Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Spring Awakening: Runaways at Risk & Defining a Subculture

by Jenni Morin

One pivotal scene in Spring Awakening sets in motion new themes and delves further into the desperation of the characters to find their place in the strict world of their parents and authority figures. As the girls walk home, Martha accidentally lets it slip that her father beats her and she is on the cusp of being kicked out of the house and suffering the same fate as Ilse. Ilse is a childhood friend who is homeless after being kicked out of her abusive household. She wanders the streets somewhat as a vagabond and a victim of a dangerous “bohemian” life floating from one man to the next.

Every year 3.3 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States involving nearly 6 million children according to a 2010 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report. National Runaway Switchboard reports 80 percent of homeless or runaway girls were sexually or physically abused. Unfortunately, 80 percent of children who die from abuse are under four years old and never make it out. Those who do are at risk of repeating the pattern of abuse with their children—about 30 percent.

As many as 2.8 million children run away each year in the U.S. and between 30 and 40 percent of those are LGBT young people. In Spring Awakening, it’s the homosexual relationship between Ernst and Hanchen that seems the least risqué as they expect to look back on their acts fondly and worry little about others finding out. They, in contrast to the other characters battling demons and truths reaching their parents, speak easily and confidently. Today, LGBT youth identify more with the other characters at risk of being kicked out of the house and falling into the clutches of street life.

Within 48 hours of hitting the streets, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children report one-third of children are lured or recruited into the underground world of prostitution and pornography. In the U.S., about half of girls living on the street are involved in formal prostitution. Commercial sex and human trafficking are growing problems in the U.S. and contribute to a global issue affecting over 12.3 million men, women and children in 161 countries, including the U.S. according to the Department of Justice.

Ilse’s story has her coping with her homelessness by finding a bed to sleep in despite the person she must share it with. Similarly, modern prostitution is the result of desperation and a lack of options. The Department of Justice found that the majority of American victims of commercial sexual exploitation tend to be runaway or thrown away youth who live on the streets. The average age of entry into prostitution is 12 years. The Polaris Project estimates sex trafficking victims may be forced to have sex up to 20 to 48 times each day. While commercial sex may not  be new, the issue of human trafficking and forced prostitution has grown with the internet allowing nameless victims and clients to conduct business in anonymity.
In 2004, the U.S. Department of State estimated 600,000 to 800,000 people were bought and sold across international borders each year; half of which were children and most were female with the majority being forced into the commercial sex trade. 

This one scene also triggers an impulse that feeds one of today’s sexual subcultures. After Wendla hears of how Martha’s father beats her, her curiosity is piqued. Stemming from a desire to feel empathy and the same physical pain, Wendla begs Melchior to whip her with a switch. The two get carried away with emotion and find pleasure in this venture into BDSM.

BDSM—bondage, dominance, submission and masochism—terms date back to the 18th century and the Marquis de Sade and the 19th century and Venus in Fur by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. “Mutual consent is what distinguishes BDSM from abuse and assault, just as consent distinguishes sex from rape,” is outlined by Transcending Boundaries, a nonprofit dedicated to the education and support of people’s nonconventional sexuality, gender, sex or relationship style.

Transcending Boundaries cites Dr. Gloria Brame’s survey on BDSM demographics that reveal the “normalcy” and intelligence of this community. While only 14 percent of respondents were between the ages of 18 and 25, 47 percent were between the ages of 26 and 40. Over half (57 percent) reported having at least some college education if not a college degree and 83 percent classified themselves as middle or upper income. Over 80 percent avoid drugs and addictive substances and perhaps most contrary to popular believe, 64 percent reported no domestic violence at home while growing up and 91 percent indicated there was currently none in their homes.

Books like Fifty Shades of Grey have emerged in popular culture to reintroduce BDSM to the masses and perhaps bring about more acceptance. Despite some criticism of the series from the BDSM community, the conversation about the lifestyle may be welcome, especially after the 2008 survey from advocacy group National Coalition for Sexual Freedom found 37.5 percent of respondents had experienced discrimination, harassment, or violence.

Spring Awakening continues to bring attention to several issues in society even after over a century has passed since the staging of the original version. From a single character’s confession, themes spring forth to reiterate the relevance of this story.

Spring Awakening will run at the Russell Hill Rogers Theater at The Playhouse from May 17-June 9, 2013 with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.theplayhousesa.org.

[Editor's Note: Spring Awakening is a rock musical set in late 19th century Germany, based off of a play by the same name by Frank Wedekind. It examines tough themes that still plague our society over a century later because they are controversial and difficult to explain or remedy.  What this piece does is present the issues, the truths and consequences of actions in order to reopen the age-old discourse of how to talk about and/or prevent the dangers resulting from each. 
This is part of a series of posts intended to present the various themes illuminated in the upcoming production of Spring Awakening at The Playhouse. While the intent is to remain objective, any opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Playhouse, those involved in the production of Spring Awakening or Theatre For Change.]

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