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Creating a Culture of Consent: Portraying Rape Culture in How to Get Away with Murder

*This post discusses the How to Get Away with Murder episode 01.13 aired on February 19th, 2015. It mentions various kinds of assault. If you think this will upset you, please do not read any further.*

In an episode that covered just some points of the multi-headed Hydra that is rape culture including: incest, female perpetrators, false accusations, and child assault, I was frustrated, saddened, and pleasantly surprised. It was an hour that tried to show multiple shades of gray that can be involved in sexual assault and rape culture and was hard to watch at times. The added surprise of the nod to consent at the end of the episode made the medicine go down easier.

Shonda Rimes is not known for treading lightly on controversy, and this ep was no different. Admittedly, I was angry the court trial plot was concluded by disproving a sexual assault allegation made by a male patient and levied at his female nurse. Despite the gender swapping, I got upset. As if switching the traditional gendered expectations of assault would make a difference in how the accuser’s false allegation came across to viewers. When this situation is portrayed in the media, it can often give life to the worn out argument that people who accuse others of assault are only doing it for attention, money, or defamation of the accused, etc. I’m tired of it. For the most part, it’s rarely true, and casts doubt upon the multitudes who do step forward to tell their stories. Yes, it happens, but no more so than with any other crime. We don’t doubt people when they’ve been robbed, we shouldn’t doubt survivors when they say they’ve been assaulted.

Threaded throughout the episode was another story line about assault. The viewer learns that the main character, Annalise Keating, played by Viola Davis, was molested by her uncle as a child. She blames her mother, Ophelia Hartness, played by Cicely Tyson, for not protecting her, which caused a deep rift between them. Ophelia argues that that’s just what happens, “men take things” and reveals to Annalise a list of assaults that have occurred within their family. It’s crushing to see how the persistence of rape culture normalizes assault to the point where women assume and accept they will get hurt, just for being female.

Especially striking is the difference and expectations between the two. Ophelia assumes and accepts that it’s human nature that men will hurt and that women will get hurt. It’s been her experience, and many generations back experience, and she sees no reason for why it would change or how it could be any other way. Annalise refuses to accept rape as her payment for being female, and is shocked to learn about the brutal history in her family which is dropped by Ophelia like an atomic bomb into their argument. She also bristles against her mother’s assertion that women’s roles are that of creators while men are the destroyers. She tries to disprove her mother’s argument of essentialism by highlighting her own lack of nurturing characteristics to Ophelia who doesn’t agree and won’t listen.

Their relationship is rife with hurt, distrust, and borders being abusive. It explains so much about what we know of Annalise’s marriage to her now-dead husband, and about Annalise herself, her secrets, her brusqueness, her way of being in the world. Later, she and her mother reach an understanding when she learns that Ophelia protected Annalise as best she could. It’s a heart wrenching scene, but it leaves me with hope. In the short amount of time between her mother’s generation and her own, Annalise has moved past her mother’s acceptance of rape culture and strict binary definition of gender and can see that something better is possible.

Another sign of hope in the hour comes at the very end. A sober Connor is putting his very drunk on-off-on again love interest Oliver to bed. Oliver tries to seduce Connor, and while Connor has expressed his interest in Oliver before, he refuses his advances, promising that it would be better when they’re both sober. It’s an important scene and gives reassurance that despite Ophelia’s pronouncement, we are able to move past our base natures to create a culture of respect and consent. You can take off your drunk boyfriend’s shoes, say thanks but not now, kiss him, and walk away.

We are all affected by this culture but we have other options besides hurt and get hurt. Like Annalise, we can go beyond rape culture and work on creating something better.

Meredith Donin, Manager
We End Violence

Affirmative Consent Education Moves Us Forward

This concept is giving a lot of people a lot of trouble.

“It goes against human nature,” a man told me while we were having dinner with several others. The new California law requiring affirmative consent on college campuses was being discussed. Just as he said that, a waitress arrived at our table and asked him if he would like a refill on his ice tea. He said yes. She poured the tea.

I stared at him.

“What?” he said.

I asked, “If the waitress had walked away without pouring your tea, how would you feel?”

“I’d be annoyed. I’d be confused.”

“What if you had said no and she poured it anyway?”

“I’d be annoyed. I’d be confused.”

“Yeah, that’s how most of us would feel. It would be annoying because you wanted, or didn’t want, more tea. It would be confusing because it was such an easy transaction, and her disregard for your choice makes no sense.”

Consent is not complicated. The word ‘no’ is one of the first words—one of the first concepts—that humans learn. That happens around age two. We all ask for and receive consent every day in a myriad of ways. Why is it different when it’s about sex?

Human nature? Well, yes. Not asking for consent for sexual activity is a cultural practice, a cultural system that has been instilled into human nature. It is rooted in entitlement: sex with women was the right of men and there was no reason to ask; consent was irrelevant.

We’ve evolved from our prehistoric days in almost every other way, but this one. Who does this benefit? Answer: the sexual predators among us. The belief that someone is owed sex has become ubiquitous and benefits all perpetrators, regardless of gender.

The man I had dinner with does not believe he is entitled to sex with women, but he perceived that this cultural practice benefited him because, as we discovered later in the conversation, he didn’t know how to ask for consent, and he dreaded being told no.

The time has come to connect the dots. No one is entitled to sex with another. Asking for consent is only difficult because we’ve made it difficult. Affirmative consent is redundant and the apparently necessary use of the qualifying adjective in this phrase is a testament to the confusion that surrounds this issue.

What’s the difference between affirmative and negative consent? One means yes and the other means no. It is currently necessary to use the word affirmative in order to counter the standard rapists’ argument that if she didn’t say no, or didn’t say it the right way, then it wasn’t their fault.

This argument has worked effectively for a long time to keep rapists out of jail and most of the rest of us uncertain about what defines sexual assault. Early in my career, I was asked by an administrator to try to do a better job of teaching young women how to say no. This was a well-meaning request based in the belief that the young men committing these assaults just don’t understand and it was the responsibility of the young women to help them understand.

But lack of understanding is not the problem and here’s a simple example to prove it: a sign on a Texas A&M fraternity house last year (a Yale fraternity did it a year before) that read “No means Yes and Yes means Anal”. Of course the fraternity guys did it to be outrageous and this kind of backlash is not surprising. But still, it shows why we need to be very, very clear that yes means yes and everything else means no so the predators and perpetrators among us know that the rest of us aren’t accepting this argument any more.

I hope we are in a cultural transition as we talk about affirmative consent and as we connect the dots between perpetrators and entitlement and the majority of us who just haven’t thought it through. That dinner conversation was a positive sign, as are the jokes in our popular culture about asking for consent for sexual activity, exaggerating how silly and awkward it can be. We’re working through the newness and someday asking for consent for sex will be as easy as asking for more tea.


Carol Headshot

Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence


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