House of Cards Creator Beau Willimon Wants to Put an End to Sexual Assault

He's speaking at a performance of SLUT: The Play on May 19 in DC.
<em>House of Cards</em> Creator Beau Willimon Wants to Put an End to Sexual Assault
SLUT: The Play hopes to start a conversation about sexual assault and the sexuality of young women. Photo by Sasithon Pooviriyakul.

A few years ago, Katie Cappiello posed a seemingly simple question to a group of teenage girls. Alongside Meg McInerney, Cappiello is the founder of the Arts Effect NYC, an acting training program. The girls, part of the program’s female empowerment arm, had just returned from winter break, so Cappiello asked them about their vacation.

She didn’t get the response she was expecting. “We started noticing that the word slut was coming up a lot,” Cappiello says.

The girls, ages 14 to 17, were using the word in different ways. Slut referred to friends who had consensual sex, but also to those who had been sexually assaulted. The girls used it to describe others, but also to describe themselves.

Cappiello decided to build a whole project around the word. She started listening to the girls’ stories and typing them up. With her students, she wrote SLUT: The Play–about a 16-year-old girl who’s sexually assaulted by three guy friends, and the backlash that follows. Slut debuted in New York in February 2013, with the same teenage girls who helped develop the project as its actresses.

It’s more than just a play, however. A mix of theater and activism, Slut hopes to put an end to sexual assault and “slut-shaming”–the act of chastising women for their sexual practices and beliefs. Since the play’s debut, Cappiello and McInerney have launched a “StopSlut” movement and are pushing for legislative change. They hope to get a law passed that requires sexual consent education in every high school across the country.

They’re already in with the right people. After getting attention from the likes of Hillary Clinton and Amy Poehler, Cappiello is preparing for Slut’s Washington premiere. On May 19 at the Warner Theatre, theatergoers will catch a glimpse of Beau Willimon, the creator of House of Cards and a big supporter of the project, who will be speaking alongside US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Glamour Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive, and others.

Willimon is no stranger to sexual-assault advocacy. He became particularly interested in the subject after watching The Invisible War, the documentary that inspired the military sexual-assault storyline in Season 2 of House of Cards. “I grew up on naval bases. That sort of crime was going on without me being aware. It was shocking,” he says.

He had a similar reaction to the play. “When I saw the play in New York, I was deeply moved and angered,” he says. “I wanted to get involved in any way I could.”

That’s when he started helping Cappiello and McInerney out. They organized an event in Washington that could attract policymakers to the issue of sexual assault. “He’s not only a feminist, but he’s also a playwright at heart,” Cappiello says. “He has been involved in every step of the way–from how to brainstorm to how to reach lawmakers to putting us in touch with the network he has in Maryland and in DC.”

The play has gotten a lot of attention everywhere it has shown–including the Midwest, where Cappiello says lines formed down the block. In Boston, however, Slut got a different type of attention. “We were a little surprised by the resistance in such a liberal place,” Cappiello says. The reason? A lot of people don’t want to have a conversation about sexuality, Cappiello explains, especially because problems can start as early as fifth or sixth grade.

“The first time girls are sexually shamed comes when they’re 10 or 11 years old, when they’re called a slut or a whore by a boy or girl in class,” Cappiello says. “It becomes uncomfortable for people to talk about. This culture is touching our kids when they’re young, and it’s hard for parents to acknowledge that.”

Cappiello cites sex education classes as an example. Students say they’re taught how to use condoms at school, but there’s no talk about consent or the nuisances of rape. “We’re still talking about the mechanics, not the dynamics,” Cappiello says. “People say this conversation is inappropriate yet all the young people in the community are hungry for it.”

Watch SLUT: The Play on Tuesday, May 19 at the Warner Theatre at 7 PM, featuring a talk with Beau Willimon, creator of House of Cards, US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour, Sherelle Hessell Gordon, executive director of DC Rape Crisis Center, Jennifer Baumgardner, executive director of the Feminist Press, and the directors and actors from the show. Tickets are free for students and cost $20 for adults.

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