Asking for It: The Ethics and Erotics of Sexual Consent. Directed by Sut Jhally. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2010. 38 minutes.
The Date Rape Backlash: Media and the Denial of Rape. Directed by Sut Jhally. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 1994. 57 minutes.
Unafraid: Voices from the Crime Victims Treatment Center. Directed by Karin Venegas. New York: Women Make Movies, 2014. 44 minutes.
How do we teach students to think critically and honestly about sexual assault, sexual violence, and rape? Sharing the history of the movement against sexual assault and expanding students’ conceptual tool kit while providing a broad and frank vocabulary are key to overcoming the silence and shame that often accompany conversations about this topic. In this essay, I review a trio of films that introduce viewers to the history of sexual assault response and some of the political and cultural conditions that have defined these debates in the United States. The films cover a range of issues: how to understand sexual consent, the history of the “date rape backlash,” and establishing rape crisis response within healthcare settings. Together, the films reflect the interdisciplinary nature of sexual assault as our object of pedagogy while also highlighting the myriad institutional and social responses addressing sexual violence. They are also artifacts of a particular moment in feminist organizing against sexual violence and ideally should be taught in historical context with nods to current events. Like any conversations on sexual violence, classroom instructors should be prepared to facilitate a frank and and honest discussion. Moreover, these films do not stand on their own but require mediation.
“Can you think of any situations where just yes does not mean yes?” opens philosopher Harry Brod in the film Asking for It: The Ethics and Erotics of Sexual Consent. The film is a recording of Brod delivering a lecture to a live audience whom he calls upon as he makes his way through the ethical questions surrounding consenting to sexual contact. While the video is not visually gripping, the lecture itself is short and engaging. The questions Brod poses will lead to interesting discussions in any classroom. To make his argument about the definition of consent as affirmative consent, Brod poses a series of questions and examines, with the audience, the assumptions that underlie their responses. Brod explores many existing examples of affirmative consent, asking if the audience is willing to live in a world where someone has the right to access another’s body without asking for consent. The video ends with Brod engaging the question of pleasure; consent is not simply about ethics, but also erotics.
For students who are new to these topics, the film would pair well with readings like the edited collection Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.1 The essays are, like the film, accessible and provocative, giving students many inroads for developing a nuanced understanding of consent. For the more advanced student who questions the cultural orientations that cast affirmative consent as the solution to rape culture, a piece like Lise Gotell’s “Rethinking Affirmative Consent in Canadian Sexual Assault Law” considers who is able to consent and how the political conditions of affirmative consent exclude particular categories of women within Canadian law (e.g., homeless women, drug-using women, and aboriginal women).2
The film Date Rape Backlash: Media and the Denial of Rape is essential historical viewing for all engaged in working against gender-based violence. The film details the period from 1987 to 1993, tracking the media’s dramatic shift in tone in covering research on the prevalence of rape. Featuring many noted voices in the public discourses around sexual assault, the film includes interviews with Mary Koss, Katha Pollitt, Susan Faludi, Susan Douglas, and bell hooks. Though the production seems a little outdated, the film should be treated as a historical document that sheds light on the attention Koss brought to sexual assault through her research, which produced the notable statistical claim that 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted.3 The film follows the widespread media reporting on Koss’s study and the right-wing backlash initiated by the publication of Katie Roiphe’s The Morning After.4 Roiphe, and others, promoted the idea that “date rape” was simply a misunderstanding of “bad sex,” seeking to dismiss and discredit Koss’s research and the feminist response to preventing sexual assault. Archival news footage juxtaposes Roiphe and other notable antifeminists undermining Koss’s research and illustrates how they frequently repeated claims that had originally been written and published by men’s rights activists. These critiques relied on rhetorical strategies and were unscientific in that they did not oppose research by analyzing methods or providing alternate interpretations, and the film makes the critical point that Roiphe never cited nor engaged Koss’s research in her vitriolic attack. Koss, moreover, debunks many of the critiques of her research—for example, that it defined rape too broadly—in a direct and accessible manner.
This documentary has pedagogical value in several contexts. It is useful feminist history, pairing well with texts such as Ruth Rosen’s A World Split Open, or Susan Faludi’s modern classic, Backlash.5 The film is further instructive in a research methods context and can be read alongside newer sexual assault prevalence studies, including those conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and even the original Koss study. Finally, it is also well-suited for viewing in a class on gender and media.
The third film in this trio, Unafraid: Voices from the Crime Victims Treatment Center, shows the founding of New York City’s first rape crisis program at St. Luke’s Hospital in the 1970s. Like the previous film, this documentary has deep historical value, as many students may be unaware of the relatively recent advent of victim support services and rape crisis response. The story of the center is intertwined with the stories of four survivors of sexual assault, three women and one man, who share their experiences as the program’s history is revealed. The stories are themselves powerful, demonstrating the uniqueness of each survivor and the difficult processes of healing and self-recognition that characterize the recovery journey. First person narratives, such as Cathy Winkler’s powerful One Night: Realities of Rape or Roxane Gay’s poignant and painfully honest, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, or even the Emily Doe letter penned by the victim of Brock Turner, can be read alongside the film as students learn to appreciate the distinctive pathways that each survivor walks, even when experiences of victimization may seem, on the surface, to be quite similar.6
For this author-viewer, watching these films as a group also raised questions about the general landscape of representing sexual assault. I appreciated thinking about these films in relation to more recent films, like The Hunting Ground or The Invisible War, because it is important to think about the impact of sexual assault and prevention efforts both on and off the campus.7 The films also encourage us to reflect on the extent to which we expect victim experiences to resemble one another and the burden this one-size-fits-all approach places on victims who are marginalized in other ways. Returning to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s classic piece on sexual assault and race asks us to take intersectionality seriously. Instructors might offer students a sobering reminder that the very systems that we use to address sexual assault—whether they are universities, social conventions of consent, media discourses, or medical and criminal justice institutions—are also shaped by heteronormativity, racism, sexism, classism, and ableism.8 While these perspectives are not absent from the films, they are also not centered, giving the films a universalizing approach that needs unpacking. Finally, the emphasis on sexual assault response at the nexus of healthcare and criminal justice is one that this author continually calls into question (see also Andrea Quinlan’s The Technoscientific Witness of Rape and Rose Corrigan’s Up against a Wall).9 These films are excellent starting points, but they require careful, frank, and critical amplification in order to orient students toward an open conversation on the heterogeneous landscape of sexual assault and sexual assault intervention.
1 Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape (Berkeley, CA: Seal, 2008).
2 Lise Gotell, “Rethinking Affirmative Consent in Canadian Sexual Assault Law: Neoliberal Sexual Subjects and Risky Women,” Akron Law Review 41 (2008): 865-98.
3 See Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Sexual Violence for most up-to-date findings; Mary P. Koss, Christine A. Gidycz, and Nadine Wisniewski, “The Scope of Rape: Incidence and Prevalence of Sexual Aggression and Victimization in a National Sample of Higher Education Students,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 55, no. 2 (1987): 162–70.
4 Katie Roiphe, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1993). Please note that this citation is included not as a scholarly recommendation, but as a reference to an artifact that exemplifies the antifeminist screed typical of the era of backlash.
5 Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (New York: Penguin, 2000); Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women (New York: Random House, 1991).
6 Cathy Winkler, One Night: Realities of Rape (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira, 2002); Roxane Gay, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (New York: Harper Collins, 2017); “Stanford Sexual Assault Case Survivor Emily Doe Speaks Out,” Glamour, November 1, 2016.
7 The Hunting Ground, directed by Kirby Dick (New York: Weinstein Company, 2015), 103 mins.; The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick (Los Angeles: Cinedigm, 2012), 97 mins.
8 Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241-99.
9 Andrea Quinlan, The Technoscientific Witness of Rape: Contentious Histories of Law, Feminism, and Forensic Science (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017); Rose Corrigan, Up against a Wall: Rape Reform and the Failure of Success (New York: New York University Press, 2013).