by Phoebe C. Linton
Editor’s note: This is a second part of our continuing conversation on sexual assault in the media and in historical realities. As a result, this article includes frank discussions of the depictions of sexual violence.
One of the criticisms of our last article on the topic was that it amounted to “a man writing about men writing about women.” Thanks to Phoebe for offering up her perspective on the topic.
One of my favourite panels I heard at the Kalamazoo International Medieval Congress on Medieval Studies this year was Session 92 on ”Rape, Violence, and Consent: The Medieval Pastourelle.”
To my surprise, one of the questions to a speaker asked whether ”no” really meant “no” in the medieval poetry discussed—wherein medieval women voice their pain at having been sexually forced by men. This question accidentally proved the necessity of the valuable work currently happening on rape and sexual violence.
A prime example specifically from medieval criticism is Christine Rose and Elizabeth Robertson’s compilation of essays, Representing Rape in Medieval and Early Modern Literature. The essays explore the implicit meanings of metaphors and plot progression in medieval tales and medieval retellings of ancient Greek or Roman tales. Their unpacking of the implicit messages and assumptions that we can glean from these tales radically changed the way I view discussions of violence in today’s society. Most importantly, Representing Rape helped me see that many of the issues around consent were much the same as they are today, despite commonly held assumptions encouraged by the popularity of shows like Game of Thrones. One of the key issues with Thrones (which Paul Sturtevant has explored in some detail) is that it puts forward the idea that violence was more common in the Middle Ages than it is today—particularly sexual violence and abuse.
What Does “No” Mean?
Rose and Robertson’s book helps us understand issues around rape in medieval or neo-medieval literature. This is an important thing to do: it helps us better understand the things we take for granted in modern society when we casually accept violence as “normal”—which can limit the extent to which people are allowed to voice their pain. Stories that have endured as long as these have can often be used as foils for crimes committed today. Just as today, the characters in these elder stories who have sexual violence committed against them are usually held to be responsible for the event in some way. Not enough has changed.
Today, as in the Middle Ages, if someone speaks out about their experiences of being sexually assaulted, an implicit question remains: will they be believed? If, when women say “no” others think—even subliminally or unconsciously—“but maybe she means yes,” this enables violence and rape. If when a woman reports that she said “no” and authorities think—subliminally or unconsciously—“maybe she meant yes,” or “maybe she’s lying,” it makes it harder for others to come forward. And this is a systemic problem; for each badly-researched Rolling Stone article, hundreds of women do not report assaults for fear of not being believed. When we assume that “no” could mean “yes”— that they may have been “asking for it” in some way, it diminishes the extent to which we perceive that individuals are deprived of their free will by their attacker.
Sexual Assault in Banished
This reminds me of the spring-2015 BBC TV series, Banished. Banished is set during the eighteenth century, and follows the formation of a British penal colony in Australia. One of the main preoccupations of the series is the interactions between the genders within the camp. There are many instances of forced, coerced, bribed, and the traded sex in Banished. But one storyline especially reveals ways society—both then and now— normalises violence against women. The romance between Katherine McVitie and Major Robert Ross exemplifies the rape paradigms discussed in depth in Representing Rape.
The love-triangle “romance” between convict Katherine, her sweetheart Private MacDonald and his superior, Ross, is a perfect example of how “No” is still portrayed to mean ”Yes” in contemporary fiction. In brief, Ross repeatedly rapes Katherine. But, over time, she realises that he is a kind man, dumps MacDonald and attaches herself to Ross.
The story epitomizes ideas that are foundational to the modern rape culture we unconsciously imbibe and many condone. These ideas bleed into real-life and legal attitudes to sexual violence. It is only in recent years that we have begun to seriously question whether “no” really “means no.” Despite some progress towards an active-consent culture, certain perceptions remain that undermine consent, such as “no means yes if you know how to spot it,” or that women want “a bad boy with a heart of gold,” or that, without asking, “I know you want it.” In 2005, Amnesty International conducted a survey in the UK that found that:
more than a quarter (26%) of those asked said that they thought a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing, and more than one in five (22%) held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners.
Around one in 12 people (8%) believed that a woman was totally responsible for being raped if she’d had many sexual partners. Similarly, more than a quarter of people (30%) said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk, and more than a third (37%) held the same view if the woman had failed to clearly say “no” to the man.
An analysis of rape in Banished is relevant to discussions in medieval scholarship at the moment more than, say, eighteenth-century studies, because of the weight and longevity of the heritage leading up to the time in which the series is set. Given that Rose/Robertson’s work shows that metaphors of rape, and reactions to it, have persisted since ancient Greece and Rome it is all the more important to consider how and why certain ideas are so entrenched in our cultural consciousness.
The essay compilation crystallises many things about the way our society views rape and other kinds of violence. Obviously, sexual violence is perpetrated against men as well as women. But since this is such a large and complex topic, at the moment I will keep to the traditional motifs and undercurrents that influence conversations about female sexuality.
Rose/Robertson’s work explains the hidden messages lurking beneath tales that silence raped women in different ways, and the implicit assumptions around their character, which remain as applicable to today as they are to medieval literature. They are:
- Women secretly want to be raped because it is beneficial to them.
- “No” means “Yes” because women don’t properly know their own minds.
- Being inherently fickle, women deserve rape.
- Women are also to blame and are “asking for it” by accentuating their physical beauty, which men don’t possess enough control over their impulses to resist.
- Once raped, women will eventually be grateful because
- Men who rape women have, deep down, very good intentions so they are ideal partners.
- Paradoxically, if a woman is raped she becomes tainted goods, she is a diseased object.
- A tainted or diseased woman must be cured.
- What do we do with disease? We eradicate it. In the case of women, this is effected by silence or death, so the community does not also, by association, become diseased.
- Ideally, the woman should realise this and kill herself.
These assumptions are almost never explicitly stated—which makes them easier to internalize. Instead, they are implicit parts of the narratives discussed in the essays in Rose/Robertson’s book. By reflecting the cultural opinions of the time they were written, these stories—due to their popularity as a whole, perhaps—have perpetuated these ideas about rape.
Back to Banished then, with a handy guide to how its narrative fits within these exact ten assumptions. Beautiful Katherine is in love with MacDonald, who is offered a promotion in return for Katherine’s sexual services to Ross (4). Although MacDonald initially doesn’t understand the terms of his promotion, he accepts it following Katherine’s entreaties, who fears her lover will be killed if he refuses. Ross rapes Katherine at least twice a week, afterwards calling her a “whore” and a “slut,” giving her food rations in recompense (1). Ross carefully manipulates Katherine and MacDonald, twisting messages the lovers send to each other through him. MacDonald is increasingly disgusted that another man is sleeping with his girl (7) and says he can only accept it (and tolerate his promotion) if she is silent whilst she has sex with Ross (8, 9). Since Katherine’s trauma has become uncomfortable to Ross, upon whom it dawns that it can be unpleasant to have sex with a silent and resentful woman who is disgusted by physical contact with him, he tells Katherine she still has to come to his tent but they can “just talk” (5). This new agreement “generously” releases her from the obligation of having sex with him. Meanwhile, Katherine gradually tires of MacDonald’s possessive griping. Ross’s “overwhelming kindness” suddenly makes him irresistible to Katherine (2, 3), combined with his “endearing” tendency to share stories of times he could have saved someone’s life, but didn’t because it wasn’t professionally beneficial (6).
Number 10 hasn’t happened (yet) but if I had to wager I’d say we should stay tuned for Season 2!
There we have the “ultimate love story” in all its glory, a formulaic pattern repeated across a variety of media throughout our entire culture. It saddens me that we are still discussing the nature of consent, when it’s really not that complicated.
The Inevitable Twitter Backlash
When I expressed concern over Banished’s implicit comments about rape in two statements on Twitter, I had no idea of the backlash (twitlash?) that would follow, being a newcomer to this form of social media.
First, I tweeted:
Most recent episode of BBC series Banished confirms the negative stereotype that “no” means “yes” with Kat McVitie/Major Ross romance.
For an explanation of the literary heritage that created the “no means yes” phenomenon read Rose/Robertson.
Broadly, the three types of responses I received from Twitter were, to paraphrase:
“It’s possible to think you hate someone and sleep with them anyway;”
“drama is not the same as real life, which isn’t always clear-cut;”
“why do we always have to be politically correct?”
I actually agree with all three of these statements, in general. But in the specific context of rape, they worryingly miss the point. First, of course it’s possible to reject sexual intimacy with someone then change your mind. Changing one’s opinion is natural and occurs in all areas of life. Part of being a free individual—woman or man—is the luxury not only of choice but of changing choice. I was tempted to respond to the person who had slept with someone she “thought she hated” with, saying “I doubt he raped you first,” but resisted. However, I think it’s important to communicate that changing your mind about desire is not the same as eradicating a traumatic experience as if it had never happened, hence my objection to this particular reply. Second, although drama is not the same as real life, it certainly reflects it; fiction is created by people who are living real lives every minute that they are writing. Third, when did rape become an issue of political correctness? Are women supposed to tolerate rape and images of rape in silence because talking about it is uncomfortable for others?
I felt the responses I received on Twitter show how important it is to analyse what we see and say. @BanishedFans felt that I was criticising the quality of the acting on the show. I was not; I thought the acting was good. What I took issue with was the fact that audiences are expected to admire a character who commits extreme violence—physical, verbal and emotional—on a woman.
By constantly presenting violence against women as normal in television, cinema and advertising, we are not only enabling but encouraging younger generations of women to silently accept a value-system that makes this seem acceptable. Coincidentally but tellingly, around the same time Banished aired, a judge criticised Karen Buckley, who was raped, for “putting herself in a vulnerable position.” In other words, Buckley’s rape was her own fault.
The fictional ideal that, after being sexually assaulted or raped, women do, or should, substitute love for anger is insidious. Perhaps fully-formed adults can watch films or series like Fifty Shades of Grey, The Vampire Diaries and the television version of Game of Thrones without being negatively influenced. But generations of young or adolescent girls—and boys—are having their formative ideas and experiences of romance moulded by these images of sex and violence we leave dangerously unquestioned. Let’s banish these social norms and accept that “no” really does mean “no” in both our fictional world and the real one.
Phoebe C. Linton is currently in the third year of a PhD looking at female marginality and voice in Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur at the University of Edinburgh. She is also interested in medieval romance as a genre more widely, as well as neomedieval literature by authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson.