TW: repeated mention of rape and sexual violence

A few weeks ago, I watched Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) with my brothers. Whilst this, at times, made for uncomfortable viewing, what I was most shocked by was how much I didn’t flinch at the images of overt sexual violence presented to me on screen. I felt sickened by how much I could stomach, by how much I ‘justified’ in my mind because of the film’s acclaim and ‘aesthetic’ cinematography. I have been reminded of this feeling in recent days, as discussions of sexual assault continue to grow after the murder of Sarah Everard, and a large number of testimonies are being shared thanks to accounts like @everyonesinvited on Instagram. As if it wasn’t already clear, what these pages have made startlingly obvious is that perpetrators of sexual violence are not only creepy men on the streets but also schoolchildren and university students. The fact that so many young sexual assaulters have been left unpunished signals a lack of action from schools and universities regarding sexual harassment (it may come as a shock to some, but one advert that likens consent to accepting a cup of tea isn’t enough). But the prevalence of these acts, coupled with what I felt about Kubrick’s film, made me think about the extent to which the films and TV shows we watch also play a role in the perpetuation of rape culture. 

The likes of Quentin Tarantino have been quick to dismiss the notion that violence on screen gives rise to violence in real life (‘Violent films don’t turn children into violent people. They may turn them into violent filmmakers but that’s another matter altogether’). Yet, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology strongly refutes the claim that cinematic portrayals of sexual violence have no effect on viewers. It records the 1988 experiment of psychologists Linz, Donnerstein and Penrod, in which they showed a group of men ‘slasher’ films, which depicted sexually violent acts towards women, over a period of time, and then asked them to watch a video enactment of a legal trial involving a female assault victim. The results of this experiment indicated that ‘participants exposed to the filmed violence against women expressed less sympathy for the victim portrayed in the rape trial than did control groups who had not been exposed to such films.’ Whilst the psychologists then noted a re-sensitisation to sexual violence a week after the initial experiment, they concluded that longterm exposure to such violence might contribute to faster desensitisation. The predicted effects of this desensitisation are extremely worrying. Writers of the study, Charles R. Mullin and Daniel Linz, state that it may not only lead to ‘calloused attitudes toward violence directed at others’ but also to ‘a decreased likelihood to take action on behalf of the victim when violence occurs.’ So, are the films we watch really contributing to our complicity and trivialisation of sexual violence? 

In short: yes. When researching for this article, I was shocked by the abundance of evidence of such trivialisation on screen. Indeed, it is arguably not the overtly sexually violent films like A Clockwork Orange and those of the ‘slasher’ genre that are most worrisome. Rather, the plethora of films and TV shows which gloss over acts of sexual abuse and frame them instead as ‘comedic’ or ‘romantic’ trouble me the most. Take Sixteen Candles (1984), for example, where Jake, the romantic lead, says, ‘I’ve got Caroline in the bedroom right now, passed out cold. I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to,’ and then proceeds to ‘pass her off’ to Ted, telling him to ‘have fun with her’. We later understand that Ted has taken photos of Caroline without her permission and either had non-consensual sex with her, or pretended to her that this is what happened. This moment is dressed up as comedy in the film but there is no denying: this is sexual assault.

Similarly, although former Bond girl Valerie Leon protested that ‘the world has gone nuts’ when presented with the claim that 007 could be a rapist, one scene in particular has stood out to viewers as an example of sexual assault. In Goldfinger (1959), Bond pushes Pussy Galore to the floor and climbs on top of her after she has told him that she isn’t interested and tries to push him away. Though the subsequent ‘love making’ scene is meant to feed into Bond’s romantic image, the overt signals of non-consent are hard to ignore. 

Likewise, In Some Like it Hot (1959), ‘Daphne’ (a man, pretending to be a woman) ‘surprises’ Sugar with his penis; in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), the Sundance Kid ‘role plays’ breaking into his girlfriend’s home and forcing her to strip at gunpoint; and in Grease (1978), Doody ‘playfully’ looks up women’s skirts while hiding under the bleachers. But this is not simply a case of ‘old school’, ‘outdated’ cinema: Daphne’s ‘powerful’ domination of the Duke in Bridgerton (2020), when stripped of its dramatic backing music, is clearly another instance of rape. By the same token, Christian Grey’s ‘sexy domination’ of Anastasia in the Fifty Shades trilogy (2015-2018) isn’t so sexy when you realise that he stalks her, threatens her and blatantly ignores her when she attempts to refuse his sexual advances. Trust me when I say that these examples are just a few of the many, many instances I found of the perpetuation of rape culture on screen. 

The lines arguably become more blurred when shows make ‘self-aware’ comments about rape. Take It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-) for example. Whilst there are frequent mentions of sexual assault, amongst other evidently problematic comments, co-writer Robert McElhenney argues that ‘People will watch the show and say, “Well, clearly the characters are homophobic, but the writers and/or creators and/or directors are not.” That’s the most important aspect for us.’ Do jokes like ‘If a rape van was called a surprise van more women wouldn’t mind going for rides in them,’ simply contribute to the trivialisation of rape? Or do they in fact, through comedy, subvert and condemn this very act?

What I do know is that film and TV is not only capable of reinforcing but also of overtly challenging and educating viewers about rape culture. Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (2020), for instance, demonstrates that perpetrators come in all shapes and sizes, and teaches viewers about the many versions of sexual assault that are often undiscussed or overlooked. Similarly, Laurie Nunn’s Sex Education (2019-) demonstrated its commitment to exposing the reality of sexual abuse of teenagers through its poignant portrayal of Aimee Gibbs’ sexual harassment in series 2. But the fact that these examples have caught viewers’ attention for being ‘innovative’ and ‘refreshing’ highlights that they are the exception, not the rule.

So, what should the film and TV industry do to tackle rape culture? Removing sexual abusers like Harvey Weinstein from positions of power is an obvious first step. Not framing sexual abuse as comedy or romance, and instead acknowledging rape as rape, is an evident second. But, ultimately, just as playing Call of Duty does not validate murder or in any way exculpate the perpetrator of the crime, watching sexual abuse on screen does not, and will never, justify acts of sexual assault. As conversations around rape culture move back into the spotlight following the tragedy of Sarah Everard’s murder, it is up to all of us to look at how we are complicit in the culture that allows the normalisation of sexual violence. If watching films and TV has been shown to desensitise us to real life survivors’ stories, the onus is on all of us to purposefully counteract this by listening to victims and foregrounding their voices. 

“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.” 

Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror

This article is dedicated to the late Sarah Everard, every woman who has felt afraid walking the streets and every individual who has been a victim of sexual assault. People are listening; your voices are being heard.

Gracie Bolt

Gracie Bolt is the Senior Culture Editor at The Oxford Blue. She studies French and English at Trinity College and is in her second year. When not in Oxford, she lives in North London.