Asking the right questions

New ASU professor studies how to support service members who experienced sexual violence during military service

October 11, 2021

Experiencing a hiccup during a study abroad college research project led Rebecca K. Blais, a new associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, to appreciate the importance of asking the right questions.

At the time, Blais was studying in Greece, and her project focused on risky health behaviors in Greek and American college students. She created a survey that required people to answer questions about their health using a rating scale of 1 to 5. The Greek participants she worked with told her that they did not know how to answer: They did not think about the world in terms of scales.  Portrait of ASU Associate Professor Rebecca Blais. Rebecca Blais, associate professor of psychology. Photo by Robert Ewing/ASU Download Full Image

“I realized that there is always a cultural context to asking questions,” said Blais, who is a licensed clinical psychologist. “We have to be sensitive to individual experiences in order to make our research and, ultimately, our therapeutic interventions more thoughtful and culturally appropriate.”

The cultural context that Blais now focuses on is the military. She comes from a family of Marines and has dedicated her career to studying how best to support service members who have experienced sexual violence during their military careers. 

“During graduate school, I conducted clinical assessments and provided psychotherapy to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was working with 22-year-old service members who were willing to give their lives for our freedoms, and I decided to leverage my skills as a clinical psychologist to give back to this community,” Blais said.

Military sexual violence ranges from verbal harassment to unwanted physical touching or rape. Because experiencing military sexual violence is associated with suicide, Blais is trying to understand how the two are linked. Possible pathways include PTSD from the sexual trauma itself or from sexual dysfunction that can follow as a result of sexual violence. 

“Sometimes we clinicians aren’t asking the right questions. After a service member experiences an interpersonal trauma like military sexual violence, we should be asking whether he or she feels safe and satisfied in their sexual relationship,” Blais said. “These questions aren’t asked even though research shows sexual dysfunction is a direct risk for suicide. We have to do better and have to ask these questions when meeting with survivors. And as educators, we need to teach emerging clinicians how to broach the topic in treatment, even when the focus is not sexual function.”

Blais now teaches clinical psychology doctoral students how to ask questions about sex and sexual trauma with the goal of normalizing the topic in therapy.  

“If the clinician isn’t comfortable, the client won’t be either. But if we can teach people how to ask sensitive questions in an inviting manner, we are effectively creating a safe space,” she said. “Safe spaces for survivors who experienced military sexual violence are critically important to recovery.”

Another focus of Blais’ research is thinking “outside the box” about how to deliver therapy interventions that are based on the culture of the military. Instead of talking in an office for an hour, Blais has used behavior activation interventions, which are therapy sessions designed to reduce isolation and avoidance in patients while boosting their mood. She has gone skiing in the Rockies with service members and veterans. She has also delivered group therapy by building a motorcycle from the ground up.

“One veteran in the motorcycle group taught me how to weld while we talked about his relationship with his wife. Having him teach me while I counseled him let us engage deeply because our interaction wasn’t seen as a one-way street for the veteran. He felt like he was giving back to me, which I think helped him open up more. If we can set up therapy so that service members are giving back and contributing to the community, we can meet them where they are and where they have value,” Blais said.

For veterans who are struggling, the Veterans Crisis Line offers free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1) or text 838255.

Science writer, Psychology Department


ASU announces 2021-22 theater season

October 11, 2021

In a return to live performances, Arizona State University's School of Music, Dance and Theatre announces the upcoming 2021–22 theater season.

“We had a challenging year doing virtual performances that were experimental,” said Mary McAvoy, associate professor and community engagement coordinator. “There’s a lot of joy being back in rehearsal spaces and feeling like we are starting anew.” skeleton hands hold an hourglass, words read "Everybody" by Brandon Jacobs Jenkins, directed by Kristina Friedgen ASU kicks off the 2021–22 theater season with the production of "EVERYBODY." Image by Brunella Provvidente

This year’s ambitious season portrays the range of human experience, from birth to death and the journeys in between that connect us all. The season selection committee focused on amplifying the voices of underrepresented writers, directors and actors who communicate important societal issues through their work.

“We are lucky in the university space,” McAvoy said. “We can be path-breaking. We can take risks and do new things.”

“EVERYBODY,” written by award-winning Black playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is a modern take on the 15th-century play “Everyman.” Each night, a cast member is chosen by lottery to play the protagonist, representing the search for meaning and connection in life. Third-year MFA Theatre for Youth and Communities student Kristina Friedgen will direct the play. 

Friedgen said she believes in the power of fostering student creativity and compassion through theater.

“Theater brings people together and lets you walk in someone else’s experience for a short while,” she said.

“Healing Wars” is an immersive, multimedia work that tells the historical stories of pain and loss experienced by both Civil War and modern soldiers. Originally created in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it boldly addresses the trauma of war. The production — created by dance legend Liz Lerman, Institute Professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, and directed by Keith Thompson, assistant director of the dance program and associate professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre — tells the haunting story through dance, music and theater.

The season brings the opportunity to laugh and learn as well. “La Comedia of Errors,” a bilingual adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” features mistaken identities and gives the audience the opportunity to see the world from another perspective. The play will be guest directed by Ricky Araiza, artistic director of Teatro Bravo! and ASU theater alum. According to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, “Whether you speak English, Spanish or both, you will enjoy this hilarious production.”

The poetic play “the living’life of the daughter mira” will be guest directed by Meghan Finn, artistic director of The Tank in New York. It presents the adult manifestation of a newborn baby girl adapting to her new life in the neonatal intensive care unit while her family struggles with her arrival.

The theater season will also include staged readings where the audiences can participate in the creative process of ASU. TheatreLABs are held several times a year in the black-box theater at the Nelson Fine Arts Center Studio 133. Students perform new pieces written by ASU MFA playwrights to develop these works in progress. The performances are free and open to the public. Audiences are part of the process, providing feedback that helps the next step of the play’s development.

According to Heather Landes, director of ASU’s School of Music, Dance and Theatre, the TheatreLABs are important to ASU theater’s commitment to the development of new work and the promotion of diverse stories.

For all shows, tickets are available online three weeks in advance through the Herberger Institute Box Office. Ticket prices and venues vary. 

All attendees at performances are required to adhere to ASU COVID-19 policies, which are consistent with CDC guidelines for colleges and universities. Face coverings are required in School of Music, Dance and Theatre indoor performance spaces. University COVID-19 information can be found at  

ASU 2021–22 theater season  

Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Kristina Friedgen
7:30 p.m. Oct. 15, 16, 21, 22 and 23
2 p.m. Oct. 17 and 24
Lyceum Theatre

“Healing Wars”
By Liz Lerman
Directed by Keith Thompson
Co-production with music, dance and theatre  
7:30 p.m. Nov. 5, 6, 12 and 13
2 p.m. Nov. 7 and 14
Galvin Playhouse Theatre

“La Comedia of Errors”
Adapted from Shakespeare by Lydia Garcia and Bill Rauch
Guest directed by Ricky Araiza
7:30 p.m. Feb. 18, 19. 24, 25 and 26
2 p.m. Feb. 20 and 27
Galvin Playhouse Theatre

“the living’life of the daughter mira”
By Matthew Paul Olmos
Guest directed by Meghan Finn
7:30 p.m. March 25, 26, 31, April 1 and 2
2 p.m. March 27 and April 3
Lyceum Theatre

Theatre LABs
2 p.m. Oct. 31
7:30 p.m. Nov. 7 and 21
7:30 p.m. March 20, 27 and April 3
Nelson Fine Arts Center room 133 

Lacy Chaffee

Media and communications coordinator, School of Music, Dance and Theatre