An argument that sexual assault depictions in entertainment are a triggering mess.
Television, Netflix, the movies. Forms of escape, entertainment and even education.
But not for rape survivors. Any of these media can be triggering when your haunting, traumatic past plays in front of your very eyes, often in graphic and titillating detail, especially when you’re mentally unprepared.
As a woman, I’m well aware that “sex sells,” especially if the woman portrayed meets society’s not-so-great expectations: white, petite, blue come-to-bed eyes, pert lips, in various stages of undress.
But why do we sell the violation of sex? Sex in its most violent, brutal and inhumane form. Rape. Assault. Abuse.
Not so long ago, I was ending watching the second series of Peaky Blinders, which is fronted by Irish actor Cillian Murphy and set in Birmingham, England, after the First World War. Yes, the Peaky Blinders family are gangsters who make a living fixing bets. But I wasn’t prepared for the traumatic scenes about to unfold.
During the space of two hours, I saw four different women get raped—or be put in an extremely uncomfortable sexual situation—by four different men. All this without a detailed warning from the channel provider.
Before these scenes unfolded, I was an avid watcher of the show. But with my arms tightly wrapped around me, after watching one graphic, sexually violent scene then another, I had to leave the room.
I felt shaken to my very core, as well as sick to my stomach. How was this “entertainment”? I’m aware that Peaky Blinders isn’t real and is merely made to look as if it occurred in the 20th century. Why did these made-up graphic scenes upset me so much?
Katie Russell, from Rape Crisis England & Wales, says, “These scenes are often very sexist, and borderline misogynistic. They’re sexualized, glamorized and using it as titillation which is absolutely never acceptable.”
In my view, I’m concerned that, under the guise of entertainment and “make-believe period drama,” that women are being used as sexual objects by men in an attempt to normalize rape. But rape and sexual abuse or assault are not normal. So why do we continue to defend television shows that believe they are?
It’s the same with the world-famous fantasy television drama Game of Thrones. We uncomfortably squirmed in our seats, or looked away, through countless violently vehement rape scenes featuring the female protagonists.
And the men? We never saw anything but honorable, entertaining deaths occur to the perpetrators. We gawked when, without compunction, they shot prostitutes with arrows, and cheered them on in their attempts to become king.
“Sexual violence and abuse are not entertainment,” Russell says. “There’s a glamorization to women’s naked bodies, the setting of a scene, and then to the violence against women. You can tackle the subject without graphic imagery and without content that is unnecessarily triggering.”
I’m sure if you ask any woman today, most (if not all) will mention that they’ve been in many uncomfortable sexual situations. I often look back to the person I was ten years ago and ask myself, “If I said no, what would have happened to me? Would he have carried on without my consent, or respected my change of heart?” I have no doubt that it would have been the former, and today I’d be writing this as a victim of sexual assault.
It is traumatizing and triggering for survivors of the worst imaginable sexual assault and abuse to relive their nightmares even though it might be “entertaining” to others. You could argue that these women have the support and help they need to get through the day alive, but why doesn’t the entertainment industry not offer storylines after a character has been raped? Yes, a woman might get vengeance by feeding her rapist to the hounds, but then that criminalizes her. When once she was a victim earning sympathy, now she’s the wrongdoer to be feared.
“I experienced a sexual assault a few years ago and depictions of rape in TV and film have always been the biggest trigger for me,” Maxine, a survivor, tells me. “There was a point when I actually got scared of watching new TV dramas and films, as I'd end up in such a state if a rape was depicted. I eventually resorted to therapy so I could find a way of dealing with these triggers because they were, sadly, so frequent on TV and in film.”
You could argue that this normalization of rape culture is influential to the most impressionable, or uneducated, among us. “I think the prevalence of these scenes also influences male behavior and attitudes to women,” a friend told me.
“An ex once tried to argue that women are often ‘asking for it’ and used a sexual assault scene from Misfits [a British comedy-drama] as a reference to justify his viewpoint.”
What could the entertainment industry do to support women and survivors alike?
First, clear, detailed warnings need to be given prior to every episode, with time markers, to warn survivors of the graphic scene to come. The standard “Warning: This has scenes that some viewers may find upsetting,” is not a clear, detailed warning. It is abstract and vague. It’s not enough.
Russell says: “Content warnings are generic, and it used to be: ‘Viewers may find these scenes upsetting’ but it needs to be more detailed than that so that survivors can make an informed decision whether they want to watch it.”
Second, if these shows do to include a graphic rape scene, helplines need to follow the show immediately after. The on-screen survivor must be shown to get help, and not suffer in silence with the weight of her abuse.
“When shows tackle it well, it increases calls to our helpline, not just from those who are triggered, but from women who want to finally seek help,” Russell says.
She adds, “If survivors see content that is inappropriate and they want to make a complaint, they should complain to the channel or platform. In terms of their own wellbeing, I would recommend contacting Rape Crisis through our website. There’s lots of information there to help survivors. The service is confidential and you can be anonymous.”
I believe that all rape scenes should be banned. Period. In no way, shape or form is an uncomfortably graphic and brutal act of sexual violence necessary to viewing entertainment. It puts the well-being of survivors at risk, and for what cause?
These graphic scenes continue to portray women as victims, weak-willed or pathetic.
We are not. We are strong. We are survivors.