Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sexual Consent in Pop Culture: Waiting for Consent Doesn't Make You a Hero

I've been thinking a lot lately about consent and the way that our (pop) culture deals with it.

Perhaps it's because of the recent storm surrounding the Good Men Project's decision to publish two rape-apologetic posts, one insisting that "nice guys" can rape, too. (If you're not caught up on that controversy and you want to be, there's a thorough overview of it here).

Perhaps it's because I recently drew a comparison between rape culture and gun culture. Just as I don't think that gun culture kills people (murderers do), I don't think that rape culture rapes people (rapists do). However, I see no contradiction between calling out a culture that makes rape and violence acceptable and also holding individuals responsible for their crimes. One does not excuse the other.

However, I do think that making a change in the amount of crimes that happens requires both punishing individual perpetrators and examining the culture surrounding them.

And we cannot examine rape culture without examining the way that our media handles consent.

Consent is important. Consent is also sexy. Most of us begin having sex as teens, a time when we're also likely to be most concerned with fitting into cultural norms and a time when we're likely to be consuming a lot of media.

Since conversations about sex between teens and their parents are notoriously awkward, a lot of the models for sexual behavior come from mediated sources: movies, songs, magazines, etc.

And, as has been well-documented, our pop culture tends to give us models of sexual pursuit that demonstrate women "playing hard to get" as well as frequently demonstrating men as successfully pursuing women through abduction, captivity, and dominance.  Even when pop culture doesn't take these themes to the extremes demonstrated in the above links, the overall theme of "cat and mouse" in sexual attraction is very, very common. Women are supposed to be chased; men are supposed to chase. This is not a good starting place for demonstrations of consent. 

Heroes Wait for Consent

One thing that I want to examine a little more closely is a message I've seen again and again in movies that's probably supposed to be a positive demonstration of consent. In these films the female (often protagonist) is somehow unable to consent. She's either intoxicated, emotionally distraught, or physically restrained. The male (usually our hero) has the opportunity to have sex with her but declines. In several (though not all) of the examples I've seen, the hero is then rewarded by having sex with the protagonist later. What is universally true is that this scene stands in to demonstrate what a Good Guy our protagonist is. Here's some examples:

1. 10 Things I Hate About You

In this film, a loose adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, Heath Ledger's character has to successfully seduce (take to the prom) Julia Stiles' character because he's being paid to do so. In the process, the two fall in love, then Stiles' character finds out about the payment, is appropriately angry, and then they make up. 

During the course of all this deceit/love roller coaster, Ledger takes Stiles to a party and she gets uncharacteristically drunk--so drunk, in fact, that she passes out. Later, she tries to kiss Ledger, and he turns her down, causing her to get really angry. Later still, he's talking to some other male characters about it and explains that he didn't want to do anything with her when she was that drunk because it would be wrong. 

The scene where Ledger refuses to kiss Stiles is a pivotal scene in the movie. Up to this point, the audience isn't sure about him. We've seen him enter into this demeaning bet for money, so he's definitely got a strike against him. However, we also see him through Stiles' character's eyes, so we see his charm as well. We're asking ourselves as an audience which part of him is the "real" guy, and when he refuses the kiss because she's too drunk to consent, we're assured that the real him is the good one. 

2. Black Snake Moan

This movie was the center of a lot of controversy that I'm not going to rehash here. I'm including it on this list because it's primary premise illustrates the point I'm making in this list. Samuel L. Jackson's character finds a raped and beaten woman (Christina Ricci) unconscious in the street. After finding out that she's a nymphomaniac, he decides to cure her by tying her to his radiator with a giant chain. 

At the beginning of her captivity, Ricci attempts to seduce Jackson. He refuses, and that's how we're supposed to know as the audience that his intentions are good--and when your intentions manifest themselves through chaining up a half-naked young woman in your living room, you really have a lot to overcome when it comes to convincing the audience that you're a good person. 

3. The Book of Eli

In this post-apocalyptic world, Denzel Washington plays the protagonist who wanders into a town run by a power-hungry tyrant. That man rules a woman and her young daughter (Mila Kunis) as his own possessions. He offers Kunis to Washington as a gift in the hopes that he'll cooperate with him. 

Kunis' character begs Washington's character to sleep with her because otherwise the leader will hurt her mother. When Washington refuses, she asks if she can just spend the night in his room so that it seems like she followed through on her orders. Washington's refusal to violate her is one of the ways that the film sets him up as the symbol of good in contrast to the other man's evil attempts to control the world around him. 

4. The Girl Next Door

In this movie, Emile Hirsch finds out that his next door neighbor (Elisha Cuthbert) is a porn star, which prompts him to start treating her like a piece of meat. He takes her to a hotel room, and she--figuring out that he knows her secret--turns on her porn star persona. 

Her act makes him realize how horrible he's being, and since he doesn't take advantage of the situation by continuing to try to sleep with her, we're supposed to know that he's a good guy. Even though Cuthbert's character is technically the seductress in this scene, it's not a clear display of consent because it's clear that her act is one that she's been pressured into through her porn star persona. This comes up later in the film when she makes it clear that she wants to get out of the business of sex work but can't because of the coercion she faces from the men around her. Of course, it is our protagonist who rescues her from this life, and we know from this scene forward that he's destined to do so. 

What's It Mean?

Look, I like some of these movies, and I definitely think that demonstrating not raping people to be a good thing is a positive media theme. However, I think that there's something problematic about the way this is playing out. 

Not being a rapist should not be a symbol of being a hero; it should be the bare minimum for decent behavior. Refusing to sleep with someone who is too intoxicated to consent or who is being forced into sex because someone is threatening her does not make you a "good guy;" it just means that you pass one of the lowest bars for basic humane treatment. 

That these movies are using that act as some sort of shorthand for "hero" is troubling. It implies that these men are doing something extraordinary by resisting the urge (and often it is an urge that they have to resist, especially in the films where they end up having consensual sex with the women later) to rape or take advantage of these women. Ultimately, that narrative helps support the idea that avoiding rape is a difficult thing, something worthy of praise. 

The truth is that avoiding rape isn't hard. If you don't have consent, you don't have sex. If you're not sure that you have consent, you don't have sex. If you are unable to get consent because of the person's condition, you don't have sex. If you get consent and you don't want to have sex, you don't have sex. 

If you get consent and you want to have sex, have sex. 

Our pop culture needs to show us more narratives surrounding sexual consent in a normalized way because--until they do--conversations around it will continue to be complicated by the competing narratives we receive everywhere else.

Can you think of pop culture examples where consent is handled well? What are some positive models for sexual consent in pop culture? 


  1. The idea that consent can only be given in a fully lucid, mentally stable, and untainted by a difficult personal background seems a bit dubious. While in some cases, it is rather clear cut that a person is too drunk or mentally unstable to consent, it is a rare that the other party always knows for certain when to back away. If you have two drunk people at a party who fall into bed together, neither is capable of "consent". Is this then a "double rape"? Or is it simply a case of people whose inhibitions were lowered and they acted on impulses they might (or might not) suppress.

    In some of the examples you give, the porn star and the nymphomaniac, they are clearly consenting. To say that they are not is to stretch the point at best.

    If you take the example of the porn star, you say that she is "pressured into it" by her porn star persona. I haven't seen this movie, but any party who adopts a persona (acts out a role) is either willfully making a choice or too mentally unstable to have one. A "persona" is not something that pushes you any more than your clothes force themselves onto your body. You choose them, they don't choose you.

    Taken to its logical conclusion, this sort of thinking would indicate that most people, by virtue of their environment, neurotic tendencies, and troubling personal histories are never in a position to truly consent. An adult female who goes to bars because she is lonely may choose to inhabit a happy-go-lucky party girl persona to attract a partner. She may even feel pressure to go to bed with any man who picks her up because otherwise it may appear she is acting outside of the image she has projected. Is that a case of not giving consent? Perhaps I need to see the movie to understand, but the description you give makes this situation appear to be shaky evidence for a lack of consent.

    In the case of the nymphomaniac, again, if you have a mental health issue and are an adult who acts on your compulsions, it is not a case of "consent". Nymphomania (which is now referred to as hypersexuality) is not a disorder which includes psychoses. Such people are in touch with reality and therefore capable of giving consent. They are not utterly out of control, but merely have difficulty maintaining control, much in the same fashion that alcoholics do. Should we also blame bars and liquor shops for enabling alcoholics, or arrest them for serving people who are incapable of understanding the destructive nature of their choices? Saying a person who has sex with a hypersexual individual is "raping" that person is like saying a bartender who serves an alcoholic is drugging or intoxicating someone without their consent.

    While I agree that applauding men who avoid sex with people who are clearly incapable of consent is giving credit for little or nothing, I think that some of the cases you talk about are not a failure to rape, but examples of empathy and self-respect. People, male or female, who choose not to have sex with people who are clearly damaged or mentally troubled and making a bad choice are not abstaining from raping someone incapable of consent. They are understanding that having sex with someone under such conditions reflects on their weakness and need in a negative way and displaying enough integrity and self-regard to turn away from the opportunity. That's the character point viewers are supposed to see in these cases, not a man who chooses not to rape a woman.

    1. I concede that the example from The Girl Next Door did involve consent, but I still think it fits with these examples because his refusal to take advantage of the persona that she feels trapped in is used to distinguish him as a hero. He may not have been a rapist if he'd chosen to go through with sleeping with her in that hotel room, but he still would have been displaying a patriarchal dominance over someone in a position with less power.

      As for the Black Snake Moan example, I think that DEFINITELY would have been rape if he had chosen to accept her advances. She was chained to a radiator in his living room and offering sex as a means to escape. That is not consent.

      I am not saying that consent can only be obtained by someone with no personal past of difficulties. I do think that consent gets trickier in cases like the one where you mentioned with two people who are both drunk, but that wasn't the case in any of these pop culture displays. In all of these examples, the men are positioned as the ones with the power to choose or not choose to take advantage of the women, and they're seen as heroes for making the right choice.

      Your first paragraph about some of the nuances of consent definitely brings up some important issues, but that's a nuance that I don't think our pop culture (the place where a lot of our understanding of how to interact in sexual situations first forms) has made room for. That's a problem.

  2. pretty sure the more prevalent reason consent is rarely shown in flics is because most of them are shot from a straight male perspective, and from the straight male perspective, getting consent in real life is very very VERY rare.

  3. That's stupid.

    (I apologize, I tried to say that more diplomatically, but it's not possible.)

  4. The reason you believe that getting consent is so rare is because you sir, are a rapist. Congratulations on being a disgusting, horrible human being. You need to reevaluate your life choices and turn yourself into the police.