Content Warning for discussion of rape, sexual abuse, and sexual assault.
Let me start this by saying that discussions about the depiction of rape are never easy, nor do I take them lightly. As a victim of childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault myself, I know how hard it can be to talk about, much less to see portrayed on screen. If this is not a helpful conversation for you, I honor that and recommend that you skip this article. Stay safe, stay healthy, and know that I think your decision is valid.
Our media is far from perfect in its depictions of female rape on television; certain shows still seem to think it’s a character leveling up technique that can be voyeuristically consumed for our entertainment. Or splashed on our screens with zero context, zero follow through, and little to no concern for how it impacts the audience, whether a survivor or not. Rape ought never to be for ‘dramatic tension’, nor to be used as a plot device/character development moment. Rape is not empowerment. Including rape in a story ought to somehow challenge the problematic cultural perception of rape and systems that allow rape to occur unpunished: patriarchy, rape culture, toxic masculinity, etc.
Our media is also dismally failing in its depiction of male rape, if it bothers to address this as a real experience at all. And that’s what I want to address today. Because despite the fact that it is 2017, we still have shows portraying a relationship between a 16 year old male student and his female teacher as a “forbidden romance” instead of what it is: statutory rape.
That’s right, I’m talking about Riverdale, which premiered last week with this storyline as the main protagonist’s “love life”. It’s high time we admit that outside of ‘special episode’ crime serials like Law & Order: SVU, our media fails to label most instances of male rape as “rape” (and even on shows like that it can fail to address it sensitively). This needs to end. Now.
There are many ways to define rape, and I don’t want to get bogged picking that apart and miss the forest for the trees. I understand that others might highlight different features or concepts in their discussion of rape, and that’s perfectly fair. It’s also a different conversation. For the purposes of this article, in order for it not to be considered rape, sexual contact requires positive consent with a specific person under specific circumstances. Just because Johnny consented to sex with his girlfriend doesn’t mean he consented to sex with her sister—that’s the specific person. By specific circumstances I mean in a context where positive consent is possible, whether legally or otherwise, which will become clear in specific discussions below.
Our culture is in the midst of a major debate regarding its discussion of consent, which again, is beyond the scope of this article. For my purposes here, positive consent means freely given, enthusiastic, verbal assent. For example, “Yes, I want this”, or “I’m down to get down”, or “Oh yeah baby, I’m feelin’ it”. You get the idea. I know other people define it differently, but I want everyone to be on the same page for the purposes of this discussion. So, to bring it all back around, if any one of these elements is lacking, I consider it rape. Got it? Good.
The Graduate Effect: Older Woman, Younger Male
In this situation, an older, sometimes more sexually ‘mature’ or ‘experienced’, conventionally attractive woman seduces a younger, under-aged male. I know that in The Graduate he’s 21, so it’s not statutory, but I bring up this movie because I think stories like this have been a huge part of making this scenario seem desirable even when the male is a minor. There are socio-cultural forces at work as well, too, but I’ll get to those when I wrap this all up.
Riverdale gave us precisely this scenario. 16-year-old Archie is the main protagonist of Riverdale, a football player, musician, and teen heartthrob. We learn in a flashback that over the summer, Ms. Grundy gave him a ride one day and they then had sex in her car. As you do with your not-yet-sophomore high school student. They had at least one other sexual encounter that summer that we see in flashback as well.
Julia and Barbara have both talked about the depiction of Tommen’s and Margaery’s relationship, so I’ll summarize from their pieces. If you have time, you really should read them whole thing—they’re excellent. In Season 5 of Game of Thrones, 13-year-old Tommen married Maegery, a character of ambiguous age, but most likely in her early to mid-twenties. Yet even if we gave the show the benefit of the doubt and made her 18, a number I’ve seen floating around, that’s still wrong and abusive.
Margaery is unambiguously painted on the show as a sexual manipulator, first of Renly, then of Joffrey, then of Tommen. She knows how much Tommen enjoys sex with her, and uses it to get things she wants from him. She’s sexually manipulating him to get back at his mother, as Barbara points out in her article. Not once does the narrative call her actions to account. In fact, the most common reaction in universe is humor and congratulatory back slapping. Because every young teenage boy secretly wants to be sexually manipulated by an attractive older woman, right? He wasn’t raped, he’s lucky.
And yet, very often, that is what narratives communicate. Take Glee and its poor handling of Ryder’s childhood sexual assault. In “Lights Out” (Episode 4×20), Ryder Lynn admits that when he was 11, his 17/18-year-old female babysitter walked in on him in the shower and touched his genitals. In this raw, emotionally vulnerable moment, the other male Glee club members cheer him on. He gets high fives, hugs, proclamations of his sexual prowess. In short, they do the opposite of recognizing it was assault. Not even the teacher acknowledges that it was assault. In fact, by the end of the episode, not one single person has stated in unequivocal terms that he experienced sexual assault.
Now before you come at me with ‘depiction is not endorsement’, none of these television shows ever acknowledges that this is statutory rape. With Riverdale, there’s no content warning before the show, no in-universe challenge, nothing. In fact, Archie and Ms Grundy’s entire relationship is framed as a tragic romance doomed to failure, a torrid, sexy affair that ‘just can’t go on’. Even the actor calls it nothing more than “an inappropriate kind of romance.” It is inappropriate, I give you that, buddy. But it sure as hell isn’t ‘romance’. It’s statutory rape.
None of these young male characters are unequivocally acknowledged as being the victims of rape, sexual abuse, or sexual assault. 16-year-old Archie has a sexy doomed romance with his teacher. 13 year old Tommen is a lucky guy to have sex with his hot older wife. Ryder has “superior game” for an older woman touching him without consent. Neither Archie nor Ryder are legally old enough to consent, so it’s clearly rape and sexual assault. Westeros having different rules about consent and sex between married couples of different ages aside, in our society, sex between a 13 and 20ish-year-old is statutory rape whether they’re married or not (at least in most states it is).
Even if you allowed space for ‘ambiguity’ based on setting or teenagers being stupid and hormone driven, that’s not enough. Rape of an underaged male should not be ambiguous even if the society is different from our own. Sexual assault and abuse should not be up for debate even if teenagers don’t understand it’s not ‘cool’. If I’ve gotten to the end of a television show without knowing for certain that the show itself thinks a sexual relationship between an older woman and an underaged male character is wrong, there’s a problem.
If you’re still not convinced, let’s try a thought experiment: flip the genders. Mid twenties male teacher seduces 16 year old female student; early twenties male sexually manipulates 13-year-old child bride to get back at her dad; 17/18-year old male babysitter walks in on 11-year-old girl in the shower and touches her body without consent. These are clearly inappropriate relationships, and I can’t imagine a TV show that would dare to depict any of these as romantic, lucky, or funny.
The Wicked Queen: Sex While Under Duress
A female villain uses the threat of violence to elicit sexual favors from a male character. Seems unambiguous right? This is clearly rape. Not if you’re The 100 or Once Upon A Time. Season 2 of The 100 features John Murphy being held captive by Ontari, a woman who styles herself the new chief, or heda, of the Grounder coalition. After his brutal torture, he’s fitted with a metal collar and chain round his neck. After threatening to kill him if he doesn’t do what she says, Ontari slowly drags him to her bed via the chain despite his physical resistance. He ‘consents’ and the scene changes.
Regina/The Evil Queen in Once Upon a Time uses similar threats of violence and pain to coerce the Huntsman (1×07, “The Heart is A Lonely Hunter”). When he betrays her to protect Snow White, she uses magic to remove his heart without killing him, as payment for Snow’s lost heart. Squeezing his heart in her hands causes him tremendous pain, which she uses to threaten him if he dares to defy her again. She then orders her guards to drag him to her bedroom.
Though not a queen, or wicked, Ygritte from Game of Thrones similarly coerces Jon into sex under thinly veiled threats. Their first sexual encounter on the show (3×05) follows Jon’s insistence to Mance that he’s ‘one of them’ and Ygritte vouching for him. Keep in mind that she calls her vouchsafement a ‘debt’ and says he ‘owes her’. Soon after, she asks, “Is Orell right? Are you still a crow? Time you proved yourself.” which is a thinly veiled threat that she will tell if he refuses her, which they both know would result in his death. It’s “if you don’t have sex with me, I can get you killed”. Regardless of Jon’s physical attraction to Ygritte, she used her protection of him with Mance as leverage and then threatened to potentially out him as a traitor if he refused to sleep with her.
There is absolutely nothing ambiguous about these situations. None of these characters are in any position to offer full, enthusiastic consent. They’re under duress. They’ve been threatened with violence and death. The difference between them is that the narrative of Once Upon a Time did seem to understand how problematic this situation was. While it did not specifically label it as rape, the context made it clear that this was messed up. The 100 on the other hand, did not offer any kind contextual clues mark the situation as rape. Nor did they follow up on it or explore what it mean for Murphy. From remarks on twitter, some reviewers of The 100 didn’t even seem to think it was rape. Game of Thrones took a situation of dubious consent in the books and made it unambiguously coercive.
Again, flip the genders if you are in any doubt. Imagine seeing a female character tortured, threatened with violence and death, and then ‘asked’ to participate in sexual contact with the one threatening her. Imagine a female character being told by her male protector that she ‘owes’ him and that if she wants to ‘prove herself’, she has to sleep with him. No one would hesitate to call that rape because her ‘consent’ is under duress.
The Disguised Lover: She’s Not Who You Think She Is
Sometimes, a male character consents to sex, but the person he has sex with is not the person he thinks. One of the major plot pieces in the science fiction show Fringe is the existence of an alternate universe alongside the prime universe, the latter of which our protagonists inhabit. Two of the main protagonists, Peter and Olivia, fall in love over the course of the first two seasons. The second season ends with Peter and the alternate universe Olivia, or Altlivia, back in the prime universe while ‘our’ Olivia is trapped in the parallel universe. Altlivia (frequently called ‘Fauxlivia’, but I prefer Altlivia because she is Olivia, just an alternate version) had been sent to manipulate Peter and his father Walter. She’s a spy with the perfect disguise: living as the prime universe’s version of herself.
Now, Peter has no way of knowing that she’s actually Altlivia and not the Olivia who confessed her love to him in season 2. So, when in 3×04 Altlivia sleeps with him to prevent him from getting suspicious about her, he believes he is consenting to sex with Olivia, the woman he loves.
A similar situation occurs on Grimm, when the antagonist Adalind Shade uses magic to transform herself into Nick’s fiancée and seduce him. Nick, the protagonist, is a Grimm meaning that he can see Wesen, or supernatural creatures that look like humans most of the time but have special powers. Adelind is a Wesen called a hexenbeist (it’s all very Germanic, I know, bear with me), which is basically a witch. In the finale of Season 3, Adelind uses her magic to disguise herself as Juliette, Nick’s fiancée, and have sex with him in order to remove his power as a Grimm. As in Fringe, Nick believes himself to be consenting to sex with a woman he loves and has no way of knowing that the woman before him is not who he thinks she is.
This is rape. Why? Because neither man gave consent to have sex with the woman they actually had sex with. Peter consented to sex with Olivia, not Altlivia. Nick consented to sex with Juliette, not Adelind. Both women were actively lying about their identity to trick the men into sleeping with them, knowing that the men believed them to be someone else. If the male characters had known the truth about the woman, they would not have consented to sex with her.
Let me be clear. This is not a situation of a vague, metaphorical “you’re lying and you’re not who I thought you were” because someone’s action’s don’t line up with their values. That’s a different conversation. The woman is literally not the person he thinks she is. She is an entirely different person lying about who she is, and there is zero doubt he would not consent to sex if he knew. Both males react in ways consistent with the duplicity: feeling betrayed, lied to, and even taken advantage of. But never, ever do the shows consider it rape, which it absolutely is.
I also have to mention the elements of victim blaming in each of these circumstances. Olivia blames Peter for not knowing it wasn’t her. Nick gets some of this as well, though not as much. When Juliette finds out Adelind got pregnant, she torches Nick’s trailer (full of priceless family heirlooms) and lures his mother into a trap that ultimately kills her. They’re considered the wounded party more than the males who were raped.
I don’t even want to dive in how ‘legitimate’ these reactions from Olivia and Juliette are because that’s beside the point. But it’s worth mentioning how closely these mimic rape apology and victim blaming lobbed at female victims. “You should have known better.” “If you had just paid more attention…”. “It’s your fault this happened to you” for something that is entirely outside of your control: the other person’s actions. In Nick’s and Peter’s case, that action is intentional deceit via a disguise that they have no way of seeing through.
Oh, and both of the women get pregnant with their victim’s child, which is then used for Drama™. On Grimm, Adelind eventually has a redemption arc and is currently Nick’s canon romantic interest. Gross.
Once again, let’s flip the genders and see what happens. A male character uses magic to disguise himself as a woman’s lover in order to deceitfully seduce her. While I can imagine shows doing this without addressing it as rape, the public outcry afterward would be loud and vociferous. And there’s no way in hell that the male character would become a love interest after that. Writing a romance between a woman and her rapist is disgusting and you bet people would react if a show did that. The same is true for a male character and his female rapist, yet that’s exactly what Grimm did. Only there was no public outcry because no one acknowledged that Adelind raped Nick.
Call It What It Is, Please
One might reasonably ask if I’m demanding too much accountability for media makers. Shouldn’t we be able to figure out all this for ourselves? Am I asking media to spoon feed me answers about what is and isn’t rape and whether it is or isn’t wrong? In an ideal world, the answer to the first question would be yes. However, the very fact that some viewers (and some of the writers) did not interpret many of these situations as rape signifies that not everyone understands exactly what rape is or can recognize it when they see it. A horrifying, if true, reality.
Given that we don’t live in an ideal world, my answer to the second question is yes, absolutely. Some issues are not up for debate, nor should the audience be left with any doubt as to their moral status. Rape is always wrong and that stance ought to be clear in any depiction of it. If that requires some hand-holding for a while, that’s all to the good.
How else are we to combat rape culture? The conversation surrounding rape in our society stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that men can be raped and women be rapists. Men act, women are, so a female cannot commit an act of sexual violence against a male. She’s inherently passive. Males, on the other hand, cannot be victims because of toxically masculine ideals within our unique patriarchal system. Any admission of victimhood is an admission of weakness, which is unacceptable to toxic masculinity. Males, therefore, cannot be victims and females cannot be perpetrators of sexual violence.
Moreover, males are considered to be sexual agents whose chief desire is the acquisition of sexual favors from a sexually desirable woman (SDW). Age does not matter if the woman is desirable, hence why the focus of Ryder’s and Tommen’s experiences is on how attractive their partner was and their ‘luck’ at being given female attention at a young age. “Was she hot?” is usually the first question asked and will determine whether or not the young male is to be pitied or praised. Archie’s ‘sordid affair’ with Ms. Gundry would not have been half so ‘sexy’ and ‘romantic’ if she’d looked like her comic book counterpart. That alone should tell you what the show was aiming for in making this Archie’s primary love interest when the show premiered.
Furthermore, males are judged by their desirability with SDWs and are expected to reciprocate/welcome any interest from that quarter. If a SDW finds a man attractive, he must be doing something right/be cool/”have game”. Not accepting interest would make him a loser. So even if he is in no position to consent (legally or freely), or is being actively deceived, it will rarely be interpreted as an act of violence against him. He must want it, because he’s a male and that’s what’s expected.
Small wonder few people recognized any of these situations as rape. When there is a prevailing norm for conceptualizing something, failure to challenge or offer specific details pointing to a different interpretation of it will be interpreted in line with the norm. This isn’t the audience’s fault, per se. Absent specific clues, the brain takes the shortest pathway of interpretation, whether it be a word or a concept. I don’t have time to delve fully into the details now, but I will be exploring this concept more fully in a future article. The gist of what communication and neurolinguistics theories tell us is that the human brain is both efficient and lazy. It takes the shortest path to contextual meaning. If not corrected or specifically led elsewhere, the brain defaults to the most common perception.
This is precisely why so many people fail to acknowledge or label male rape as rape. Because rape culture actively pushes against the very concept of male rape. And this is also why we need some spoon feeding, if you will. Because another thing neuroscience tells us is that the laziest route in the brain’s meaning pathway can be changed, but only by interacting with the new idea repeatedly and in a consistent manner. This is also why normalization and representation matter, btw. Because frequent exposure changes the default setting. Just think about how perceptions of LGBTQ relationships have changed once they were given more prominence in media and society.
Current statistics say one out of every ten victims of rape are male. And that’s based on those who report it, which many males fear to do because of rape culture and toxic masculinity. One of the ways we actively contradict the message that males can’t be raped is to unambiguously show that yes, they can. And to do so in a way that does not exploit their trauma for Shock™ or Drama™, treats the victims and their experiences sensitively, does justice to the healing process, and unambiguously condemns the behavior. It’s what every rape victim, regardless of gender, deserves.
It’s too late for the rest of these male characters, but at least there is hope for Riverdale to change course and call the relationship for what it is. I’m not sanguine about it, but you never know, the show could pleasantly surprise me.