a wide variety of assaults, from groping on a school bus to date rape to violent gang rape to how alcohol impacts consent. It also dispels the myth that sexual predators are necessarily strangers; many sexual assaults occur with friends, acquaintances, and even significant others.
“So often we hear of studies or news stories about sexual assault,” says Maren Lovgren ’06, who directed the play for its first two years. “But very often we don’t have the ability to talk with survivors—or in some way experience what they experienced—so we don’t have genuine empathy. With art, we are able to delve into the emotion and not just the logic of the situation.”
The film challenges audiences to take an active role in changing the culture that allows sexual assaults to take place. It calls on all people to examine their behavior—even the jokes they make and images they see in movies—and view it as their responsibility to say, This is not acceptable.
“It’s a social justice issue, something that men need to stand up and take accountability for,” says Associate Dean of Student Life Matthew Duncan. “The majority of men do not commit sexual violence, but to what degree are we standing up against it?”
Since the details of the film can be troubling to viewers, Residence Life coordinators at SCU offer training materials and host peer-led conversations after screenings. It wasn’t enough to identify the problem—the people involved with the film wanted to keep the conversation going, Whalen says.
While the film is a powerful tool, it is only one aspect of the support network that Santa Clara offers sexual assault survivors. That network includes relationships with YWCA Rape Crisis Center and Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, as well as others, to offer legal and emotional support as survivors recover.
“We’re attentive to creating a culture where people feel that reporting is something that is valued,” Duncan says. “We want people to know about the resources.”
Duncan says it is important for Santa Clara to be a leader on the topic of sexual assault, and he didn’t want their work to end on campus. The film is available for free download from the SCU website (scu.edu/ctmn), and the training materials are available for other schools to use.
“We don’t run from this issue,” Duncan says. “We recognize it exists and we’re trying to be at the forefront.”