Hollywood’s Dangerous Affair with Sex and Consent

Christian Grey’s ‘sexy’ domination of Anastasia in Fifty Shades of Grey, and Daenerys’s not-so-consensual wedding night in Game of Thrones. Vital conversations about consent and sexual violence can sometimes take a backseat whilst drama takes the wheel on our screens.

Take Euphoria creators, Sam Levinson’s series The Idol, which was cancelled before its last episode after a bombardment of complaints and critical reviews. In place of competent actors and well-written storylines, seemed to lean on gratuitous sex scenes to draw in viewers – all presumably in the belief that extreme sex sells.

Hollywood is committed to returning to rape culture, films like Netflix’s ‘365 Days’ and shows like HBO’s ‘House of the Dragon’, are brimmed with rape, and sexual violence. Even Netflix’s hit show Bridgerton kicked off its first season with a rape scene between the two ‘lovers’, Daphne and the Duke.

Gone are the days of ‘Goldfinger’ when Bond pins down Pussy Galore in a blur of sexual abuse, or Cruel Intentions which romanticised incest. Does the cancellation of The Idol (in every sense of the word) shows we are ready for change, or are sex scenes getting more subtle with their lack of consent?

“The sex and relationships we are presented with is centred around creating a sense of a power dynamic, and blurs the lines of reality, and what consent is for the sake of entertainment,” said Kate Whittaker, a spokesperson for Surrey Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre.

She emphasised that in showbiz, filmmakers play the role of relationship gurus, showing us what is normal and breaking down the taboos but “it wouldn’t be entertainment if the virginal young woman didn’t push back”, nevertheless, there is still some sort of responsibility to tell make it clear to real life victims what consent is and that these representations are damaging.

“For 90% of the population who can separate our screens from reality, that is fine, but for those who can’t it can have a lingering impact on those who struggle to distinguish between scripted fantasy and sobering reality. So when our film and TV is overflowed with unhealthy power dynamics and torture porn, it can leave an extreme escalation of sexual violence.”

Kate Whittaker said the directors and producers are always pedalling entertainment to make money, so they are always going to “glorify a power dynamic” and that leads to this very clouded line between what is sex and what is glorified rape. A 2024 study found that only half of young women recognised that it can still be rape if a victim doesn’t resist or fight back, meanwhile less than half recognised that being in a relationship does not mean consent to sex can be assume.

She said: “Similar to people feeling pressure over not having the actors and actresses unrealistic bodies on film, people also look to film and TV to guide them over what sex is and can fear no one will want to have sex with them if they don’t do what they see.”

Saoirse Wiberg, a student from Bath, said she has had multiple friends “whose heads have been thrown against walls” because some people think that’s what women like and what society expects of them.

“Even on a one-night stand, some men find it completely normal to choke or hit someone without consent. If you did that on the street you would be arrested but now you are in a bedroom, is it suddenly fine?”

The Duchess is this big Hollywood film which received millions in profits, but a majority of the plot is the main character enduring an unhealthy relationship characterised through multiple unnecessary sex scenes. I think from a young age I have thought, and multiple other young woman, that’s how we should act, and we think there should be this power imbalance between men and women in a relationship because that’s what we see on film and TV.”

“Rape and sexual violence on-screen is so normalised it almost adds an element of fantasy to it. It shouldn’t take a lot to know that rape is bad, still, directors make it their mission to glorify it.”

However, South Yorkshire based filmmaker and producer, Robert Speranza, known for the Horror fantasy films Entity and Inbred, said elements of sex and rape that echo through the corridors of Hollywood are purely for entertainment and filmmakers “play to what their consumer audience wants to consume”.

“The principle of ‘sex sells’ is the same as selling Christmas decorations in December, there is a market for it and audiences want to watch it, so it is being made” he said.

“Game of Thrones and its equally violent prequel, House of the Dragon, get away with showing violence because it is hypothetically set from the perspective of an old archaic society which audiences can distance themselves from and enjoy watching its “horrible subjection of characters.”

This constant bombardment of information and videos regarding sexual violence leads to what psychologists call the ‘cultural scaffolding’ of rape. This means sexual assault can seem inevitable and ordinary amongst society; modelling not only the act as normal but also the ‘normal’ situation and victim, which support groups say can reduce victims’ realisation and reporting of the crime if it doesn’t fit the idea we see on screen.

Meanwhile, Speranza said: “I think it is important to show and be representative, especially if people find it entertaining and there is an audience. However, there is an abundant number of horrible things happening to real people on the real planet so why would we want to dramatise it as well? So, the question is where do we draw the line with what we show?”

The filmmaker said: “The danger isn’t only the representations but also that they are intertwined with romantic love stories, series like Game of Thrones are evident of this. So there is always a risk of getting influenced by what you watch. Despite that, I think the chance of film and TV influencing your philosophy of real life can only happen if you are viewing that material excessively and across multiple platforms.”

Parveen Ali, a professor of Nursing and Gender-based violence at The University of Sheffield, said: “Film and TV can portray real life, however, it’s one part of a bigger cog of the audience’s lives working with school, family and friends to help people navigate through and develop their minds.”

“Directors enjoy the freedom to do anything they want, and they have no obligation to show things accurately and they don’t have to follow societal norms or expectations”.

She said when the entertainment audiences are watching is filled with sexual violence and unhealthy relationships this is when it “facilitates the existence of abuse”. Victims and offenders struggle to visualise the abuse as abuse because of these representations.

A 2009 study found that the media is a key arena in which rape is defined. Film and TV interacts with newspaper reports and social media to shape understandings of what counts as rape, who perpetrates it and why. These representations also define the perceptions about the victim and the likely consequences of sexual violence.

In research by the British Board of Film Classification, teenagers said they turn to screens as a sexual education tool, with nearly 30% of them not able to recognise a healthy romance and nearly 40% of young children learning nothing about power imbalances within relationships.

Mrs Ali said: “Key information threaded through plot devices about what sexual violence is and what is right and wrong even when your sexual partner has given consent, is vital for audiences to have healthier relationships and victims’ storylines should be portrayed sensitively.”

In the labyrinth of our digital age, where film and TV seamlessly weave tales of passion and pain, the entertainment industry remains devoted to perpetuating distressing romances and dredging up sexual violence. However, the Idol’s cancellation signals a growing readiness to push back against the narrative that turned rape into the unholy grail of show business.

In society, adolescents turn to screens for sexual education, where the boundaries between fiction and reality blur. The time has come for the industry to recognise it holds a pivotal role in ensuring entertainment is a force for enlightenment, not desensitisation.

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