Although television — and Hollywood in general — has made great strides in recent years when it comes to depictions of female consent and sexual assault, it still seemed rare to see the same conversations being had on screen when it comes to male characters.
This television season feels different.
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In the seventh episode of the fourth season of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Elisabeth Moss’ June — flush with power after seemingly vanquishing her enemy, Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena — awakens her sleeping husband (O-T Fagbenle’s Luke), mounts him and proceeds to have sex with him. After he tells her to wait, she holds down his hands and covers his mouth.
In Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” Phoebe Dynevor’s Daphne is desperate to procreate despite her husband, Simon’s (Regé-Jean Page), wishes and uses her just-gleaned rudimentary knowledge of conception to perform a similar sexual act. Afterward, Simon is so uncomfortable and traumatized that the childhood stutter he’s tried so hard to suppress returns.
HBO’s limited series “I May Destroy You” depicts the rape of Paapa Essiedu’s Kwame in the way that media have led us to believe that act would occur (i.e. violently and by a stranger). He’s later seen processing what happened to him while learning the varying definitions of that term, as well as what constitutes other forms of sexual assault.
And in the final season of Showtime’s “Shameless,” middle child Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) has an unwelcome sexual encounter with Chelsea Alden’s Tish. In an episode titled “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good … Eh, Screw It,” he is at first excited to have sex with her, but then she rips off his condom and makes him consummate their relationship without that form of protection, despite his protests.
“I think that people think of consent and of sexual assault in really black and white kinds of ways, but the truth is, sexual assaults can happen in a variety of different ways,” says Corina Maritescu, “Shameless’” executive story editor and the episode’s writer. “It’s ultimately about power, and a power balance, in any sexual relationship. And I think we have a responsibility whenever we think about, write about or make work about sex to really think about how we’re engaging with the issue of consent, actively, and not just to assume that it is assumed, or subtextual to a scene.”
While shows such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and even Showtime’s “Your Honor,” which features a male student-female teacher relationship, don’t speak about the repercussions of these incidents onscreen, “Shameless” makes it a part of the characters’ conversation. Carl’s older brothers don’t see an issue since he was happy to engage with the woman before this happened, but his sister Debbie (Emma Kenney) tells him he was raped.
“Just because someone is aroused, just because you are reading their body language, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to ask for consent,” Maritescu says. “I think this is a fallacy that we have as a society that men can’t be assaulted if they were aroused.”
That Carl is also a rookie cop — and that he files a police report of the incident — was also crucial to Maritescu. She says she and others involved with the episode were “looking at the police, as an institution, as a place filled with misogyny and toxic masculinity.
“That scene at the end, when Carl goes into make a complaint is a huge sign of bravery,” Maritescu says. “Because, most likely, he’ll get laughed out of the precinct, right? So, we really wanted to explore that idea of Carl doing something that’s so not something that a police officer would do and really acknowledging himself as a victim in this moment.”
Exploring these issues onscreen comes with additional complexities when one of the characters involved is a minor. In FX on Hulu’s limited series “A Teacher,” Kate Mara’s character Claire Wilson begins an affair with her student, Nick Robinson’s Eric Walker. The series, which creator Hannah Fidell based on her 2013 film of the same name, follows both parties as the relationship implodes publicly — but especially concentrates on the trauma felt by Eric.
“I was so fascinated by the fetishization of the female teachers who [do this in real life and] are themselves predators, but that they can’t be seen by some as predators because of the gender dynamic,” says Fidell. “I think it’s just really complicated and ingrained that men can’t be victims because the grooming isn’t a physical act. It’s a mental wearing down. It doesn’t look like violence, even though it is.”
Fidell says the significance of calling the program “A Teacher” as opposed to “The Teacher” is that, as her Google Alerts for certain keywords and cases and research with support groups can attest, “it happens so often.”
“Female teacher-male student cases — it is shocking how often [they happen],” she says. “Even though this is a specific story about two people, it is something that happens, sadly, all the time. And I wanted the title to feel more universal because of that.”
It’s also noteworthy that some of these characters, from “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” Luke to “I May Destroy You’s” Kwame are people of color. (Fidell says there was discussion of changing the race of her white male lead, but ultimately decided that “I just don’t feel that I’m the right person to authentically tell the story. But I can authentically tell the story of sexual violence.”)
“Black trans women and Indigenous women and sex workers and survivors need to be [prioritized in] this conversation,” Maritescu says. “But it’s also frustrating that the work of changing our culture of rape keeps falling to those vulnerable populations.”
In crafting any story about sexual assult, though, writers must use a certain level of sensitivity, in addition to authenticity.
Heather Drevna, vice president of communications for nonprofit anti-sexual assault organization RAINN, notes that issues with content often arise when a male assault is “treated for comedic effect.” Additionally, implying that “men always want sex in whatever form, and therefore, any form of sexual activity must be a positive to them in some way” would be problematic, she continues.
When told with care, though, these stories offer the ability to help spread awareness about what constitutes consent and why it is important to receive consent in every sexual encounter.
“One of the things to know about sexual violence is that it really doesn’t discriminate. It can happen to anyone, no matter their age, gender identity, sexual orientation [or] socio-economic status,” says Drevna. “According to reported statistics, one in 33 men has been the victim of an attempted, or completed, rape in their lifetime. It’s encouraging that we are starting to see a broader representation of what survivorship looks like in entertainment media.”
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