Safety Sync: Portrayals of Sexual Violence in Popular Television Shows

Aug 22nd, 1970

By Danielle Hunter, MCASA Program Intern

In her article, “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” Roxane Gay asks her readers to think of a dramatic television series that has not incorporated some sort of rape plotline into their show.[1] While some certainly exist, this is not an especially easy task. Modern television writers constantly compete to out-shock each other to ensure the popularity of their show. This often leads to the incorporation of sexual violence plotlines, many of which include graphic depictions of this violence, to create intrigue and drama. Some believe that these depictions help to increase conversations about sexual violence. These depictions do have the potential to shed light on a serious issue, but often fail to do so. Instead, they contribute to our already pervasive rape culture that normalizes sexual assault and downplays survivor trauma.

Depictions of sexual violence on prime time television tend to include graphic scenes of violence that are then neatly wrapped up in a few short episodes. On “Law & Order: SVU,” a popular crime show focusing on sexual violence, audience members watch as each episode the team solves rape cases and tracks down sex offenders to obtain justice for survivors. While there are some continuous plot lines, most of the cases are resolved within a 42-minute window, and never arise again. This common approach not only desensitizes the American public to the atrocities of sexual violence, but also erases the enduring trauma that survivors face. The aftermath of sexual violence is long lasting and cannot be quickly resolved as these depictions imply.

In addition, these sexual violence plot lines often take attention off the survivor and their experiences, focusing instead on how this violence affects the main (usually male) characters. As Lisa Cuklanz, author of “Rape on Prime Time” writes, “television has a long history of turning rape into a story about men, either as detectives, rescuers, lovers, and partners who suffer, or good men learning to help a wife, daughter, sister, or fiancée deal with trauma…Depictions that place the survivor at the center of the story are still quite rare.” [2] Take for example the wildly popular Game of Thrones, where in Season 5, Episode 6, when Sansa Stark is sexually assaulted on her wedding night. While Sansa is a central series character, the scene focuses more on a male character who is forced to watch and how the assault affects him.

Because it reaches so many people, the television industry has the potential to change rape culture. Youth audiences are a big consumer of these popular television shows, so it is essential that these shows focus on the deeper issues regarding sexual violence and stay survivor-centered.

Sexual violence is not an experience that can be easily wrapped up in a single television episode. The experiences that survivors face stay with them for years and are unique to every individual. When a TV show does not acknowledge these struggles, or only focuses on the brutality of the assault and how it motivates other characters, it strengthens a rape culture that normalize sexual violence. Only when TV producers and writers center survivors and their recovery can they portray accurate depictions of sexual assault to which survivors can relate and from which audience members can learn.

 [1] Gay, Roxane. "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence." The Rumpus. March 10, 2011.

[2] Le Vine, Lauren. "Game of Thrones Failed, But Many TV Shows Succeed in Portraying Sexual Assault--Here's How." Refinery 29. June 15, 2015.     

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