In the midst of the #MeToo movement, experts and Seattle Times readers explore how mass-media depictions form our views of consent, and what responsibility creators have in representing healthy consensual encounters.
Toni Iguain loved “Sixteen Candles” as a teenager in the 1980s. But now, watching the classic John Hughes film as an adult, she’s horrified of what it might teach young people about sexual consent.
In the movie, the popular Caroline gets drunk and is “given” to a geek by her boyfriend, who tells the geek he can do whatever he wants with her, because she won’t know the difference. When they wake up together the next morning, she says she doesn’t remember what happened, but adds that she thinks she enjoyed it.
As a teen, Iguain viewed the scene as a funny example of what happens when a girl gets drunk. As an adult, she views the same scene as date rape.
“I thought, ‘oh, well, that’s not rape, because she was drunk,’ ” she said. By watching movies, “I learned that boys will be boys, and girls need to look out for themselves. Rape was only something that a stranger does, when he tears off your clothes and chases you at a bus stop.”
Like millions of others, Iguain internalized lessons about sexual consent from movies like “Sixteen Candles,” even if she didn’t realize it at the time. But she understands it now in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has shed light on far-reaching issues related to sex, power and relationships.
She was one of more than 250 people who responded to a Seattle Times survey that asked readers when and how they learned about consent, what they remember from that time, and how they define consent now. While the survey is by no means scientific, a common theme emerged: What they saw on television and in movies framed their views.
For some, a TV show like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” was the first time they ever heard the word “consent.” Others recounted watching TV and movies in which characters had some sort of sexual encounter — usually without consent explicitly asked for or given — that made them think nonconsensual sex was the norm.
TV and film have long served as de facto teachers for how to navigate relationships, sex and consent. But the teacher isn’t always reliable — which is especially problematic for those who aren’t learning about the topics anywhere else, experts say. A reckoning has forced changes within all aspects of the TV and film industry — from viewers who are examining how media influenced their relationships, to Hollywood writers and producers who are making it a point to include characters asking for and giving consent in scenes.
“I think that the stories we tell do have a big influence on what we think is romantic or what we feel about ourselves and our relationships,” said Jennie Snyder Urman, the creator and showrunner for The CW’s “Jane The Virgin.” “Everything that you put on screen is saying something.”
These stories have real-life implications. A 2007 Department of Justice survey, for example, found that 35 percent of sexual-assault victims didn’t report the incident because they didn’t realize a crime had occurred.
Scenes from “Sixteen Candles”
What we view on screen impacts how we interpret media in the future, creating a feedback loop that can be difficult to interrupt, especially with a nuanced topic like consent.
“(Media) is giving us what we want to watch, but it also shapes us,” said Amy Adele Hasinoff, a professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, and author of “Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy and Consent.” “If there was a television show that ran counter to our expectations, it wouldn’t be compelling.”
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Most students aren’t taught about consent at all in school, so they turn to media for information about sex and relationships, which can intensify the feedback loop. (King County schools, which teach students specifically about consent through the FLASH — Family Life and Sexual Health — curriculum, are considered outside the norm in the U.S.)
In a Washington State University study, researchers showed a group of Washington teenagers a clip from the popular young-adult show “Pretty Little Liars” and then asked how they felt about the scene.
In the Season 1 episode, the characters Hanna and Caleb are kissing in a tent. She puts her hand on his bare chest, and he asks, “Are you sure?” She nods and responds, “Do you have something?” — hinting at a condom. He says yes. They kiss again and the scene cuts to their silhouettes against the outside of the tent.
The scene is a sappy moment between two high-schoolers, but could have also served as a lesson about consensual sex for the 2.7 million people who watched the episode when it first aired in February 2011.
Not everyone saw it that way.
College freshmen told Stacey Hust, one of the WSU professors who conducted the study, that Caleb seemed feminine because he asked before acting, and thought that Hanna had already consented, since she agreed to go camping. The youngest teenagers predicted that if Hanna had said no, Caleb would have been mad and forced himself on her.
“They’re learning from media,” Hust said. “That’s problematic because they’re not always going to get the right message.”
Carlee Horst, 25, understands now that she didn’t get the right messages when she watched “Gossip Girl,” a series about privileged private-school kids in New York City that first aired when she was 14.
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Throughout her teenage years, Horst watched the mostly underage characters have casual sex, often when they had been drinking or were on drugs. Rarely did a sex scene include both people saying “yes,” and characters still had sex even when someone said “no.”
She doesn’t remember her parents or teachers discussing consent with her. If they did, she added, it was brief and unmemorable. So she learned about the concept on television — through shows like “Gossip Girl,” she wrote in the Seattle Times survey.
“I never thought that those story lines were portraying assault, which is absolutely how I would view them now,” she said in a later interview. “I knew that these types of situations were definitely more wrong than they were right, but I also felt like, ‘Well, she shouldn’t have been drinking.’ ”
Writers and producers in the television and film industry, too, are influenced by the images they’ve seen on screen, says Urman, the “Jane The Virgin“creator. A male character spontaneously kissing a woman is a scenario that’s ubiquitous in scripts.
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“It’s what we grew up seeing. Most of the time it’s this heterosexual version of romantic love, where the man grabs the girl and she is so happy to be grabbed,” Urman said. Rewriting that common scenario requires “undoing layers and layers of messaging,” she added.
Unlike television shows, where story lines can develop over weeks, a film has only a few hours to establish context about relationships among characters. With less time to include direct communication about boundaries and consent, sex is often depicted as something that “just happens.” Two people meet in a bar, for example, then are shown waking up the next morning in bed together.
One survey respondent recalled thinking that consent felt out of place during a sexual encounter because he had never seen it depicted in a movie. Readers mentioned other films like “Don Juan DeMarco” and “Titanic” as part of their consent education.
University of Arkansas professor Kristen Jozkowski and a team of researchers recently looked at 50 mainstream films and noted how sexual behavior was portrayed in each one. The team found that, in many cases, neither character gave explicit consent to a sexual encounter. Consent was depicted as a “mysterious interaction,” or something that was just understood between the characters, she said.
Another common scenario involved one character refusing to have sex, but then acquiescing or changing his or her mind, overcome with lust. It suggests that someone who doesn’t want to have sex will eventually change their mind, Jozkowski said.
“If we’re in the mindset of college students, what are they gathering? That a refusal could still result in consensual sex,” she said.
NBC show “Law & Order: SVU” has been heralded by some critics and activists for its role in spreading awareness about consent — more often with examples of what it doesn’t look like. In a 2014 episode, for example, a detective tells a rape survivor that just because she acted in a porn video doesn’t mean she didn’t have the right to say no.
In the Seattle Times survey, readers mentioned the crime drama far more often than any other show or movie.
Another Washington State University study conducted by Hust found that the show may change people’s views on consent and, in turn, help reduce sexual assaults. Researchers looked at three crime-drama franchises: “Law and Order,” “CSI” and “NCIS,” and studied viewers’ reactions to the portrayals of sexual violence.
“Law and Order” viewers were less likely to believe rape myths, more likely to adhere to a partner’s decision and more likely to refuse unwanted sexual activity than viewers of the other shows. Hust attributed this, in part, to how “Law and Order” goes into more detail than the other shows.
“In ‘SVU,’ you see sexual violence, you see the police, you see the court drama and more often than not, the person is punished,” Hust said.
The show, however, may also convey to some viewers that rape and other sexual assaults only happen in already unsafe situations. Horst, the survey respondent, said she used to think that, based on what she saw on SVU a decade ago.
“When I was watching it a lot, the stories were usually quite extreme,” she said.
High-school students bring up references to crime dramas in sex-education classes, but sexual-health educator Rebecca Milliman says they often don’t reflect the most common issues.
“The examples they bring up from those shows are generally more extreme scenarios that are not typical sexual-assault cases,” said Milliman, who is also the prevention and education coordinator at the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress. “The much more common scenarios are child sexual abuse by a family member or trusted adult, a young person being assaulted by a peer at a party, sexual harassment at school or at work.”
The show has encouraged activism outside television. Inspired by letters she received from sexual-assault survivors about the show, lead actress Mariska Hargitay started the Joyful Heart Foundation, a sexual-assault and abuse prevention organization. The foundation, along with other members of a coalition called No More, created a campaign with celebrities who speak about ending sexual violence.
The commercials run during “Law and Order” marathons and, according to the No More coalition, organizations receive a spike in online traffic on the same day as the television shows.
‘Let me kiss you again, sober’
For the season 3 premiere of “Jane The Virgin,” Urman wrote a flashback scene in which the character Michael kisses Jane while the two are talking, before she has time to react. But Urman decided to rewrite the scene after the leak of the Access Hollywood video in which now-President Donald Trump brags about grabbing women without their consent.
“I thought, ‘I should not be writing that, I should be writing something more deliberate,’ ” she said. “I don’t want to contribute to a culture where women’s voices, and all voices, are not valued. I’m not saying that this old trope isn’t romantic, because it can be. But it can also be devastating and detrimental.”
In the rewritten scene, Michael instead says to Jane, “Let me kiss you again, sober.” Jane smiles, steps forward, and kisses him.
Urman says she’ll be happy when shows get to a point that if someone doesn’t want to be kissed, they aren’t kissed. Writers are slowly moving in that direction, she added.
“There’s a growing awareness of that responsibility,” she said. “As we want to change things, socially, we also have to change the images we are putting on screen.”