Monday, May 20, 2013

Mad Men, Scandal, and Sexual Coercion

Last night's Mad Men was thoroughly entertaining in its kookiness, from Kenny Cosgrove's tap dancing (More Kenny please!) to Stan's drug-induced mania. But there was definitely a lot of darkness; more darkness than you see in an average Mad Men episode, which says a lot for "The Crash."

We find out that Don was beaten by his mother with a wooden spoon and told to sleep in the basement once he got sick. We also find out that a prostitute who once comforted him and brought him back to health sexually abused him. I know that viewers get tired of examining Don's neuroses, and I'm one of them, but I think this flashback made sense in the context of his recent behavior with Sylvia. Don has a hard time engaging in sex without playing a dominant or submissive role. The element of power has to be there. It hardly ever seems to center on mutual satisfaction or love.

In past episodes, Don hired a woman to slap him during sex. in the context of his abuse, that scene looks much different to me. His strange choice of words with Sylvia, and his desire to dominate her and have her confirm the idea that she only exists for his pleasure, has a whole new meaning. I'm not a psychologist and I can't pretend to know how often victims of sexual abuse bring issues of power and control into their relationships and I'm not claiming that all victims have emotionally broken relationships with their S.O.s as Don does. But I do know from interviews with psychologists, that past sexual abuse in one's childhood can have a significant effect on current adult relationships.

What disturbs me most about "The Crash" recaps I have read so far, is that none of these articles explore Don's sexual abuse by the prostitute. What happened to him is called "sex."

I don't know how old Don is supposed to be in that episode. I do know the audience would have received the scene differently if a man in his 20s or older nursed a teenage girl back to health, convincing her she was in safe, loving arms, far from her abusive father, and then proceeded to grope her as she lay stiffly in bed, barely registering what was happening to her. It would have been read as rape, or at worst, just plain immoral and wrong.

But he's a teenage boy, and she's an attractive blonde with ample breasts. Viewers assume he wanted to have sex with her, despite her creepy words (paraphrasing slightly) "That's okay. You don't have to do anything. I'll do the rest." Two adults enthusiastically consenting and actively pursuing the other is definition of sex, not a young boy laying on a bed while an adult woman touches him.

Scandal also dealt with sexual coercion in its own way. In one scene, a drunk President Fitzgerald Grant took a shower. His wife, Mellie, entered the shower and began to give him a blow job. Fitz continued to tell her to stop but she didn't listen. He eventually gave up.

This is not what people are trained to think of when they imagine rape. People are taught that rape victims are always women and perpetrators are always men. People are taught that force must be used, or that a perpetrator must threaten the victim with a weapon. Rape between husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend is still difficult for some people to comprehend. It is even harder for some individuals to understand rape between boyfriend and boyfriend, girlfriend and girlfriend, husband and husband and wife and wife.

That is why the Fitz shower scene was received with about the same indifference as Don's scene with the prostitute. Men love sex. Men love blow jobs. How could these men have been raped?

We need to think differently about men and the way men can be coerced into sexual acts. We need to question assumptions about how men view sex. We need to reinforce the idea that a man can say "No" and really mean it.

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