Paper presented at the 1st Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "A spanner in the works of the factory of truth"
20 October 1995, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Discourses, videos and talk about sexual violence: A video presentation
Amanda Kottler
Over the past few years a number of initiatives against sexual harassment and violence have been launched by South African universities with mixed results. As an active member of one of the first projects of this kind, my attention was drawn to how severely hampered policy making, education and prevention were by definitional problems and varied gendered and cultural constructions. With a view to addressing some of these issues an educational campaign was proposed, part of which involved an attempt at an innovative multi-methodological approach free from the trappings of one particular discipline. Drawing on research looking at talk about sexual harassment a postgraduate drama producer (Peter Hayes) conducted workshop discussions on sexual harassment with men and women from a wide range of contexts (which were audio or video taped), with a view to producing a dramatic piece of forum theatre entitled ONE MAN'S MEAT IS A WOMAN'S POISON. It was performed by two women and two men, one white and one black at a number of university venues, on occasion to extremely large audiences (1000 at the University of the Western Cape). Requests for additional performances came from a number of unexpected places, e.g. Rape Crisis used it as part of their counselling training course in 1994. A 28 minute video of a performance, incorporating audience participation in rescripting and replaying the scenarios was produced by an educational film maker (Lindy Wilson). A number of copies of this video have already been sold to other universities and NGOs. The video will be shown and can be accompanied by a paper which describes the process which led up to its production.

This paper describes a multi-methodological project which drew on discourse analytic theory and methods to produce an educational video for the University of Cape Town. Entitled "One man's meat ..... is a woman's poison", this video has been effectively used in a range of workshops designed to grapple with the issue of sexual harassment and policy making decisions about countering this in institutional settings. The video records the final version of a dramatic production of the same title, both of which form part of a larger, presently unfinished, research project. This paper therefore represents a first phase of work still in progress and should be seen only as a draft in which, given time constraints I describe the impetus behind the research idea and the process leading up to the making of the video.

There is a large body of research which demonstrates that conversations about "sexual harassment" are not sites of sharing (e.g. Kottler, 1990; Kottler and Swartz (in press); Long and Kottler, submitted). There are definitional problems involved and varied gendered and cultural constructions. How then can any institution or corporation successfully implement a policy which allows for sexually harassing behaviour to be positively challenged and which puts together internal mechanisms for processing complaints?

As an active member of one of the first university initiatives in South Africa which is attempting to do something about sexual violence, this lack of shared perceptions was apparent at all our meetings. Frustrated arguments about how best to launch an educational programme at the university in particular drew my attention to the multiple and contradictory discourses evident in these conversations and equally importantly, people's differing investments in each, all of which seriously confused and hampered decision making.

Some members of the educational sub-group supported the publishing of a booklet which would inform the reader of the university's policy, its definition of sexual harassment and both the formal and the informal remedies available at the university. In discussion, it became clear that such a publication was premised on an idea that according to some literature certain truths exist and, having been proven correct, should be shared with others in what was perceived as an "educational process".

From our discussions it was clear that this kind of publication would not include or tolerate contradictions or different positioning in multiple discourses, hence different views on the subject of sexual harassment. Because of this some of us in the group opposed the idea of an "informational" booklet. Given the obvious lack of clarity on this topic evidenced in research and our meetings, we felt that a booklet of this kind would be of little educational use. Certainly, it would add to the growing pile of booklets being produced by various institutions re-producing definitions of sexual harassment and policies. And, perhaps it would achieve a sense of satisfaction for those of like mind. But, instead of drawing in as allies others who feel that the idea of sexual harassment is a trivial one, we believed that this form of "education" would further antagonise and alienate those whose voices needed to be heard before a meaningful, more specific and more complex educational process could take place. And surely, without this no constructive policy could be implemented?

In attempts to argue this point I tried unsuccessfully to explain the notion of multiple discourses to those members in support of the booklet, most of whom were steeped in positivism. My failure reminded me of an old Chinese proverb:
Tell me and I forget
Show me and I remember
Let me do it and I understand

Thinking about this led me to seek an alternative method of "education", one in which the "doing" would lead to "understanding", or at the very least, some tolerance for debate.

I had recently seen a number of live dramatic productions in which contradictory ideas about culture, race and gender were introduced and played out. Since reading about contradiction, or being told about this idea had little effect, it seemed that a performance of this sort might go a long way towards achieving what I wanted. But, if the Chinese proverb was to be taken seriously a way of making people do something in the process would be necessary before the complexities involved in this issue would be better understood. This led to thoughts about a multi-methodological approach free from the trappings of essentialist psychological ideas.

I engaged Hayes, the dramatic director whose plays I had watched to join me in this experimental journey. In discussion about what was needed we decided on a workshopping process out of which ideas about sexual harassment would be collected, discussed and ultimately used to inform the production of a piece of forum theatre, a theatrical style developed to empower the oppressed (Boal, 1979). To achieve this, the production would be performed in front of a live audience. At particular moments they would be asked to participate by suggesting different ways in which the actors could re-play the scenes produced so far. In this way, both actors and audience are involved in an empowering process of re-scripting the scenes and hence exploring not just one, but a range of possible endings. The audience is therefore involved in a process of "doing" whilst they actively think about, try out and in the watching, experience new endings to old stories.


In constructing the live dramatic performance, first men and women from a wide range of contexts were invited to take part in workshopped discussions on the topic of sexual harassment. Discussions were semi-structured; the facilitator (Hayes) drew on vignettes and ideas from previous pieces of research (e.g. Kottler, 1988) informed by post-modern ideas and social constructionism. In these workshops anecdotal swopping was the major way in which sexual harassment was talked about - as if storying sexual harassment was the easiest way to make the issue accessible. This seemed to be the only way in which definitions of sexual harassment could be articulated, particularly for women.

Following this, Hayes and the actors began to construct the live performance. There was no strict rehearsal schedule. Rehearsals consisted largely of talk and experimenting with different scenes drawing on the workshop discussions. The play was therefore constructed through the experiences and responses of the people in the group to these various scenes. It is therefore grounded in subjectivity and lived experience rather than being directly informed by theory. Thus the play captures and makes use of a collection of subjective experiences and beliefs rather than producing a contrived story line in a pre-determined way, such as would have been the case with the issue of a didactic booklet in which only certain views would have been presented.

By improvising and re-playing the scenes, several truths were constructed. This enabled the actors to begin to move about in different subjective worlds. By taking a step back every now and again to examine what exactly they were constructing they were able to bring in a more reflexive or analytical focus. Potentially, this would have helped them to challenge their own perceptions and constructions - and move them towards constructing new ways of seeing and being in the world.

During the rehearsals the characters began to "grow" directly out of the actors "selves", i.e. they constructed each character they played, out of themselves. They did this through language but also through embodied discourses (Sampson, 1995). Exercises in rehearsals required the actors to move to music while thinking about sexual harassment. At first this was done in isolation and then in interaction with others. Actors experimented with ways in which their characters and they themselves would move through experiential constructions of sexual harassment and this was done in relation, not isolation. So they felt how they might feel as an harasser would feel and how they would feel as an harassee when confronted by a harasser.


The play thus constructed was performed on campus in freshers week at lunchtime (the video has been made from one of these live performances) and in the evenings in various residences. It was popular. There were a number of off campus requests for performances. For example, at the University of the Western Cape the first performance drew 1000 people and Rape Crisis used a performance during its annual training programme for counsellors.


What kind of successes will stem from this project - both the dramatic production and the video, remain to be seen. All the rehearsals and workshopped discussions have been audio taped, some video taped and all have been transcribed for further analysis elsewhere. For the purposes of this paper, this project has demonstrated that discourse analytic methods can be put to good practical use and that a combination of drama, psychology and film making can be effectively used to challenge dominant and unitary ideas about sexual harassment. The play and the video have shown that by drawing on everyday conversation we can arrive at something which visibly and emotionally demonstrates that definitions of sexual harassment are constructed through language and embodied discourses and are therefore not objective unitary facts; this has encouraged the expression of multiple truths which are presented in a range of scenes where there are no "right" solutions and by using the audience's input to act out alternative scenarios. As a stimulant of talk therefore both the live production, but particularly the video, which can be interrupted at any moment for discussion, are extremely effective. Both have therefore provided a space in which the multiple gendered and cultural constructions of sexual harassment can be discussed. That this can be put to good use by policy makers hardly needs mention.

I will now demonstrate this to you by showing you as much as the video as we have time to view and discuss.


  1. Boal, A. (1979). Theater of the oppressed. London: Pluto Press
  2. Kottler, A. (1990). "Contradictory discourses: An analysis of male / female conversation: in J. Mouton and D. Joubert (Eds.) Knowledge and Method in the Human Sciences, HSRC, Centre for Research Methodology, Pretoria.
  3. Kottler, A. and Swartz, S. (in press). "Talking About Wolf Whistles: Negotiating Gender Positions in Conversation" South African Journal of Psychology (special gender issue).
  4. Long, C. and Kottler, A. (submitted). "`Um, ja, no. They, they, um, that is'": Negotiating discurses of sexual violence". Completed paper submitted to Feminism and Psychology.
  5. Sampson, E. (1995). Embodied Discourses. Conference paper presented at Understanding the Social World, conference held at the University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield, UK. in July, 1995.

Amanda Kottler
Child Guidance Clinic
University of Cape Town
Chapel Road

Paper presented at the 1st Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "A spanner in the works of the factory of truth"
20 October 1995, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
critical methods society - -