Harmless Fun: Pop Culture Has Always Lied To Us About Rape
For decades, various scenes within TV , film, and hardcore porn has depicted acts of sexual violence as being an everyday part of sexual courtship. If we want to teach young men and women differently, then that shit needs to urgently change.
[Content warning: Discussions surrounding consent and sexual assault and descriptions of scenes of sexual harassment, assault, and rape.]
At the beginning of Roger Avery’s 2002 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ Rules of Attraction there’s a horrifying scene in which Lauren (the mesmerising Shannyn Sossamon) wakes up at a party to discover a man is fucking her while his friend films the ordeal. In a voiceover the character casually laments how she’s losing her “virginity to a townie” and isn’t that simply the fucking worst. She looks confused and horrified - a state only worsened by the fact that said townie vomits up all over her before he continues to pleasure himself within her.
At no point during the scene or the rest of the movie is this moment ever defined to be what it actually is: Rape. Instead the scene is framed to highlight that there’s only two supremely awful things happening to Lauren here - she’s being fucked by a guy she doesn’t like or respect and now she also has puke down her bra, too. Rape is absent from the equation. As Rules of Attraction tells it, this is just an ordinary college hook-up gone wrong and it’s probably Lauren’s own damn fault for drinking so much that she passes out and “allows it to happen”.
The scene has continued to haunt me for more reasons than it simply being a sketchy depiction of a nonconsenual sex act. As a teenager, Rules of Attraction was one of those movies that featured heavily in my set of DVD’s I’d throw on in the background while I was getting ready or studying for an exam. At no point during any rewatch of this movie did what happens to Lauren strike me as being rape. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that the scene started to creep under skin and hold deeper meaning.
By that point in my life, I’d been raped and as such I could identify this specific act for being exactly what it is. My attacker had been someone I considered to be a close friend and to cut a long, miserable story short he force fed me excessive volumes of alcohol one night, took me to my bedroom, and raped me while I was barely conscious. I failed to define what had happened to me as rape for at least 12 months, if not more. And to this day, only a handful of people know who did it. When Rules of Attraction happened to be on TV late one night, I faced the scene once more and felt sick to my stomach: This had happened to me and it wasn’t some ordinary hook-up gone wrong - it was rape.
I’ve been thinking about this a great deal in the months during, and after, #MeToo. In particular, I remain fascinated by the public response to the murky, confusing allegations against Aziz Ansari published by Babe. The debate over whether the story concerning his attempts at sexual coercion amount to little more than a bad date or fully blown sexual assault have been compelling to pick apart. If little else, we can all agree that Ansari comes off as an obnoxious, entitled asshole in the story wherein he wastes no time in undressing and performing oral sex on a date who insists she wanted him to slow down or to stop completely.
At one point he “claws” her vagina and at several others he sticks his fingers down her throat without asking if she’s even into what he’s doing. The woman involved repeatedly insists she’s not into any of it and doesn’t want to fuck him, however there are also moments where she appears to consensually perform oral sex on him - admittedly because she reveals she felt “pressured” to. As well as coming across as a petulant asshole, Ansari’s alleged behaviour also sounds like the sort of aggressive courtship rituals we see on screen in pop culture all the time.
It’s James Bond pushing Pussy Galore to the ground and repeatedly forcing her to kiss him against her will in Goldfinger. It’s Spike slipping an unexpected finger inside Buffy at The Bronze in Buffy the Vampire Slayer because he’s just so fucking hot for her and she knows she wants his undead vampire dick. It’s Daenerys getting raped by Khal Drogo on their wedding night in Game of Thrones before falling madly in love with him. It’s Judd Nelson forcing his face between Molly Ringwalds thighs in The Breakfast Club without even so much as an apology afterwards.
As Molly Ringwald herself once said of the scene in an op-ed for The New York Times, “I can see now, Bender sexually harasses Claire throughout the film. When he’s not sexualizing her, he takes out his rage on her with vicious contempt, calling her “pathetic,” mocking her as “Queenie.” … He never apologizes for any of it, but, nevertheless, he gets the girl in the end.”
In popular culture, asking for consent is a real mood-buster. If you want a woman to fall madly in lust or love with you, all you have to do is force her until she relents and there’ll be no consequences for however violently you attacked her. According to pop culture, in fact, you’ll be rewarded for assaulting a woman by winning her affections not long afterwards. This is obviously a toxic message for young women to be fed about the agency they maintain for their own body and sexuality. But it’s arguably even more toxic for the young, heterosexual men watching such depictions who could well grow up thinking that all of this behaviour is normal, expected, and - worst of all - rewarding.
Reading the allegations against Ansari reminded me of this fact and it has continued to haunt me ever since. When it comes to dealing with a man who is more than a little iffy on boundaries of consent, the story in Babe outlines a troublingly familiar scenario for the majority of women with heterosexual urges. This has happened to most of us - at least once. And arguably, it’s easy to look to how the importance of consent is depicted, mollified, belittled, and dimished in pop culture - the boundaries often left conspiously blurred and unclear - to see how our cultural attitudes towards the sexual agency of women could influence the appetites and entitlement of some straight men.
In 2009, a TED talk by Cindy Gallop emphasised just how problematic our culture is and has been in depicting sex and consent in a realistic and healthy manner. Though her message concentrates on the damaging influence of pornography in distorting sexual expectations and desires, the same could easily be said for the way that mainstream culture has long failed to positively depict healthy sexual behaviours and modes of consent.
Titled, “Make Love, Not Porn” Gallop begins her talk by firmly stating “I date men. Predominantly men in their twenties. And when I have sex with younger men I encounter very directly and personally the real rammifications of the creeping ubiquity of hardcore pornography in our culture … there’s an entire generation growing up who believe that what you see in hardcore pornography is the way that you have sex.”
My concern is both with the young guy who believes what hardcore porn has taught him. But my concern is particularly with the young girl whose boyfriend wants to come on her face. She does not want him to come on her face. But hardcore porn has taught her that all men love coming on women’s faces, all women love having their faces come on, and therefore she must let him come on her face and she must pretend to like it.”
Whether we want to admit it or not, many of us likely have male friends like Ansari. They might be sweet natured and seemingly harmless. We might be compelled to shrug off accusations against them because they “wouldn’t hurt a fly” or they “respect women.” We might hear them reel off a seemingly innocent anecdote about a bad date that sets off alarm bells about where they think consent starts and ends. It isn’t our job to educate them otherwise, but after decades worth of poor representation on screen it seems crucial that at some point we rectify the damage caused by bad depictions of consent and the generations worth of misinformed men who still believe that sexual coercion is all part of the “courtship”.
In her TED Talk, Gallop reasons that with the online ubiquity of pornography that many young men are getting their main form of sex education from such portrayls. This was ten years ago and pornography is arguably even easier to access than ever. With schools having repeatedly failed to sufficently educate young men and women about sex and - -perhaps more importantly - about consent, it falls upon the shoulders of our culture to help raise young people with a healthy awareness of sexual boundaries. And so far, we’ve all been failed by it.
Is it any wonder so many straight men think it’s cool to slip their fingers into the various orifices of the female body without a direct invitation or that women are fair game if they’ve drank too much when culture has repeatedly reaffirmed that this is the case to them? Whether it’s porn, TV shows, Hollywood movies, or music videos, removing stigma, labels, and accountabity from genuine acts of rape, sexual harassment, and assault on screen has a nefarious impact that shouldn’t be understated.
In Rules of Attraction, Lauren wakes up in the middle of a sex act being committed to her. She’s puked on. She’s objectified. She’s held down against the floor. Most tellingly, perhaps, she’s also being filmed. It’s interesting to note that capturing such a violent, dehumanising act means little if the man behind the camera protests loudly enough that what he’s shooting is entirely consensual.
You could say that’s certainly reflective of how pop culture and the entertainment industry have thus far treated their accountability in the issue of an ever-growing rape culture that they may have had a hand in influencing. And the ripple effect of those poor media depictions of consent is something we all need to be aware of and to rectify within our own communities however we can.