University of Mississippi’s student-run Ghostlight Repertory Theatre showcased the play “IX,” which was written and directed by John Brahan for his senior thesis, with the intention to highlight sexual assault, rape culture and inconsistencies within the framework of Title IX as well as Greek organizations’ solitary approach to these situations. Brahan is a double-major in theatre arts and public policy leadership, an alumnus of Sigma Chi fraternity and former Vice President of Standards of the Interfraternity Council.
He developed the idea for the play essentially from his involvement in Greek life and his personal experiences on campus culture. Brahan says, “Being in that role, as standards chair, there were a ton of things I couldn’t do; many things went to student conduct such as hazing and sexual assault. I didn’t see or didn’t even know about a lot of things happening on campus. Through that role, I became aware of the process of sexual assault, which sparked my interest in policy and how that works.”
The play follows a Title IX investigation of an alleged sexual assault at a party between two protagonists, Tripp and Claire. “Tripp as an ambitious social climber depicted in a humble way; he wants to be a leader for the right reasons,” says Brahan. Tripp is a member of a fraternity on campus and is seen as a good Christian focusing his life around Christian values, such as purity. His reputation sets up a clean picture that presents a strong contrast to his actions in the flashbacks.
On the other hand, the accuser in the play is Claire. “Claire is a well-known cheerleader with an ambiguous sexual past,” says Brahan. She is a pre-pharmarcy major and also belongs to a sorority, which explains her popularity and intelligence. The reputations of the two protagonists play a strong role in shaping the initial reactions of secondary to the news of the sexual assault and incoming investigation.
Monday after the Friday night party, Claire confides in her roommate and sorority sister Sydney and her childhood friend Monica about the sexual assault incident. Claire is looking for resolve, answers and confidence from her friends; however, she is left with much confusion as Sydney and Monica hold opposing views and start to argue with each other. Sydney believes Claire should brush off what happened and move on, while Monica, as a resident assistant held responsible under Title X, immediately considers the incident a rape and reports it to their campus. After her report to the Title IX office, Mr. Williams, the coordinator chosen for the case, must discuss the night with each student involved to uncover answers about the allegations.
Brahan’s choice of having Monica report the incident rather than Clair illustrates a commentary on the policy. On average, only 310 of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police, meaning around two out of three go unreported. 20 percent of victims fear retaliation; 13 percent believe it is a personal matter and 8 percent do not consider it important enough to report to the authority. In Claire’s case, the assault could have potentially been ignored had it not been for Monica’s intervention.
He Said, She Said
Among undergraduate students, 23.1 percent of females and 5.4 percent of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation. “IX” illustrates the ambiguity and blurred lines in sexual assault situations, which typically leaves at least one person in the dark or confused about what actually happened.
The play also explores varying interpretations of one night, exposes the complicated aftermath once an incident occurs and provokes the audience’s thoughts about the definition and misinterpretation. Due to rape culture and limited education on consent, the accused can find themselves in an unfamiliar situation that they do not fully understand.
Brahan wanted to show two sides of sexual assault — the just and the unjust process — through the Title IX investigation. “I thought it was important to include what each character did separate from each other before the party. Claire starts the night at her apartment with her friends and Tripp is playing cornhole at his fraternity house with his brothers,” says Brahan. The actual assault description overlaps, but the accounts of what happened before the incident provide opposite interpretation of consent.
While talking to Mr. Williams, Tripp describes Claire as “asking for it,” while Claire recalls being blackout drunk in her account saying, “No” and “Stop” against Tripp’s advances. Tripp is sober throughout the entire night, which makes his account easily believable, especially based on his reputation of being pure. With alcohol incorporated into the mix, Claire’s experience and discussion is cloudy.
Show, Don’t Tell
The discussion between Mr. Williams and the students regarding the events of Friday night and features visual flashbacks from Tripp and Claire’s differing perspectives, which underlines the unreliability of the narrators. Tripp gives an account of Claire asking to have sex and fully wanting his attention.
On the other hand, Claire’s memory is hazy from the alcohol she consumed at the party. Visual effects were executed impeccably during the flashback episodes, especially the lights flashing on and off throughout Claire’s narration of the night as an indicator of her staggering levels of awareness.
Brahan wanted to show the stories in their entirety, rather than telling them in simple monologues. “[The audience] is seeing the difference Williams is hearing [in the two accounts],” says Brahan. The display of the Title IX platform throughout the play also serves as a reminder of discussions that need to occur after a sexual assault where each side of a story should be told to bring justice and truth to light.
After Tripp is found not responsible, the stigma of the entire investigation causes him to be kicked out of his fraternity; his goal of becoming the next fraternity president now has become out of reach. For non-Greeks, this punishment could seem minor; however, for an aspiring young man such as Tripp, the position of a fraternity’s president establishes respect, opportunity for networking and growth within national fraternity positions and the loss of his membership means the shattering of all those dreams.
Although this outcome hits Tripp hard, he deserved far worse as he finally admitted at the close of the play that he had sex with a drunk girl. He lied to Mr.Williams about Claire being sober to benefit his own well-being at the end of the investigation.
Claire’s side of the aftermath involves an avoidance of discussing the incident and Claire being estranged from the sorority. Brahan says, “I recognized the sorority world through the characters Claire and Sydney. I’ve noticed sororities can form a kind of unified code of silence and won’t let members express what they felt publicly. There is often a solidarity that suppresses feelings.” An investigation that is supposed to be confidential, as depicted in the play, can spread rumors to the community that affect other sides of a person’s lie and experiences in college — it lacks kindness when addressing those involved.
What Inconsistencies Lie Within Title IX?
Conflict resolution boards on campuses conclude that there is a preponderance of evidence in any given sexual misconduct allegation that the accused is responsible. As Mr. Williams explains it in the play, the threshold is 50.1 percent, leaving only a 0.2 percent difference between someone seen as responsible or not responsible. If the accused was actually innocent, this slight difference could affect the student’s academic future, positions in organizations and potentially a disadvantage when looking for work.
“A lawyer can be present, but cannot speak for students,” says Brahan. “Students have to give testimonies being both a witness and defendant to themselves. Title IX as a system is viewed as inherently flawed by some professionals and there are many components that could be seen as unfair. For example, why do universities handle rape if it is a crime? Panels also vary at universities from three, to five or seven people and not all universities allow students to sit on a hearing panel. Therefore, the panel could determine an outcome because of varying core principles.”
“IX” provides an excellent look at an issue many college students experience, leaving the audience to wonder how they can fight against the stigma and alters the conversations everyone is having about sexual assault.