Let’s talk about consent. More to the point, let’s talk about consent and rape as it is portrayed in media.
Rape has come into the spotlight several times in big ways this past year – mainly in the awful stories of the bullying, violent ass-hats getting minimal-to-no jail time for obvious assault and rape. This is a result of many people siding with the perpetrator instead of the survivor, a story that is, frankly, not new. It is a long-standing narrative in our society that rape is the fault of the victim, rather than the fault of the person who violently took from the survivor. This narrative is strong. It affects our laws, our perceptions, and it makes a difficult situation harder on those trying to heal. People are afraid to come forward. People are scared to tell their stories and press charges, because they are treated with derision, with getting fired, with being branded a slut or worse. Coming forward is an ongoing threat to those who survive the violence, and we are to blame.
Rape has real consequences for those who live it. Rape is not our plaything.
Shame on us for making a spectacle of it in the shows we watch and the movies we consume. Shame on us for adding to this narrative of victim blaming that only further stalls the legislation efforts so many are undertaking. We are not lawyers or judges, but we are writers and our stories get told. The modern zeitgeist is often framed by the things we create and the media that we allow to flourish. Media and consumption is circular, symbiotic, and we as writers, producers, and content creators of all kinds have an obligation to be better, to create a conversation, and change how rape is perceived. Simply put, we are failing that.
The stories that are getting told in popular culture are typically rape porn – designed to “entertain” viewers with the female body even as her right to consent and her body is taken from her, serve no purpose to the plot other than be shocking, and/or have no consequences outside of the act, which serves the narrative that the rapist should not be punished.
The examples can be as obvious as Game of Thrones or as subtle as Poldark’s most recent episode.
Allowing your main character, your hero, to be responsible for any situation, be it a total lack of consent, dubious consent, or wavering consent suggests to the audience that the woman doesn’t really know what she wants and needs a man to tell her. Her no means little, and is said in an effort to entice the man and test whether or not he really wants her. This is a problem consistent in rape culture. And it is RIDICULOUSLY awful. It is said time and time again that women really want it after a rape, that they were doing something to lead the perpetrator down the road to rape, and that their no always means yes. This is harmful. This is deadly. This is something that television shows and movies have the power to change and aren’t. And more subtle examples, i.e. Ross kicking down Elizabeth’s door and forcing himself on her, only for her to “want it later” add to the narrative. This is because it’s showing that this perspective is right. He made the choice for her, the delicate female, and she secretly wanted it all along. Yes never passed her lips. Only no. Keep that in mind.
Also, when you have a rape that is framed by the male perspective, is shown in the nature of “overwhelming passion,” you are doing disservice to the woman who was attacked. You are framing it from the perpetrator’s perspective. You are allowing the power to remain in the hands of the aggressor, the criminal, instead of handing the narrative to the survivor. You are silencing the survivor’s story once more.
RAPE IS NOT FOR YOUR VIEWING PLEASURE.
Rape is not for you to fantasize about. It is not a source of romance, love, or any basis of a relationship. Rape is about control, about bullying, and it is about taking power. “On average, there are 288,820 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States”.
That’s thousands and thousands of people who are affected EACH YEAR. This is not a laughing matter. This is an epidemic. And we can be the change we want to see.
Stories have a really bad habit of suggesting that an aggressive man who takes what he wants is sexy or hot. Women viewers perpetuate this unhealthy belief as often as men do, and it is dangerous and it is in so much of our media today. A man who storms into a house, breaks down the door, and demands sex is suddenly swoon worthy instead of an aggressive villain who decided for the woman what she wanted with no respect to the meaning of her words. Even if you have a relationship with someone, someone you loved, and they did this to you – it’s rape. Clear and simple. If clear consent is not given, it is assault. Yes means yes. No means no.
Writers have the firm obligation to focus their stories on assault with a clear eye for who is at fault and to stop this unhealthy version of twisted romance. We have the necessary obligation to change the narrative towards healthy. Men and women should not exist in relationships where rape is considered sexy or normal. It is a real issue, with real fallouts and consequences. We would do well to remember that as we look for stories to tell.
“One study that examined PTSD symptoms among women who were raped found that almost all (94 out of 100) women experienced these symptoms during the two weeks immediately following the rape. Nine months later, about 30 out of 100 of the women were still reporting this pattern of symptoms.”
To be clear, if your story has any situation where a woman is forced into a sexual encounter, where consent is not clear on the outset, then you have written a rape.
To follow that rape without consequences for the perpetrator and without showing the emotions of the person raped, you are perpetuating the normalization of rape and you are injuring a whole lot of people in the process.
It’s this simple – if you intend to show a character rape someone, or have sex with someone where the consent is dubious, you have turned your character into the villain. That person is no longer a good guy. There is no middle ground. Rape doesn’t “just happen” and it is NEVER just “one of those things.” The perpetrators of rape are Bad, capital B. The survivor may forgive them – that’s their choice – but that person remains and, will forever be, a rapist. Trying to show the moral grey area, trying to show that rape is not so simple, contributes to the narrative of rape culture in ways that only harms those who have been attacked. There is no grey area, and sexual assault survivors have nothing to explain to you.
Stop trying to make it about you. Make it about them.
The only time a rape should be in a story is if you are telling the survivor’s story, from their perspective, or it is aimed at raising awareness, explaining what rape is, and showing how we can all be better about rape culture, treatment of survivors, and education.
If you are writing rape to shock your audience, you are awful. If you write rape because it makes the lead actor seem “hotter” you are awful. If you write rape in some twisted sexual fantasy, you are awful.
Rape is not your play thing to trot out for ratings.
If you can’t do the story-line justice, if you don’t know what consent is, if you don’t understand the effects, and if you don’t respect that these are people’s lives and not a fantasy, then you ARE AWFUL.
You may think this small moment in Poldark is not worth the discussion, but it is. It really is, because while it might not matter to you, I can guarantee you it matters to those who have survived rape.
Here are some sources. Educate yourselves. And, dear fellow writers – treat consent with care. We have the power to inform, to bring a new wave of understanding, to teach men and women about the nature of consent, and create a society that does not see rape as the things of fantasy but rather as the abhorrent, violent act it is.
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: National hotline, operated by RAINN, that serves people affected by sexual violence. It automatically routes the caller to their nearest sexual assault service provider. You can also search your local center here. Hotline: 800.656.HOPE
- Womenslaw.org: Information about legal protections for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
- National Organization for Victim Assistance: NOVA is the oldest national victim assistance organization of its type in the United States.
- It Happened to Alexa Foundation: The ‘It Happened to Alexa Foundation’ supports rape survivors through the trauma of the criminal trial.
- Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE): The SANE/SART program offers sensitive, caring, and supportive care following a sexual assault. Their website provides a list of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) programs in each state. These specialists are registered nurses, who have advanced education in forensic examination of sexual assault victims.
- Hope Exists After Rape Trauma: The mission of Hope Exists After Rape Trauma (H-E-A-R-T) is to provide hope for victims of sexual assault through the provision of essential and therapeutic support, by affecting positive change in laws influencing their lives, and by educating both the public and professionals commissioned to serve victims.
- The Date Safe Project: The DATE SAFE Project, Inc. provides positive how-to skills and helpful insights for addressing verbal consent (asking first), respecting of boundaries, sexual decision-making, bystander intervention, and supporting survivors (opening the door for family and friends).