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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

Alcohol Education AND Sexual Violence Prevention Education

College campuses have a problem with alcohol and a problem with sexual assault but they aren’t the same problem. Nor can they be solved using the same educational theories and methods. The connection between the two issues is undeniable, but how we think about it, talk about it, and how we choose to educate in light of that connection are currently a challenge. The strong and differing opinions are based in a desire to solve both problems so let’s keep trying to find what works and quit trying to use patches to alcohol programs as sexual violence prevention.

Alcohol education on college campuses has developed and progressed over the past 30 years with the help of grants from the federal government and many other sources, including the industry that makes and sells alcohol. According to the BACCHUS Network, there are 26 federal grant-making agencies and over 900 individual grant programs that award over $350 billion in grants each year to study or educate about alcohol abuse. This money allows alcohol education to receive institutional support and dedicated campus resources. There are many institutes, councils, research centers, and coalitions that study the problem. The result is a great deal of expertise and understanding about student alcohol abuse, and there’s some indication that the educational efforts have led to a reduction in binge drinking. This is a good thing. Yet there has been no corresponding reduction in sexual assaults.

This should not be a surprise to anyone. None of this work on alcohol has studied sexual perpetrator behavior. That is not the goal. The goal is to help students understand why they drink and reduce the amount they drink. The hope was that this would reduce assaults.

We are now devoting much more time, energy and money to the study of sexual assault perpetration and the best ways to educate in order to prevent assaults from happening. There have been decades of work in this field, too, resulting in knowledge about approaches and methodology that are promising.

Sexual predators use alcohol as a weapon but it is only one of the weapons they use. They also use common beliefs about drunk sex and drunk women as a weapon, and as a cover, for their crimes. Predator motivations are power over another, and sexual gratification obtained by violating another. Alcohol is not a factor in these motivations; it does not contribute to the beliefs about violation. These beliefs and motivations are present with or without alcohol.

The alcohol industry however, does contribute a factor in sexual violence, not through the product they make but through the promotion of that product. One of their primary advertising techniques is to connect drinking and sex, and, for heterosexual men, to link drinking to obtaining stereotypically beautiful women. These advertising messages contribute to a culture that supports beliefs about drunk sex and drunk women and blurs the lines between sex and sexual assault. This culture supports the sexual predators who act on those beliefs. These messages influence some young men to believe they need alcohol in order to obtain what they want, and that using alcohol and obtaining what they want is what makes them a man. Some young women are also influenced to believe that’s what makes a man.

It is the culture that perpetuates sexual violence which must be explained and discussed with students. They need to understand how this affects all of us and what we all do to either support or oppose this culture.

After her talk at the Dialogue at UVa: Sexual Misconduct on College Campuses, Catherine Lhamon, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, was asked about the connection between sexual assault and alcohol. She was clear that alcohol abuse was a problem on campuses and we should continue to do all we can to prevent it. Then she said, “but sexual assault and sexually hostile environments persist totally independent of the use of alcohol and the culture change has to be focused on not assuming that alcohol and drugs are an excuse or a conduit.”

Prevention of sexual assault requires an examination of gender roles, discussions of consent, and yes, discussions of the culture that includes beliefs about alcohol. That is not alcohol education, nor should it be. The time is long overdue to treat these issues separately, to recognize the different goals, and to stop confusing students by telling them that ending alcohol abuse will end sexual violence, because it won’t.


 Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence


On Rape, Alcohol, and Prevention

There is a relationship between sexual assault and alcohol. We all know that, but we certainly don’t agree on what it means or what to do about it. The discussion is not new, but continues to be newly discovered, recently by Emily Yoffe, who has a platform in Slate to reach the masses, and whose daughter is about to start college. Many people concur with Yoffe that it is common sense to tell young women not to drink to excess in order to prevent being assaulted. Many others vehemently oppose this approach because it doesn’t work, and contributes to victim blaming. It is difficult terrain, intellectually and emotionally. It deserves, and requires, passionate conversations.

We have a problem with alcohol and we have a problem with sexual assault, but they aren’t the same problem. Sexual assault is primarily committed against the most vulnerable—women, LGBTQ people, children, and people with disabilities. It is committed when someone exerts power over another by forcing sexual contact, primarily in situations that mask and protect the perpetrator. In the U.S. today, especially on college campuses, there is no better mask than alcohol. At other times and places, sexual predators are protected because their victims are enslaved, poor, incarcerated, or financially or emotionally dependent on them.

The vast majority of assaults against young women are committed by a young man they know and trust. It’s hard to accept that some of our young men are rapists, and especially hard to know what to do about that. It’s much easier to ask the women not to drink. But this admonition does not do what it’s meant to do. The belief that a survivor can control the behavior of a rapist by not drinking keeps survivors silenced, feeling responsible for a crime committed against them, and keeps the rest of us from two important tasks: holding perpetrators accountable and working together to prevent sexual violence by promoting equality and respect in our homes and communities.

Concern and fear and a wish to stop these assaults from happening should motivate all of us to think about solutions. Telling women not to drink might seem like the obvious thing to do, but why? Why do we focus on the targets of the violence and the method used to violate? Why are we reluctant to focus on the reasons for the violence?

One of the more thoughtful and cogent thinkers on the relation between alcohol, sexual assault and prevention education is Dr. Luoluo Hong. In a 2003 article, for the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, she wrote that her instinct as a scholar was to start by reviewing the research literature, but she decided against that because she believes the focus on alcohol has obscured the real problem: the agency of the perpetrator and the gender role expectations which normalize violence against women in this country.

Yoffe does rely on research in her article. Research clearly shows that, especially on college campuses, alcohol use and abuse often occur in conjunction with sexual assaults. Other characteristics of these assaults have also been well researched and documented. The perpetrators are predominantly male acquaintances of the victims, who are predominantly female and sometimes extremely intoxicated. What she didn’t find was evidence that telling young women not to drink would solve the problem. That’s because there isn’t any.

Yoffe is right that alcohol is present in a large percentage of sexual assaults. It is also a fact that alcohol is present in a large percentage of social encounters when there is not a sexual assault. Alcohol has often been used to explain evils of the world, so there is a pattern in place to make alcohol the scapegoat. Sex and alcohol and violence are tightly linked in our culture. Alcohol is an explanation that is much simpler and emotionally easier to accept than the fact that we are raising our children to think violence is sexy and sex is violent and boys are supposed to be aggressive and girls are supposed to be alluring but not sluts.

Further examination of the research Yoffe cites is revealing. The 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study investigated perpetration as an “exploratory component.” In a 100 page research report, there are 4 pages about perpetration and perpetrators, including a statement that they are concerned about the validity of the perpetration data, and “doubt on whether researchers can credibly collect data on perpetration of sexual assault via any methodology.” They are concerned because they think some of the males surveyed weren’t truthful about their perpetration, and other males believed that what they did was not wrong. The study has a page of recommendations on educating women to behave in certain ways. At the end of that page are three recommendations for educating men, all of which are about telling men sexual assault is illegal and they are responsible for following the law.

This method is not working. We have been “educating” women to protect themselves from rape and abuse for centuries. Telling men to obey the law isn’t getting us anywhere either. We don’t need more volumes of research to tell us that some men are violent toward women. What we need is the collective courage to admit that we all contribute to supporting, or confronting, that behavior.

Another study Yoffe cites, has some information that Yoffe did not include in her article. “Overall, the characteristics of alcohol-involved sexual assaults and sexual assaults that do not involve alcohol are similar.”

Hong asks in her article: “Do we truly believe that if alcohol were to disappear from college campuses, rapes would cease to occur? The value system which is used to reinforce, justify and sometimes excuse sexual assault on the part of perpetrators – much of it ensconced in our limiting conceptions of masculinity and female sexuality – would still be unchanged.”

I have never met a sexual violence prevention educator on any college campus who refused to tell women that drinking to excess can be problematic. Most campuses devote enormous resources to telling all the students that excessive drinking can be problematic. This is risk reduction, it is not prevention of sexual assault. Prevention is changing the culture so that sexual assault is recognized, understood and no longer accepted.

-Carol Mosley
Director, We End Violence

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