“Hidden” sexual violence in the media: or, this is one of the reasons it is so hard to get people to see rape as rape

[This piece was originally written for a online course I am taking at Coursera, “Understanding Violence” (hence the noted difference in tone to my normal writing here). It relates back to a post a wrote a long time ago about scenes that turn up in movies and tv that are clearly intended to be innocent or seductive, but that actually portray coercion, assault, and/or rape. Trigger warning for descriptions of fictional scenes of sexual violence.]

In the media today, sexual violence is often portrayed in ways that are not intended to be sexual violence. That is to say that quite frequently, I see scenes in movies and television that are intended to be non-violent sexual content, but that in reality portray sexual violence that goes unrecognized by the writer and much of the audience. Moreover, the ways in which this happens differs significantly depending upon the gender of the person against whom the sexual violence is being perpetrated.

A very common trope in supposed seduction scenes in movies and television is the portrayal of men ignoring women’s displeasure with their advances, of continuing to behave sexually toward women despite their protests, until eventually the women suddenly change their minds and decide they want to have sex after all.

One of the most blatant examples of this trope is in the movie Blade Runner. The ‘seduction’ of Rachael (Sean Young) by the protagonist Deckard (Harrison Ford) plays out as follows: Deckard kisses Rachael. She responds with discomfort and tried to leave. He physically forces her against a wall, and commands her to kiss him. She complies. He commands her to tell him to kiss her (i.e. he coerces her into giving false verbal consent, or to falsely express desire). She does so. They continue to kiss, and now Rachael appears to begin to enjoy herself.

In this case, it is unclear whether the scene was intended to portray dubious consent. It should be noted that Rachael is an android, and that she was in fact designed to serve humans wants and needs, a detail which complicates the story and raises questions about the meaning of consent, and some people have argued that this scene is made to be deliberately ambiguous on this point. What is clear, however, is that regardless of the director’s intent, many people who watch the movie do not see this scene as coercion.

There is a long-standing debate on Wikpedia, for instance, on whether this scene is more accurately described as rape or seduction. The “Rape/Seduces” section of the “Talk” page about the movie opens by very clearly stating “[Rachael] does consent” (“Talk: Blade Runner” 2013). Although these is rich discussion about the issue, the actual Blade Runner entry shows that the consensus on the issue is that this scene portrays Deckard “forc[ing] her to acknowledge and trust her feelings” (i.e. that he forces her to admit that despite her protests she secretly does want him.) This is an extremely dangerous way of discussing the use of coercive force in sexual encounters, to say the least.

A more contemporary example of this form of coercive ‘seduction’ appears in Tyler Perry’s Temptation. This movie includes a scene in which Harley (Robbie Jones) expresses a desire to have sex with Judith (Jurnee Smollet). She does not reciprocate. He physically grabs her, and she resists, repeatedly telling him “No.” He appears to become even more turned on, and pauses only for a moment to reassure her (“Okay, now you can say you resisted”) before continuing the physical assault.

At no point in this scene does Judith give any appearance of consenting to this activity. What is shown is very clearly a sexual assault. But later in movie, this scene retroactively cleaned up in a flashback sequence that confirms that at some point Judith changed her mind and stopped resisting, and the couple made love.

Generally speaking this scenes are considered to be unproblematic and entirely acceptable, because ultimately the women succumb and consent to the men’s advances. However, regardless of the fact that the women change their minds, during the period of time that the men continue to pressure the women, and continue to try to kiss or undress them against their clearly stated wishes, up until the point where the women begin to consent they are committing sexual violence.

There is a serious misunderstanding in these scenes about what constitutes consent, and at what point you need to have consent in order to not be committing sexual assault. Of course, in reality, you need consent for every part of the interaction, from the first kiss or touch, onwards. And if at any point that consent is not present, than sexual violence is occurring,
I do think it’s important to note that in these fictional scenes, the women in question are not harmed, and end up having (presumably) fond memories of the encounters. What is concerning about these portrayals, more than anything else, is the message they send to men that if you keep pushing back against women’s resistance to your advantage, they will eventually change their. When men in real life attempt this tactic, they can and do frequently wind up committing sexual assault or even rape, depending on how committed they are to continuing to try to “seduce” a woman who does not want to be seduced.

To make matters more disturbing, it is important to note that part of the mechanism that creates such a preponderance of scenes of questionable consent in the mainstream is the ratings board. There are numerous reported cases in which filmmakers have been required to remove evidence of female sexual desire and pleasure in order to avoid an R rating.

A recent example of this is the movie Sucker Punch. The movie originally contained a brief, fairly tame sex scene. Emily Browning’s description of what happened to the scene speaks volumes. According to her report, in order to get a PG-13 rating, Zack Snyder reportedly had to edit the scene in a way that ultimately eliminated any sign of agency or desire on the part of the female character. Rather than replace a consensual sex scene with one that played as an assault, Snyder decided to cut the scene entirely.

What is extremely important to note here is that while the ratings board was ready to slap an R rating on a consensual sex scene, they were willing to drop that rating to a PG-13 is the consensual sex was changed into a coercive ‘seduction’.

In the same vein, Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Pierce has spoken at length about the problems she had with even acquiring an R rating for her movie (it was originally granted an NC-17). To be sure, Boys Don’t Cry deals with a great deal of sensitive and disturbing subject matter – based on a true story, it follows a short period in the life of Brendon Teena, a trans man trying to escape his past a forge a life in his male identity. He briefly finds love, before his girlfriend’s family discovers that he is trans. This revelation culminates in his being gang raped, (when he reports the rape to the police, he is subjected to further humiliation), and eventually murdered.

But none of this is what bothered the ratings board. As Pierce reports it (you can hear her telling of the story in This Film is Not Yet Rated), in order to get the rating dropped to an R, she was required to repeatedly trim down and re-edit the consensual sex scene in the film. This scene is not explicit, and shows no nudity. It was simply a long shot of Brendan’s girlfriend’s face showing clear sexual pleasure. And this was repeatedly deemed unacceptable.

The brutal rape scene however, garnered no comment, and required no editing.

In part because of the lesser cultural hang-ups around portrayals of male desire, the ways in which the media seemingly unconsciously portrays and normalizes sexual violence against men is very different than the treatment of women. Rather than displaying a poor understanding of consent, or a preference for coercion over portrayals of genuine female sexual pleasure, there is a disturbing tendency to completely disregard altogether the concept of male consent (or, rather, the possibility that a man might refuse to consent to anything.) Consider the following examples from popular television shows.

In the first episode of the show Californication, the protagonist Hank Moody (David Duchovny) has sex with a number of women (always with their clear consent). However, there is this extremely strange and disturbing thing that happens in one of the sex scenes. When he is in the middle of having sex with one of these women, very suddenly and without warning, she hauls off and punches him in the face. He is clearly shocked, though not upset. She punches him once more before simply leaving him, bewildered. For the remainder of the episode, he has a black eye from this encounter.

Now, as in the examples of sexual violence against women, Moody is not particularly upset by this incident, and his feelings about it seem to lean more toward bemusement than anything else. Regardless, it is very important to look objectively at what happened here – a woman physically assaulted him apparently for her own sexual gratification, without first acquiring his consent to do so.

A more extreme example of this occurs in the fifth episode of season five Doctor Who. In this episode Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) attempts to seduce the Doctor (Matt Smith) in much the same way that the men in above examples try to seduce women. She kisses him, and when he pushes her away, she continues to advance, kissing him more even as protests verbally, and struggles and to get away from her. She tries to remove his clothes, while he continues to try to stop her. At no point is it implied that there is anything wrong with her behaviour, and in fact it is played for laughs – as if the Doctor is somehow oblivious to her desire, despite the fact that it is clear that he knows exactly what is going on and does not want it.

The main difference between this scene and the male-driven seductions described above is that the Doctor does not change his mind, and eventually simply escapes. It is clear the Amy had no intention of stopping and things would have only gotten worse if he had not gotten away. And yet somehow, this scene is still generally considered a light-hearted one.

Once again, here, the male character’s lack of consent for the sexual activities the woman forces upon him is apparently irrelevant. The clear message is that male non-consent does not matter, is not important, and somehow doesn’t count.

The people who write these scenes that unintentionally portray sexual violence, when they seem to intend only to depict sexual seduction, display a clear lack of understanding of consent, and of sexual violence itself. And this lack of understanding is reflected in the ways in which audiences tend to receive these scenes (largely they read in the way the writers intended them to, as seduction). Ultimately, this becomes a self-reinforcing cycle, wherein these kinds of images and behaviours are normalized and not recognized as sexual violence by audiences (which include future screenwriters, who will re-enact these problematic models of seduction for the next generation).

In many ways these kinds of unintentional, and largely unrecognized, forms of violence in the media are more dangerous than the overt depictions, which are more often accompanied with some sense of immorality. Thus, the way in which some kinds of sexual violence are portrayed as acceptable and even normal is one of the most disturbing trends in media today.

One comment

  1. I found the sex scene in Blade Runner really icky at the time and was surprised at how little other people seemed to react to it. That and the Dr. Who episode you reference were actually the two standout examples in my life of me being icked out by a thing that everyone around me seemed completely okay with. There are plenty of ickier things but normally other people noticed that – these two were only really remarkable in how they were treated as innocuous, or worse even romantic. I never really got that mindset and still don’t.

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