I was hypnotized during my senior year of high school, so I had a vague idea of what to expect from Sailesh the Hypnotist at his show last Friday. I expected cheesy scenarios like students acting like superheroes or faking musical prowess. These familiar moments were there, but instead of reminiscing, I found myself looking at them and other moments in a way I hadn’t before. On Friday night, I found myself pondering concepts that weren’t cogent parts of my vocabulary in high school: consent, sexism, objectification and heteronormativity.
In high school, I was sitting on a stage with 15 other people I’d known since kindergarten. I was comfortable with them, and so slumping on their shoulder while hypnotically “sleeping” or huddling together for warmth didn’t jar me. Friday’s participants were not in the same situation—many had met at most three weeks ago—and yet their tasks were far more intimate than the ones I had done. In one instance, participants were asked to slap their butts to the beat … only to then be told to slap the butts of their neighbors. The audience laughed when a student sat back down and complained of their butt hurting but was unsure of the reason why. It was after Sailesh “tied” two male students together by their belly buttons and had them grind and hold each other’s hips that I began feeling physically uncomfortable. I couldn’t help but wonder how I would react after that—embarrassed, like my privacy had been violated. I understand that some loss of privacy comes with being hypnotized, but having two students rub against one another felt too far. Sailesh didn’t tell them that this would be a possibility; they didn’t consent to that.
I can’t, however, say that I was surprised—a moment earlier in the show had shown me his opinion of consent. Sailesh asked a student for their belt, and after hypnotizing the participants into thinking that it was a snake, he brought the belt before each and urged them to touch it: “Just a quick touch.” After they refused, he bemoaned to the audience, “Sounds like my college experience.” There was an audible gasp, and Sailesh laughed saying, “I’m just kidding—consent is very important.” To be honest, I’m not sure if he believes that or if he even fully knows what consent is. Speaking as someone who actively works with the Office of Gender Violence Prevention and Education, this felt like it came directly out of one of the countless stories I have read about college students feeling pressured while being intimate. As a proctor, I worried about my first years in the audience and whether they’d remember the conversation we had about consent after “Speak About It.”
I then noticed how often Sailesh referred to the participants as “ladies and gentlemen,” a dichotomy that not all Bowdoin students fit into and how he would assign different bits to each. In one, the four “ladies” were asked to shake their breasts, after he had “stolen” their breasts in the same vein as stealing someone’s nose. Later, they were competing for a “daycare position.” I love working with children, and I do believe in a maternal instinct—my friends will tell you that I have one. But he didn’t need to choose a profession that has been systematically delegated to the female sex as falling in line with their supposed “natural capabilities.” Don’t tell my babysitting gig, but my brother is better at playing with kids than I am. The male students onstage could’ve been “interviewed” for the position, but they weren’t. Instead, the “gentlemen” were given tasks like “slapping themselves across the face every time they had a dirty thought” when Sailesh convinced the participants that he was the most attractive woman they had ever seen. Assigning this solely to the men assumed two things: 1) That the men were straight and would have dirty thoughts about the “woman” before them and 2) that the women would not. You know what happens when you assume. He further affirmed his heteronormativity as he went through the participants, hypnotizing those he assumed were men to believe that they were women and asking them to describe their perfect man.
By the end of Sailesh’s show, I just wanted him to leave. His show didn’t reflect what the Bowdoin community has worked so hard to promote: asking for pronouns, emphasizing consent and making sure that all students feel comfortable with their identities on campus. While I’m graduating and won’t be around to see next year’s hypnotist or comedian, I sincerely hope it won’t be him.
Jenna Scott is a member of the class of 2019.