Why I Don’t Want To Be Sold Rape At The Movies

Last night my husband and I decided we’d settle in for a movie, and I picked out Secret in Their Eyes because I’d heard it was a good mystery. I didn’t know much about the story, and vaguely remembered seeing a preview, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Within the first five minutes, the movie depicted intense flashbacks of a young woman being raped and murdered. We made it about halfway through the movie before deciding to turn it off.

secret in their eyes

Now, to be fair, I hadn’t researched the movie extensively. I’d looked up a brief synopsis which described the plotline but didn’t make any  mention of rape. However, I feel like it’s becoming easier and easier to stumble across rape scenes in movies and television shows. I don’t watch a lot of movies, maybe one every week or two, and I keep coming across these brutal images and stories inadvertently. As someone who is struggling with overcoming the after effects of rape, I find it ridiculous how often this topic is cheaply and carelessly tossed into a movie for emotional manipulation.

Rape is, sadly, a part of life for many people. After all, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men has experienced attempted or complete rape. And this doesn’t even include other insidious forms of sexual abuse that aren’t classified as ‘rape’. The thing that bothers me isn’t that movies talk about rape, what bothers me is that they’re selling the horror of rape for an emotional reaction.

The movie makers want us to be fired up about what’s happened to their victim – they want us to seethe with anger at the person who committed this crime on-screen. They want to shock us and horrify us the way a horror movie shocks and horrifies us. The difference is, that they’re not selling made-up demons and monsters, they’re selling the trauma and suffering of millions of real people. And they’re not doing it to help anyone, they’re doing it to manipulate us and make more money.  Many of the movies that focus on rape use it as a form of “torture porn” – a catalyst created for the character to seek unabashed violence and revenge (think Kill Bill), or for a male counterpart to seek violence and revenge on behalf of the hopeless female victim.

Rape for Laughs

horrible bosses

Rape has even been used as a source of comedy in movies like  Horrible Bosses and Horrible Bosses 2 where a man is raped and consistently sexually demeaned by his boss, and it’s meant to be funny. If Dale in Horrible Bosses had been a female and Jennifer Aniston’s character had been a male, I doubt anyone would have been laughing. But nobody should have been laughing either way. Horrible Bosses gave us a sad look at how seriously we don’t take male rape and sexual abuse. In the context of the movie, male sexual abuse is just another punchline, another joke to laugh at.

I remember being a teenager and watching The Evil Dead with my friends. They all laughed during a particular scene where a woman is being ‘raped’ by a tree. I sat there between my friends on a couch, feeling disgusted and appalled. Call me uptight, but when you’ve actually dealt with sexual abuse and rape in your life, and you’re working hard at becoming ‘normal’ again, having it shoved in your face in such a garish way seems like a slap in the face. Rape should never be a joke. We need to stop considering it fodder for thoughtless humor, horror movies, or  even titillating scenes in mysteries/dramas, etc,..

Rape Brings in More Viewers

game of thrones

Rape is the new way of making a movie “edgy” more “mature” and more “shocking”. Not sure how to make a female character more sympathetic to the audience? Throw in a flashback about her rape! That will solve everything. This has been done in numerous movies and TV shows like Game of Thrones, Scandal, Outlander and countless others. Many people think this is harmless – some even praise it as bringing attention to the problem of rape – but it’s not hard to see that the sensationalized, melodramatic nature of what is shown in most movies that feature rape is just another way to sell the story, sell the characters, and sell your emotions.

Roxane Gay wrote an article called The Careless Language of Sexual Violence. In it she talked about how rape has been used in numerous TV shows as a way to increase ratings. Private Practice, on ABC, incorporated a rape storyline just as February sweeps were beginning. Soap operas consistently write in a rape storyline during sweeps season. Lifetime movies, crime dramas, TV mysteries all frequently bring us images and stories of graphic, despicable sex crimes. Over time this has effectively deadened us to the true horror and serious nature of rape itself. These shows bring up a topic to hook in audiences, to get more viewers, and afterwards they neatly sweep it under the rug and move on. This is not real life.

Rape for Entertainment’s Sake Diminishes the Actual Suffering of Rape Survivors

Sad

Real life recovery from rape involves years of struggling with PTSD, anxiety, fear, feelings of worthlessness and shame. The aftermath of rape doesn’t end after ‘season 1’ of your life is over. In real life, the effects and horror of rape can last an entire lifetime. In real life, we’re scared to discuss rape and sexual abuse – people don’t want to hear about that! It’s not pleasant. Yet, we have no problem turning on our TVs and watching it and being entertained by it. We even feel a sense of dignity in the sense that we would never do these things, and that we feel such horror over these events. It makes us feel like we’re better people, when really, we just allowed ourselves to be entertained by someone else’s trauma. We’ve effectively become voyeuristic about sex crime – yet we’re scared to talk to the actual survivors of rape because it’s not a ‘nice’ topic of conversation.

These movies and shows that use rape as a selling point do an incredible disservice to rape victims and trauma survivors all over the world. A thoughtful, non-sensationalized perspective on rape and its effects would be welcome, and there are several movies that have given us this (Room, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Rape for the mere effect of creating horror for horror’s sake, or for creating an emotional reaction that ties us to a story feels cheap, insensitive, and careless. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m scared to watch a movie because I don’t know when Hollywood is going to cram another rape scene into the movie for viewer sympathy and the trigger will cause me to have flashbacks and fear related to my own rapes.

Laura Hudson at Wired.com put it well in her article Rape Scenes Aren’t Just Awful. They’re Lazy Writing.

“Half the time, people can’t even seem to figure out how to define rape, let alone portray it in responsible ways. Indeed, one of the most baffling things about so many rape scenes in popular culture is that the people who scripted them felt qualified to do so, despite seemingly knowing nothing about rape except that it exists and it is bad. In short, anyone can write a rape scene—but should they? Chances are, the answer is no.”

 

I Think You’re Overreacting – It’s Just a Movie!

Chances are, you know someone who has been sexually abused in your life – and chances are they don’t want to be faced with their past traumas when they turn on the TV. And if you’ve never been sexually abused, then you really don’t know what it’s like and how these movies and TV shows can affect those of us who have. I’m not trying to wallow in self-pity here – I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. 99% of the time I feel cheated when I come across a rape storyline in a movie or TV show. I feel like my experience and the experience of countless other survivors, has been turned into a form of entertainment. Again, certain movies have covered the topic of rape with respect and realism, but sadly these movies are few and far between.

If Hollywood really wants to tell a compassionate story about rape survivors, if they want to make a difference or help prevent sexual abuse with their story, that’s great! If they want to drop in a rape sub-plot just to garner more viewers, generate more horror, or gather more attention then that’s where the problem lies. As a long-term rape survivor myself, I have to be careful with what I watch – and I’ve come to the conclusion that books are a better use of my time. I’ve spent some long nights trapped in my own memories and my PTSD because of careless rape scenes in movies. I simply think it’s time we stopped buying and selling sex crimes for entertainment. The only exception to this is if the movie you’re watching really has a goal of reaching out to, and understanding, rape victims and helping them in some constructive way.

The Movies That Did It Right

Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series was written by Stieg Larsson, a champion of women’s right and a crusader against sex trafficking. One of the main goals of his series was to address the rampant sex trafficking in Sweden and the experience of women who have been abused by trafficking, incest, and sexual violence. The movies deal with horrific rapes and sex crimes, but there was no way to tell the story and show the experience of rape victims without depicting and talking about rape. The makers of Dragon Tattoo even partnered with RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) to use the movie to help women in rape crisis centers around the country. Many rape survivors, including me, found the movie to be helpful and even therapeutic in the way it compassionately and without pretense addressed the experience of survivors of sex crimes. It’s not a movie for everyone, especially younger viewers, but for sex abuse survivors or people who know them or want to understand them better, the movies and books can shine some light into the lives of women who are raped, trafficked, or abused.

Brie Larson in Room
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in Room

Room, which came out late last year, talked about rape and abduction and the after effects of these experiences – depression, PTSD, and healing. Both these movies had something to say about rape that needed to be heard, something that was compassionate and broadened our understanding of the problem. They didn’t throw rape in to make us feel an emotional reaction, and they didn’t do it in a sensationalized way, but they put it in because it was a central part of the story. Room is one of the only movies I’ve seen that realistically portrays the natural healing process of long-term rape and sexual abuse. However, the Dragon Tattoo series and Room are the only two movies I can think of that have ever addressed rape in a respectful, constructive way. These movies are the exceptions, but the majority of movies and TV shows that feature rape do so in a way that’s completely careless, uninformed, and manipulative.

What Can We Do to Stop It?

I don’t know. I wish I had an answer to this question. I think if more people did something to help sex abuse victims and spent less time watching sex abuse on TV it would make a huge difference in our world. If we could all stop watching TV shows and movies that are trying to sell rape storylines just for the horror, just for the viewers, just to garner sympathy and emotionally manipulate us I think we’d have a lot more respectful conversations and stories about the subject. I know helping out at a women’s shelter or finding a way to practically help isn’t as relaxing or entertaining as hanging out on the couch watching a crime drama, but it would definitely make an impact. We need to stop accepting these graphic, Hollywood rape scenes as commonplace and we need to be more open to addressing the issue in real life and trying to make a difference there.

 

I’ll get off my soapbox now. If you have any thoughts, feel free to let me know in the comments!

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20 Comments

  1. Thank you. Your passion and outrage powers excellent reasoning and writing. I hope your, and others’, voices are heard on this.

    1. Susan you are 100% right I am so sick and tired of movies showing graphic drawn out rape scenes I’m also afraid to watch movies because of this it really makes me see red when a director has to throw in a graphic rape scene og usually a woman. I actually feel nauseous you are right about the two movies you mentioned but the others and there are so many others are disgusting for entertainment and shock value.

  2. I am on this soapbox with you! I don’t know if you are familiar with “Rocky Horror” but our local theater recently did a stage production of this show. Some of my friends were auditioning and I had never seen the show before so I rented the movie and watched it. There is a scene where two teenagers get raped, thinking they are having sex with one another when in reality it’s the owner of the mansion Frank-n-Furter. When my friends informed me that our local theater was omitting certain scenes from the stage production, I asked about the rape scene specifically and they rolled their eyes and said, “Well that’s just supposed to be funny.”

    I think sometimes I can be overly sensitive to entertainment, but this seemed so crystal clear to me. Why don’t we boycott shows like this? Or at the very least, refuse to reenact rape scenes that are supposed to be “funny”?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I wish there was a more effective way to address this issue, but for now I think boycotting this kind of entertainment is a start.

    Dani xoxo

    1. Wow! I have never seen Rocky Horror before, and now I know never to watch it. I think that’s absolutely insane that people think rape can possibly be funny. That’s why, I guess, we have “rape culture” now, where it is just considered so mainstream that people have forgotten how terrible it really is. I completely agree with your thoughts on boycotting this type of entertainment, I only wish more people would do it with us so that Hollywood could see that it isn’t going to sell anymore! Thanks for your feedback and letting me know your thoughts!

  3. Last year I finally decided to stop watching movies and shows that show rape. It had been making me sick for a while. I’ve never been sexually assaulted but I’m highly sensitive to all kinds of rape and torture. I would watch Game of Thrones with my husband and close my eyes and ears and hum, trying (often failing) to block out those scenes. I tried watching Outlander because my friends were so in love with it. But when I got to the rape episode (there had been a few attempted rape scenes before) I turned it off and said no more. When did we decide that watching a full length graphic rape scene was okay while we go on eating our dinner? Did you ever think you would watch someone be raped when you were growing up? (Not to make a reference to your personal rape experience, which I don’t know the details of. I just mean on television.) I’m invested in some of the characters on GoT but now my husband watches every episode before me and tells me if there’s anything I need to skip. This season (so far anyway, knock on wood) they haven’t done as much torture and rape. Thank you for writing this.

    Christine

    1. Hi Christine! Thank you for commenting and sharing your thoughts. I completely agree with you! As a mother I can look at my kids and ask myself, “would I EVER want them to watch this kind of thing? Would I ever want them to reach the point where viewing this kind of thing is everyday and normal?” and the answer is always no. I don’t know why so many graphic, painful things need to be viewed as entertainment. I’ve always wanted to watch Game of Thrones because it seems like the type of show I would like, but I’ve kept away from it for that reason – however, it’s still a big temptation because it looks VERY interesting! It’d be nice if there was a machine that could just edit out all those scenes in movies and shows so we could enjoy them without that!

    2. I sought this topic out (google) bc of the episode in Outlander. I watched it three weeks ago on Netflix. The day after seeing that episode my husband and I watched The Revenant which had another rape scene. It’s gotten to the point that i just watch light sitcoms and children’s movies mostly.
      Would it really be too difficult for filmmakers to put a disclaimer at the beginning of a movie? And can we ask Netflix to please not omit any disclaimers when skipping intros?
      I’m making it my mission to speak out against these scenes as well. I’ll start on Twitter. Netflix is pretty responsive on Twitter.

      1. I’m sick and tired of rape scenes in movies also it’s extremely demeaning and make me very angry I hate rape scenes I’m afraid to go to the movies because I don’t want to see them they are so graphic and unnecessary I hate when people say they are necessary they are not enough is enough

  4. Thank you for this article. As a survivor of near-rape sexual assault, I find myself having to avoid movies and TV series that aren’t rated PG-13 like the plague due to the sudden increase in rape scenes. It’s appalling that those forms of media try to use rape to get a more intense reaction out of the viewer. As well, it’s ridiculous that there are no warnings placed for said scenes. Where I live, movies like Nocturnal Animals (2016) have only the following as warnings: Sexual imagery, Violence, Profanity, Substances, and Frightening Scenes. Nowhere does it mention scenes involving sexual violence. Some can argue that it falls under the frightening scenes category but so do movies like Kong: Skull Island (2017) which have not even the slightest amount of sexuality.

    All in all, I find solace in knowing that there are others who, like me, are disturbed by the cheap shots content creators are making to get a rise out of the audience. Let’s hope for a brighter future where survivors like us won’t have to relive our experiences for the sake of entertainment.

    1. Thank you for this i can barley watch movies anymore especially rated r because of these disgusting unnecessary scenes they just come out of nowhere and I believe part of these scenes are for male entertainment and ego many women can defend themselves but in the movie they usually never can sick and tired of it it’s not entertainment it’s sick

  5. commonsensemedia.com and similar websites have helped me tremendously in sifting through movies and TV shows which have trigger points for me. It doesn’t solve the problem you’re referring too, but it also might really help you and a lot of other people.

  6. Thank you. I am so, so tired of seeing rape scenes. And I am so tired of being the only one I know that is put off and upset by them. Filmmakers might try to claim that a female character’s rape purpose was to show a struggle she went through, but there are far more male characters in movies/on TV, yet male rape scenes are very rare in comparison to female rape scenes. So the filmmakers find a way for the male characters to go through some sort of struggle that ISNT rape, why can’t they do it for the female characters?! There is enough rape in the real world, without having it used as a cheap and insensitive plot device in film all the time. There are definitely some exceptions that do it right, but most do not and i’m baffled at how accepted these scenes are by society. On the occasions that I havent been able to hide my upset with these scenes, people look at me in shock as if i am being too sensitive, but am in shock that they could NOT be upset by them. I wonder if maybe these are also the people who think rape is a rare occurrence, that only occasionally happens to women walking home alone at night in sketchy areas. We have so far to go…

  7. I honestly only read the first half of this and I dont need to read any more of it. As a man I will be honest in saying that I despise rape. Period. I could care less if it is “fictional” in the movies, shows or even in books. I feel great pain and anger when it is presented to me at all in a scene of a show or a movie. I would rather not visualize it in a story. It is NOT entertainment to me. A woman should never be treated in such a fashion. Nor should a man and I dont find it funny when it happens to a man. People do give that statement that it is just a movie thinking it is alright or acceptable. I disagree. For those with a moral compass it is no where near as ok or acceptable. And for those without……it gives them drive and motivation to possibly do it to someone innocent. And honestly I do greatly feel bad for rape victims, mainly because they are fed that BS statement that rape is about control. Not only is that not true but it makes the victim feel much worse if you really think about it. Telling the victim that is saying that they no longer have control over their lives or that they can have control of their lives and themselves taken away. Its not healing, its damaging. I dont even like the sexual torture that goes on in movies, shows or even in the adult entertainment industry. That is not what sex is supposed to be about. Call me old fashioned but its something that is sacred and beautiful between two people. Not to be turned into some grotesque game.

  8. Thank you so much for your post. Few days back I felt a shock in my home town movie theatre: me and my friend came to the cinema to watch ‘Lola rennt’ (1998, German art-house) it was rated 16+ back in 1998 because, as I take it, audience faces a gun and a little bit of blood is spilled too – but, I assure you, 20 years ago this 16+ has less violence than in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”!!. Anyway, before the beginning of the movie there were ‘coming soon’ trailers screen wide. And there was a revolting trailer to the movie called ‘Revenge’ (2017). And very graphical rape scene is right in front of you during the first 15 seconds of trailer!! I shut my face with both hands and I just started crying. (I’m 31 years old, mother of two). And then I thought that my two girls will someday sit there in front of that screen and see a young girly-lolly blonde in pink strings being brutally raped and it literally made me sick. Only now, after having a hard time on googling out the name of the movie (because I shut my face after first 15 seconds), I read that there is at least one more rape in the movie and then the girl gets her revenge by drowning her 3 rapists in their own blood and that this other part caused someone call paramedics to one of the lucky attendants during the film premier few months back in Toronto.
    This is terrible. And it has nothing, nothing good in it!!!! Now I know that there is a whole genre! called: “rape and revenge horror thriller movie”… And I am sorry, I think that these rape scenes shown screen wide (particularly like those in Revenge) are nothing more than a compliment to mentally ill degenerates who think rape is something normal and bad-boys-allowed, and who maybe come back home and rape their wives or daughters, or other women!!. Particularly, I think that watching these rape scenes are something that will definitely make Harvey Weinstein happy 🙁

  9. Susan, thank you for posting this. I found this post because I am a psychotherapist and am writing, hopefully, the movie that rape survivors have wanted for so long. I was in private practice for 30 yrs specializing in sexual assault. I’m now retired writing movie scripts. If you have any more thoughts on this subject that you would like to share with me, you can contact me at [email protected].

  10. Please stop rape in movies it’s so damaging and unnecessary I don’t care about the director saying it’s necessary it’s not the nightingale is another sick rape filled movie that I’m should be banned I think it has 4 rapes in it I just don’t get paying to watch women being graphically raped and eating popcorn on a huge screen for entertainment no fn thanx

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