It is imperative that society holds television shows and films accountable for the way they—as influential media outlets—portray sex. The way that sex is portrayed in mainstream media can, and will, affect the way young women view themselves and the way they believe they should be treated in sexual scenarios.
While it is important that media content depicts a healthy sex life to its audience, it can also be helpful to highlight the opposite. This can only be effective, however, if the content is clearly and skillfully created with the intention of making individuals aware that certain behaviors are unacceptable.
This issue was recently brought to the public eye when the HBO series “Girls,” starring Lena Dunham, received criticism for a sex scene featured in the ninth episode of the second season. In one scene, Adam Driver’s character forcibly has sex with his new girlfriend, played by guest star Shiri Appleby, after she clearly says, “No.”
Joe Flint of the Los Angeles Times said that the episode was, “graphic even for those fans used to seeing creator and star Lena Dunham's no-holds-barred approach to story-telling.” Further, he said that it was a “jarring end to a violent and hard-to-watch scene. Even theatrical movies with sexually explicit material and adult pay-per-view channels typically steer clear of such displays.”
The violent sex scene played without warning to viewers, which could have been a trigger for any sexual assault and rape victims who were watching. In addition, the show failed to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and did not discuss why the character’s actions were not only unacceptable, but also criminal.
In the process of the “Girls” creators defending this scene, their responses made the situation worse and highlighted their ignorance. “Girls” executive producer Jenni Konner responded to criticism of the scene by saying, “To me, that was a fully consensual bummer of a sex scene.”
In addition, Dunham commented on accusations that the scene portrayed rape and said, "Oh, I've been raped, and that's not what it feels like … That scene was very much based on an interaction I had with someone whom I continued to feel very loving feelings toward for a long time after that, because human sexuality is so complicated."
Not only are Konner and Dunham’s responses insulting on many fronts, but they are also blatantly ignorant of what makes sex consensual. Dunham also manages to pigeonhole all experiences of sexual assault to the way she felt, ignoring the fact that every individual responds to traumatic experiences differently.
The way “Girls” handled the portrayal of a sexual encounter—as well as the creator’s response to a scene that clearly depicts sexual assault—is unacceptable. If the media continue to be lenient when clarifying issues of consent, it will affect the way society views these things as well.
It is important that individuals understand that the type of sex portrayed in that scene is unacceptable. The fact that “Girls” is unwilling to own up to this makes the need for a higher media standard even more immediate.