Sexual Violence in Spec Screenplays
This essay explores examples of sexual violence in media explicitly. Please read with caution.
I’ll never forget the worst script I’ve ever read. It came across my desk while reading for the Black List in the fall of 2013, and was classified as a comedy. It was a coming-of-age story about a young woman with dreams of stand-up stardom. It also had eight rape scenes in it, described a ten-year old girl as “teasing like a stripper,” featured multiple scenes of child abuse, torture, and incest, and blamed the multitude of abuses suffered by its heroine on her inability to wear underwear. I’ll remind you again that this script was classified as a comedy by its own (male) writer.
When you get a group of screenplay readers together, the conversation inevitably (and often quickly) turns to the subject of the worst scripts they’ve ever read. Now, this can mean anything from a dark and gritty reimagining of THUNDERCATS to a 300 page treatise on why America should’ve lost the Revolutionary War, but, without fail, the conversation turns to the worst depictions of violence ever read, sexual and otherwise. For me, and many other readers I know (past and present) the glib, callous, and pervasive use of sexual violence within the spec screenplay market is the most disturbing of all trends.
I began the process of turning this common conversation among script readers into an investigation after reading this quote in April Wolfe’s excellent piece in LA Weekly, “Rape Choreography Makes Films Safer, But Still Takes a Toll on Cast and Crew”: “According to a Motion Picture Association of America spokesman, the organization adds descriptors before films and programs to indicate that they contain sexual violence but does not have data on how many times that descriptor has been used. (Anecdotally, when I was a script reader, I found that 46.7 percent of the 30 scripts I’d read in a three-month period contained rape.)”
I was absolutely dumbfounded after learning that MPAA isn’t tracking the number of incidents of sexual violence in feature films — how was that possible in 2017? Sexual violence is among the most extreme content that can be included within a major motion picture, and yet, the MPAA isn’t keeping tabs on the number of scenes of sexual violence in American films in any kind of concrete way (or noting their severity within a given film.) In fact, there’s no specific category for sexual violence when ratings are assigned to films — “rape” becomes classified as “sexual and violent content,” but a specific notation is not made for films that feature sexual violence. (It should be noted that rape does have a special code within the television ratings system, RP, and many cable shows note sexual violence in their pre-credits warning.)
We decided we wanted to explore the conversation around sexual violence in feature film spec scripts and television pilots from three perspectives to get the most complete overall picture of what “sexual violence” actually means within the spec screenwriting market: we decided to look at data as related to the tagging of scripts on blcklst.com , to interview our reader base about their own anecdotal experiences, and to speak with creators and academics who’ve explored the topic within their own work.
First and foremost, we wanted to take a look at the data. Terry shares our conclusions below.
When we talk about spec screenplays on the Black List website (those for which we have data), we’re talking about mostly those from amateur writers, not working writers. That said, while these scripts aren’t currently on air, looking at what amateur writers are submitting can give us some insight into what writers believe the market wants and their sensibilities in general.
Writers are electively able to tag scripts with thousands of preloaded tags. Additionally, our readers will tag scripts with pertinent tags after they read them. Some of these tags include rape and sexual violence.
We found that out of about 45K scripts we’ve seen on the site, approximately 2,400 included a tag associated with rape. That’s about 5.3% of scripts submitted (this number is slightly lower among episodic scripts and slightly higher for feature scripts).
From a smaller sample set of writers who added demographic data, a disproportionate number of these scripts were written by men.
If we look by genre, we see that crime movies had the highest incidence of sexual violence. Comedy, as makes sense, had the lowest incidence.
We also looked at some noteworthy coincidental tags:
MPAA Rating: 70% of the scripts that had sexual violence were notably tagged as Rated R.
Female Characters: About half of the scripts featured female protagonists, but only 29% passed the Bechdel Test.
We also wanted to ask our readers about their own experiences with sexual violence in the spec screenplay market. Here are some of their responses to an anonymous questionnaire we sent them, please do note that this portion of the piece contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence before reading further.
Any correlations you’ve noticed in scripts that contain sexual violence?
“Men raping women,” “Usually they are written by men,” “They tend to be written by writers with masculine names and tend not to feature multi-dimensional, central female characters.” (Ed. — We allow writers to use pseudonyms so that conclusion is based on an assumption based on the name used.)
“An alarming number of scripts use rape (specifically) as a sole defining characteristic or motivator for the female characters. I can only think of one or two examples where the female character was multi-dimensional and rape occurred as a major plot line (and in all of these instances, the writer seemed to me, based on name only, to be female-identified).”
“It’s typically used as a stakes-raiser in a script that is largely about something else. It’s rare that I see a script that is explicitly about sexual violence and its effects.”
“I’m noticing that more and more scripts are using a rape as the major event in a female protagonist’s history (especially in coming-of-age dramas), but generally speaking, most writers don’t describe those attacks in an unnecessarily violent way on the page.”
“The violence is overwhelmingly against women, second most common category of victims would be children.”
“It depends on the context and tone. Dramatic scripts that respect the gravity of the crimes often have the character depth to make it work. Certain crime thrillers use sexual violence as simply a gimmick or shorthand to make the villain particularly perverse, and as a corollary, the characters are not always the best developed. The worst incidents may be in dark comedies that trivialize sexual violence (jokes about date rape, rape being treated as a gag if the victim is male etc.), and in those examples there are often other elements of the script that are disrespectful and insensitive (sexist/racist, etc).”
“Almost always written by men, almost always fails the Bechdel test, often it seems like the only female character in the script at all is a victim of sexual violence, usually the female character(s) in the script are only described in sexual terms and their only role in the script is to have sex with the male character. Usually, the male character that has committed sexual violence is the PROTAGONIST, like the audience is supposed to be on this guy’s side even though he is keeping a girl in a cage in his basement (a real plot) or he’s constantly referred to a woman as a bitch and kisses/touches women against their will because he’s just soooo desirable. I also see a lot of scripts with sexual violence towards men in the form of being childhood victims of pedophilia, and it is almost always used as a reason why a character has become a murderer — as if that’s the only possible outcome for a boy who has been violated by an older man.”
Have you ever found a script where the sex that is presented as consensual/non-violent you believe to be otherwise within the context of the script?
“There have been numerous scripts that promoted the coercion of women into sex as an admirable ability in a male character. It is not uncommon to find such tropes of “toxic masculinity” presented in a favorable light (often, these are scripts that seem professionally sub-standard, but not always).”
“Quite a few times — this feels like it usually happens in a ‘comedy’ where the joke is that a woman will only sleep with a man because she is too drunk to say no, or the men specifically target the drunkest woman in the room so they have the best chance of having sex — there seems to be an extremely loose understanding of consent. This is too often accompanied by descriptions of these female characters as LITERALLY ‘dressed like a slut’ or ‘wearing too much makeup’ or ‘acts like a ho’ or, in the worst cases, the character’s name is Slutty Girl #1 as if it’s the woman’s fault for getting raped. Truly infuriating.”
“I recall one instance where a closeted gay man (the main character’s best friend) ended up taking advantage of a drunk college boy who had been given sedatives/tranquilizers without his knowledge. The general tone of the script was intended to be light, and this was meant to be an enlightening experience for the character to embrace his sexuality (he and the college boy end up in a relationship by the end) but given that his “partner” is described as barely conscious, it was a more problematic exchange than the script wanted to admit.”
“There was a script that depicted an incestuous sexual relationship between a man and his 19 year old daughter as being normal/sexy/fun/etc.”
Can you describe the poorest depiction of sexual violence you’ve ever seen in a script?
“The most problematic element of sexual violence in scripts is usually the aftermath — a lot of writers gloss over it and ignore the emotional/psychological after effects. They essentially treat it as the equivalent of a violent beating or something — it’s stakes-raising action, nothing more.”
“A very violent sequence of a demon/serial killer targeting women who were out in the park running, saying terrible things about how he was going to rape them, and then showing the attacks. It felt like the writer was using this scene as an outlet for their own violent, sexual thoughts.”
“The trope of the powerful gang leader or club owner using women and throwing them around. Or the serial killer victim in chains and her underwear, who can’t help but be enthralled by her captor.”
“There have been a number of scripts with female protagonists where rape occurs either within the screen narrative or as backstory, and it has felt heavy-handed and as a stand-in for actual character development, as though being a victim of sexual violence is all that matters about the character.”
“The scene was so thoroughly detailed and lengthy that one could not regard it as anything but fetishistic. The victim character a girl younger than eighteen and was presented as the antagonist. The rape was intended to be cathartic, i.e., ‘the female villain deserves to be violently raped by the male hero.’”
“The poorest depiction I recall was in regards to the aftermath. A woman was raped and murdered, and a member of the police force, noticing her appearance, expressed incredulity that anyone would want to rape her. It was extremely offensive and unprofessional, and the character was not rebuked.”
“Anytime a woman was raped or forced into a sexual situation to give her ‘motivation’ to seek revenge. Once script was all about explicit sexual acts that were pornographic — about a woman who got trapped into doing porn, and it sometimes she was okay with being forced into scenes and then sometimes she wasn’t but it was always depicted.”
“A script in which a high school girl was sexually assaulted at a party and the scene was written to point out the fact that her screams could be heard from the other room and she was being forcefully held down and she was weeping — and then a few pages later she went to prom with her assailant because they agreed things had just ‘gotten out of hand’ and they were ‘both drunk.’ It was deeply uncomfortable and almost completely unfeeling, as if sexual violence was something that could be shrugged off.”
“Repeat offenders in several scripts I’ve read in the last three years include: Sexual violence enacted upon a female character (often mother, wife, girlfriend) to shape and motivate the male protagonist’s journey; sexual violence enacted upon a female protagonist to “establish” her character; sexual violence featured prominently in a script as “set dressing” (to establish the “norms” of a time period or a profession); sexual violence as a broad brushstroke to make an antagonist evil; sexual violence against male characters played for laughs or comedy.”
“Most of the time, the depictions are: disturbingly graphic, excessive and over-the-top, gratuitous (meaning the acts do not really serve the story line), and the biggest issue: the victim (typically female) is a marginalized and/or stereotyped character whose persona/plot/fate is defined by the sexual violence.”
“Scripts in which characters turn blind eyes (especially in the cases of human trafficking or child molestation) to sexual violence are gut-wrenching and frustrating.”
“Excessive detail cluttering the scene; eagerness to show terrible things.”
Can you describe the best-handled depiction of sexual violence you’ve ever seen in a script?
“When there are clear consequences and mental health is explored.”
“Where the trauma happens off-screen but informed the character’s decisions and ability to trust. Wasn’t the central focus of the script but helped motivate the character and was treated as a real issue.”
“I recently read an excellent script by a female writer that dealt with statutory rape of a minor, where the rape felt absolutely like the narrative apex of the characters journey and payoff of the stakes, and as such, was deeply emotionally impactful. This was the rape of the female protagonist, who was a multidimensional character (and not a female prop.)”
“None come to mind, to be honest. That’s not to say that there aren’t any on the site, but I can’t really call to mind any instances of being really impressed by the use of sexual violence in a script.”
“Again, I’d look at the aftermath rather than the actual scene of sexual violence, as I’d say that the character reactions and the way the script treats the victim’s experience are of paramount importance. The best depictions I’ve seen portray those who’ve suffered sexual violence with dignity and respect, allowing them to function as three-dimensional people not defined by their violation. One that comes to mind was a science-fiction script where the heroine was portrayed as strong and resilient, without mitigating the trauma she had suffered, even embracing her unexpected motherhood, as it is her child, and not the rapist’s.”
“There are none that come to mind.”
“Concise but vivid; the right words carefully chosen and used to great effect.”
“To be honest — off the top of my head, I can’t recall a scene of sexual violence in any of the Black List scripts I’ve read that I felt was ‘handled well.’ This may be due to the fact that scripts that do handle sexual violence well tend to keep the event itself offscreen (as in ROOM) or played in quiet subtext/disconnected but powerful images/aftermath (the recent adaptation of THE HANDMAID’S TALE), but it’s telling that this is my initial recollection.”
In your opinion and based on your experience, how do scripts you’ve read on blcklst.com compare to the broader market with regard to sexual violence?
“For pilots, there is a tendency for Black List scripts to go above and beyond, to show how imaginative or wild the writer can be. But this leads to crass and celebratory depictions of sexual violence, where you can just tell the writer is loving the words on the page and not thinking about his characters as people. Television has trouble visually depicting sexual violence and tends to make it about someone other than the victim, but it doesn’t seem ‘that bad’ because it isn’t generally right off the bat; there is usually an established audience and a build up to it, especially if is a turning point for a main character. Execution is still severely lacking.”
“I’d say they’re comparable. The toxic masculinity component is prevalent in the market, and it seems like Black List writers are mirroring what they see out there and assuming it to be marketable.”
“To be frank, I’d say that with spec screenplays, blcklst.com or otherwise, there is the possibility that sexual violence is sometimes portrayed with less tact and sensitivity than produced films. The reason I say this isn’t to generalize (the scripts I’ve read on The Black List aren’t on average better or worse in this area than the ones I’ve read for other companies) but simply to point out that when there is one author writing, there isn’t necessarily the filter that a whole production would have every step of the way, and thus the unrefined can sometimes be insensitive.”
“In general, the scripts on blcklst.com do not handle sexual violence with any amount of subtlety or finesse — I think because the scripts are generally written by amateur/first time writers who have perhaps not read scripts themselves or watched movies themselves that have handled sexual violence in a sophisticated manner, they don’t have a scope or point of reference for how sexual violence should be handled. I don’t think Black List writers necessarily do much research into sexual violence — particularly from a female perspective — and instead rely on stereotypes that are often misinformed, misogynistic and somewhat dangerous even…professional scripts that handle sexual violence with care are rare, and I think the Black List writers’ tendency in the more ‘masculine’ genres to emulate professional writers who write those scenes poorly only magnifies the issue. I think there’s also a tendency for Black List writers to include rape scenes JUST to stand out, even when there’s no need for them to exist — that there are so many thousands of scripts on the site sometimes seems to hammer home the wrong message and writers think they need to do something shocking to get read.”
“I think amateur writers on blcklst.com do tend to use rape as a more common ‘obstacle’ for characters; it seems to be a ‘terrible event’ that amateur writers gravitate toward when trying to give their characters weighty, complex stories or backgrounds. Rape simply seems to be less prevalent in movies that are actually made.”
“The two seem to track — blcklst.com is often a representative microcosm of the larger industry.”
General thoughts on sexual violence in American film and television on the whole?
“Using rape as a backstory for women is lazy, and it’s even less classy when you insist upon flashing back to it time and time again to add dimension to her character. Not only can it be triggering for audience members, but it reduces female characters to the sum of the most horrific moments in their past.”
“Useless and harmful. According to some studies, despite being consciously anti-sexual violence, many viewers are subconsciously turned on by these scenes in cinema.”
“It tends to be ugly first and thematically resonant second, if at all. Direct victimization — a more powerful attacker brutalizing someone weaker — is a bit of a bore from a narrative perspective, whether the act in question is sexual violence or some sort of torture. I think that TV, in particular, has succumbed to a sort of high-stakes content arms race — showrunners are forced to pack as much death/rape/violence as possible into their shows so the conversation around their show will continue.”
“It is disturbingly prevalent across all levels of media, and its execution is largely reductive, sensational, and deeply untethered from reality. At worst, scenes of sexual violence feel like art therapy for misogynists, and these scenes are often bizarrely sexualized through the incorporation of visual language that appears to be borrowed from conventional ‘love’/sex scenes. I also encounter a great many scenes of sexual violence that adopt the didactic tenor of the “issue movie,” as though the shallow desire to impart some sort of message regarding sexual violence justifies its visual depiction therein. These films/shows feel both duplicitous and condescending. Ultimately, I feel that most American storytellers are particularly untalented at handling this subject matter in an affecting, responsible fashion.”
“In principle, no subject should be off limits in dramatic expression. At its best, art can be cathartic and fulfilling, and this includes even the most troubling of subject matters, such as sexual violence. It can be problematic when sexual violence is used as gimmick or a gag, and this is still an issue the industry has yet to overcome.”
“The false narrative that some huge percentage of rape accusations are made up by women who regret having sex is probably the most frustrating recent development, and having so many scenes exist that basically imply that women are ‘asking for it’ just pushes it further into amateur writers’ heads that yes, this is a REALISTIC portrayal of rape or assault when it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
“It’s overused, often a cheap gimmick to get a rise out of the audience and a tasteless way to motivate characters.”
“I’m hopeful that we as an industry are on the brink of a major change in how we portray sexual violence, the enactors and survivors of sexual violence, and its ramifications onscreen.”
So what can we take away from what Black List readers say about sexual violence not only in scripts on blcklst.com, but in the larger industry? A few points stand out —
- Many depictions of sexual violence come from male writers
- Many scripts include overly detailed, disturbing descriptions of sexual violence, especially at the non-professional level
- When including sexual violence in a script, execution is everything
- Sexual violence is not effective when used as the sole motivation or character arc for female characters
- Sexual violence is also ineffective as the sole motivating factor for male characters, and it becomes difficult to empathize with male characters who treat sexual violence casually
- Scripts fail at depicting sexual violence when they do not include the aftermath and emotional impact of said violence. Those that do explore the emotional aftermath for the character often create a more nuanced arc for the character overall
Since I began this piece in August, stories of sexual misconduct, abuse, and assault have dominated headlines, as survivors have spoken out about The Cinefamily in Los Angeles, Drafthouse and all associated brands in Austin including Ain’t It Cool News, ScreenJunkies, and Harvey Weinstein. We won’t be summarizing those stories here — journalists, many of them women, have done extensive, thoughtful reporting on those stories elsewhere, and I encourage you to take the time to read their brave, essential work first. But, as I and many other women have mentioned: this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many predatory men continue to go about business as usual in the industry despite all forms of insidious behavior towards women.
To say that being a woman in the film space in these past weeks has been challenging is a massive understatement —with new stories emerging every day, for months, the psychological toll of this emotional labor has been significant. Real-world sexual violence has become a much greater threat to women in the film world than fictional depictions of sexual violence — how frightening is that? We’ve not only created a culture that allows such predatory behavior from men in the industry to exist, but in many cases, great pains have been taken to cover up, bury, and ignore that behavior so that women don’t feel safe enough to speak up about it. Every woman who does speak up faces the scrutiny, scorn, and public autopsying of her life on social media — Was she asking for it? Why didn’t she say something sooner? Why did she make another movie with him?
Pick a woman in the industry, any woman, and I guarantee she has a story to tell of the men she knows not to take meetings alone with, or of a workplace environment so rife with toxic male behavior that she quit for the sake of her own mental health, or, of more outward attacks including verbal, physical, psychological, and sexual torment. It’s impossible not to feel partially complicit in this violence by simply working in media at all, as you’re constantly asked to walk a tightrope of personal morality as you juggle your own career and personal life with knowledge of which men not to work with, the way you’re supporting and protecting other women you know (and if you’re ever doing enough), and the burden (and yes, this burden ALWAYS falls on the woman who speaks out) that speaking out bears for those who do it. And of course, sexual assault from powerful men in the industry is not a new problem — read Tippi Hedren talking about Hitchcock’s behavior on the set of THE BIRDS. Or Maria Schneider talking about the sexual violation she felt making THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS. Or, going back even further, the story of how MGM buried the rape of Patricia Douglas. Hollywood has allowed this behavior to continue for decades without proper punishment for the perpetrators, so this opening of the floodgates on stories of sexual assault feels like a collective exhale for women who have endured atrocious treatment of all kinds for decades.
We have to end the omerta around protecting predators behind the scenes — when a man doesn’t understand things like consent, sexual power dynamics, and personal boundaries in his real life, it’s no surprise that he then has trouble portraying those ideas thoughtfully in fictional work. And, beyond the world of media, as SWEET/VICIOUS creator Jenn Kaytin Robinson said: “We are now living in a time where people in this country have just elevated a self-proclaimed sexual assaulter to the highest level of office in our country, and that is a pretty strong message to send to survivors.” It’s a scary time to be a woman, especially a woman who has survived sexual violence, and when messages are being sent from the President on down that sexual violence is not only accepted, but in many cases, celebrated under the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (now’s a great time to brush up on your bell hooks, friends) it becomes a challenge to face each and every day.
Aside from the obvious talking points like better education of boys and men surrounding consent, an end to male entitlement via the male hero narrative, and a more welcoming process for survivors from the moment they report to trial, solutions to America’s problem of sexual violence seem impossible given how ingrained it is into our cultural landscape. But, as creators, we can consider the impact of sexual violence and how we use it in media — that has an immense power to influence and create change.
I spoke to SWEET/VICIOUS creator Jenn Kaytin Robinson a few months ago about this topic. SWEET/VICIOUS, a look at two women who become vigilantes for sexual violence on their college campus, caught fire among survivors immediately after its premiere — the show was giving a voice to the voiceless, and resonated deeply with survivors who felt that their stories had never before been portrayed, especially on a network like MTV that appeals to so many younger viewers. “I think that there’s a disconnect between the act itself and putting it onscreen for them, and they just have no personal connection to it at all, so it just feels like a writing tool. And it’s not a writing tool, it’s rape,” Kaytin Robinson said of male creators who liberally include rape scenes in their work (I also recommend April Wolfe’s 2013 analysis of rape scenes as a plot device for further discussion of this.) But the issue just isn’t with creators: “All the people that want the show at all the other networks are women, but the ones who actually make the ultimate decision are men, and they don’t connect with it. They don’t get it. They do not get it, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, but their numbers were bad!’ You can’t just look at our numbers. No one can,” Kaytin Robinson said.
SWEET/VICIOUS not only created a major unifying moment for women on social media, but it was MTV’s most critically-acclaimed original series ever. But it’s the personal impact that resonated most with Kaytin Robinson: “At the beginning, I got a couple of really intense messages that were so brave, and the women that reached out to me were so brave, it’s incredible. But I’m not a licensed therapist, I’m not a counselor, I’m a writer, and it’s hard to separate that and step back. As much as I understand why they’re reaching out to me, this isn’t my job and it’s okay that I do feel overwhelmed by this…I worked with RAINN on how to advise people. I said, you know what, I think that it took a lot for these people to reach out and tell their story, and for them to be met with, ‘Yeah, I don’t feel comfortable helping you,’ means that they are going to feel like what they’ve done is wrong, or weird, and they won’t do it again. It’s interesting that these kids felt more comfortable reaching out to a showrunner they’ve never met rather than a counselor, and part of me is like, ‘Do they even know about rape?’ Women so desperately just want to be seen and heard, and the minute that you give them something that showcases who they are as a whole entity, the response is amazing.”
And Kaytin Robinson also understand the stigma that STILL surrounds (and scares) many survivors who do speak out: “I think that women, especially women of color and LGBTQ women have it even worse, because there is an extra level of, ‘I can’t say anything, because it will make me unhireable, undesirable, or un-whatever it is.’ I think it’s ten times worse for women of color and LGBTQ women. It’s crazy the amount of sexual assault that is just kind of brushed off because it’s not worth dealing with. And not that it’s not worth calling it sexual assault and dealing with it yourself, but dealing with it with anyone else or, you know, making it a thing, and I think the idea of quote-on-quote ‘making it a thing’ is crazy — yeah, it’s a thing…For many men and boys, I think their idea of rape is GAME OF THRONES. Their idea of rape is a guy in a dark alley. You need to explain to them what rape is. Boyfriends do it! Girlfriends do it!”
The cancellation of SWEET/VICIOUS by MTV after only one season ends up sending a powerful message about where our compass lies on sexual violence in media on the whole — graphic rape scenes in a popular series like GAME OF THRONES are fine, but when female survivors reclaim that power and respond with violence? That’s not okay. And the use of sexual violence is pervasive — in 2016, EXORCIST executive producer Jeremy Slater told Variety: “One of my hard-and-fast rules when reading spec scripts was, the second that there was a rape that was used for shock value and that didn’t have any sort of narrative purpose, I threw the script aside. And I was shocked by the number that had that…I would say out of those 200 scripts, there were probably 30 or 40 of them that opened with a rape or had a pretty savage rape at some point. It has become a plague on the industry.”
In addition to creatives, I also wanted to get the academic perspective on the topic of sexual violence in media. I first became of the extensive research done by Dr. Neil Malamuth at UCLA when I discovered his 1984 study about the effects of repeated exposure to violent and non-violent pornography on men (and how that affected their views on aggression towards women) in college. I’m going to let Dr. Malamuth tell you about his research in his own words —
“A lot of our research is focused on the extent to which sexual violence is an inhibitor, or a neutral or a source of actual sexual arousal to different men, and the conclusions can be summarized in the following way for the majority of men in the general population — the portrayal of rape is likely to inhibit their arousal, for some it doesn’t have an effect either way, and for a substantial minority, it actually be a source of arousal, so the power aspect, the violence against the woman, does stimulate arousal in some of the men. And in general, those who are more aroused, are more likely to be sexual aggressors if there are other factors that in confluence are characteristic of that person as well. So sexual arousal, per se, to violence, turns out to be, as a single predictor, the best predictor of a likelihood or a risk for sexual aggression. But no single predictor is really very good…a lot of our research has been on the prediction of sexual aggression, and we have generally found there are two sets of characteristics, or constellations of characteristics, that are really crucial. The first of which is [what] we call hostile masculinity, and that combines elements of sexual arousal to violence, hostility towards women, attitudes supporting violence against women, and a narcissistic personality, and those tend to correlate very highly with each other. The second constellation is something that we call impersonal sexuality, and that usually, or more often than not, has background of growing up in an environment where there was a lot of conflict, or violence, or particularly abuse, including sexual abuse. In adolescents its marked by some delinquent behavior, and association with delinquent friends, and then throughout the life course, its associated with seeking and preferring, even, sex with people you don’t have an emotional attachment to. And those characteristics, impersonal sex characteristics, are part of, like, psychopathic scales and measures that reflect what is called subclinical psychopathy. But a person that is high on both of those sets of characteristics, who is high on the hostile masculinity and the impersonal sexuality is the one who is highly likely to be at risk for committing sexual aggression. Our research does show that when sexual violence is portrayed in a positive way, it does reinforce and increase, on average, men’s acceptance of violence against women, and this is particularly true for men who are at high risk of committing sexual aggression, but for women, there has not been such a fact found. And the second aspect is that when you look at the gender differences in terms of identification, you tend to find that, depending on the portrayal, both men and women can identify with the victim, but on average, that’s again not surprisingly, comparatively there are many more men who will identify with the assailant than there are women…There is considerable research to indicate that there are different perceptions in terms of how consent is or is not given, and that men are more prone to perceive consent when it doesn’t really exist, or when the woman says she wasn’t really consenting, and do tend to overestimate the extent to which the woman is interested, but may be playing games, or maybe, in various ways, disguising her interest, and some of that research looks at — what are the mechanisms involved in that? And the data suggests that men, kind of, they’re not really that well at decoding and understanding a woman’s psychology, and they’re kind of going on the basis of how they would believe they would react in that situation, so they’re kind of projecting their own expectations if someone was, say, coming onto them sexually in a certain way. They would interpret that in how they would react, rather than understanding the woman’s perspective on that. But, you know, the area of consent and communicating consent is a complicated one. You know, you look at a classic movie like GONE WITH THE WIND, and you have that sensual portrayal of a woman who’s kind of saying no, but meaning maybe yes, and I think that kind of gets stuck in a lot of men’s minds and in intervention programs, now, the emphasis as you’ve heard so often, ‘No means no,’ and it’s better to err in the direction of missing an opportunity, even if there might be one there, than to err in the direction of actually forcing someone who’s not consenting, but the men who, you know, we study the most, the ones at high risk, tend to kind of disregard that intervention.”
Dr. Malamuth’s comments are extremely sobering as we consider how we portray sexual violence on screen, as we have to consider whether that violence might be seen as arousing, the overall impact of sexual violence on male aggression, and how the media shows (and often fails to show) consent. I find these comments to be an essential point of reference when considering the inclusion of a scene of explicit sexual violence in a script.
So where does all of this leave us, nearly two months after the news of misconduct at The Cinefamily broke? Dozens more stories have been brought to light thanks to the bravery of women have chosen not to stay silent any longer, but how do we move forward from such a shattering moment? The short answer is: I don’t fully know. We can continue to stay vigilant as a community of women keeping each other informed, but the systemic sexism, misogyny, and abuses we’re seeing discussed now have been happening without recourse in the industry since its beginning. Without a seismic — and I mean truly earth-shattering — reappraisal of not only of how we move forward, but of how we engage with the recent past (especially as it pertains to the stories of survivors) we will not be able to create a welcoming space in the film world for women.
Two solutions come to mind: the first is that we should not only be hiring inclusively, but promoting aggressively. Having a plurality of perspectives at the leadership level in any organization (especially when it comes to decisions of company policy and HR) makes it more difficult for bad behavior to go on unchecked. This idea needs to be implemented repertory theaters in Kansas all the way to the highest levels of studio management — if there’s a culture of inclusivity that begins at the top and bottom of the spectrum, it becomes easier to unify the middle. We also need more female-run, female-programmed film venues. I’m not calling for an end to male-run movie spaces, but there absolutely has to be more room created for female programmers, screening series, and events within the community where women feel truly safe. We don’t want to exclude men, but I think I speak for many women when I say that you’re either on this train forward, or you’re not — it’s not our job to educate you, it’s time for you to take that iniative on your own, and hold your male peers accountable to the same standards. The only way through is forward, but women can’t do that if their efforts are met with skepticism, disdain, and resistance from men. We want to bring you with us towards a new era of inclusivity, men of the film world, but if you’re not willing to do any work to get there, then that’s on you.
The news of the past few months has forced many women to revisit stories from their own lives and relive that pain, over and over again — sexual violence colors everything that happens afterwards. But, in sharing that pain, I have seen an incredible network of women at every stage of their careers come together to support, amplify, and comfort each other during this awful moment, and that’s where I draw strength. Sexual harassment, abuse, and assault will touch every single woman alive in her lifetime, that’s just a fact of living in a patriarchal world, but when those inevitabilities occur (I’m not saying these behaviors will be inevitable forever, but we need a larger cultural shift to get there) knowing that you have women to turn to who truly get what you’re going through means everything.
And when it comes to creation — the most incredible tool any of us have as writers — it is imperative that we rethink portrayals of sexual violence in any medium. The real world, the one we can’t manipulate with a clever turn of phrase or a conveniently placed deus ex machina, is a scary enough place without thoughtless, gratuitous scenes of sexual violence that do not engage with the survivors’ point of view at all. I’m not suggesting that we eliminate all scenes of sexual violence in film and television — I’m not here to censor anyone, and I do believe that sexual violence can serve a narrative purpose when well-executed— but, I would hope that creators realize the incredible power they carry with the stroke of a pen, particularly in shaping how young minds see women and their place in the world. Scenes of sexual violence have a tendency to stick in the brain far more than any other moment in media, so, if you’re going to include such a scene in your work, please take a long moment to consider the implications — socially, psychologically, narratively, and emotionally — of the words you’re putting on the page.
I wanted to end with a thought from creator Liz Meriwether from her beautiful essay, “I’m A Coward” regarding the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and abuse: “This kind of thing doesn’t only happen to heroes. It happens to normal women — women who are cowards, ambitious jerks, talented artists, lonely girls, girls who put out, girls who don’t, girls who don’t like being called ‘girls,’ wonderful and complicated and still-forming creatures who are forced to make impossible choices that follow them forever.” Women are, as Meriwether says, forced to make a litany of impossible choices every day when it comes to how they interact with men, so I can only hope that as we all work towards being thoughtful creators, we also provide our cinematic heroines with the kind of agency that women are so often denied in the real world. We could all use some new heroes, on the screen and off of it.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE, online.rainn.org y rainn.org/es) in partnership with more than 1,000 local sexual assault service providers across the country and operates the DoD Safe Helpline for the Department of Defense. RAINN also carries out programs to prevent sexual violence, help survivors, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.