Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Seeing Facts in a New Frame

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column this week, I discuss a program for rape prevention that challenges assumptions on both sides of the political spectrum. The left, on the whole, tends to assume that if we teach men how to read consent (and non-consent) in women, and if we teach men not to rape women, then fewer men will rape women. The right, by contrast, regards rape as a nearly inevitable consequence of the mismatch between male and female sexual desire coupled with men's inability to control themselves once they become aroused. Both ideologies appear to have led us astray due to flawed factual assumptions. In this post, I want to suggest that seeing facts differently can help us in related areas as well.

In the context of date rape, many of us have been focused on men as a group, attempting to educate the group in how to correctly understand and respect the wishes of women. We believed that date rape results from confusion about non-consent, and the solution to confusion is to educate the confused. Though we took this position on date rape, and though we recognized that date rape is "real rape" and just as traumatic as stranger assaults, I cannot imagine that we would have taken a similar position on the causes of stranger rape. Has anyone designed a curriculum for boys or men in which the instructor tells the students that they must refrain from grabbing strangers in dark alleys and compelling those strangers to have sex with them? By thinking of acquaintance rape as truly resembling stranger rape--rather than as inherent in maleness or in a failure of communication--we can actually help women protect themselves effectively from a crime that has for decades resisted efforts at reduction, as I discuss in my column.

In this post, I want to talk about a different (though related) sort of practice that has resisted change. Think of the "casting couch" and Harvey Weinstein. Seemingly everyone in the business knew about Weinstein's depredations, but they continued unabated. Then victims began to speak publicly about it, and dominoes started to fall. Producing films had previously meant sexual access to movie stars, but perhaps that reality would now change more broadly. What many had understood to be a producer's "perk" of sorts had evolved in the public consciousness into sexual harassment and sexual assault. Here I aim to discuss a different sort of problematic sexual conduct, of a type that people continue to regard as perfectly acceptable. Indeed, I am somewhat reluctant to even characterize the conduct in question as comparable to sexual harassment.
The conduct of which I speak is sexual interaction between actors in a film, on set. I am not talking about pornography here. I mean to refer to standard love scenes between the characters (and therefore the actors) in a movie. In such scenes, the actors typically have to make out with each other and potentially remove each other's clothes, grope each other, and lie on top of each other while kissing and touching. Let us consider this behavior, ordered by the director or screenwriter or producer.

Note that we tend to have an "acting" exception to many of the rules we normally observe. Two actors might be married to other people, but they can engage in open-mouth kissing and other physical intimacy with each other without the behavior "counting" as cheating on their respective spouses. If, on the other hand, the same two people were to make out and run their hands over each other's bodies during a break, their spouses would likely be less tolerant. In movies, moreover, actors may use racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious slurs. If the same actors were off set and talking about someone who used such slurs, they would be violating a norm if they actually used the slurs themselves, even if they were merely repeating what someone else said.

I bring up these examples to place things in context. We regularly exempt actors on set from social rules. Yet participants must generally engage in "method acting," which requires them to project (and probably feel) the emotions that their characters would feel in the situation. Sex scenes and the sexual tension that precedes them must therefore convince the viewer that the characters (and thus the actors) are truly attracted to each other. Yet actors may not get into trouble with their real-life partners for on screen sexual liaisons. Perhaps it is for similar reasons that the directors, screenwriters, and producers may essentially order actors to tongue-kiss and touch each other in a nude or semi-nude state without anyone considering the directors, et al. to be sexual harassers or sexual assailants.

What could I be suggesting? Am I really saying that sex scenes in the movies are a type of sexual harassment? Don't actors necessarily agree to be part of such scenes when they audition to be in the movies? Aren't other actors desperately wishing for the opportunity to be in a movie in which they too would have to remove some of their clothing and make out with and touch another actor?

One could say every one of these things about the casting couch. There was a time when actors understood that part of the deal was having sex with the producer. Less successful actors would have described complaints about the couch as precious, given their desperation for a part at whatever cost. In both sorts of situations, someone with the power to decide whether an actor gets to be/remain in the film tells the actor that, as a condition of employment, she must expose part of her naked body and engage in sexual foreplay. The main differences are that (a) in the film, the other person in the sexual interaction is another actor rather than the producer/director himself, and (b) the consumer in the film is the moviegoer rather than the producer/director. Should these two differences matter?

One column that I wrote decades ago continues to inspire readers to send me their views. The column suggested that prostitution and pornography are essentially the same thing. Someone is paying someone else to have sex. In one case, the payee has sex with the payor for the payor's gratification. In the other case, the payee has sex with a third party in front of a camera, for the viewer's gratification. Because the two are the same, I proposed, it is odd that one is criminal in virtually all of the United States, while the other finds protection in the First Amendment free speech right.

We confront a similar set of facts in the case of sex scenes in film. If the producer tells an actor that she must take off her clothes or otherwise gratify him as a condition of employment, he is engaged in sexual harassment. If, on the other hand, the director tells her to do the same thing--but with feeling--to her colleague on set, we find nothing wrong with what he has done. All is permissible in the service of the art.

I admit that I am reluctant to see the implications of this idea through to their logical conclusion. I expect that many movies would be a lot less powerful, convincing, and interesting if we removed all of the sex scenes. Or maybe not? It is difficult to know what the impact would be. I do wonder, though, whether actors sometimes wish that they did not have to stick their tongues in the mouths of other actors or tolerate other actors running their hands over their bodies or removing their clothing for the camera. Is it possible, at least, that those wishes resemble the wishes of sexual harassment victims who would have liked to avoid the casting couch? Maybe actors can tell us whether the feeling is similar. The one distinction that, unbidden, leaps to my mind is the fact that movie stars are ordinarily gorgeous. Directors and producers, not so much. It is sexual harassment only if the behavior is unwelcome. Could actors' attractiveness explain why we are unlikely to see a challenge to onscreen sex scenes any time soon? If so, it is a pity, because the director or producer who gets in the habit of ordering people to disrobe and engage in sexual behavior with each other may have a difficult time quitting this conduct after hours.


David Ricardo said...

Sexual assault by humans has been an issue since the dawn of man. Without wanting to seem Pollyannish the good news is that we are resolving the issue, far too slowly and no where near final resolution, but the direction of the social fabric in America with respect to assualt by men on women is moving in the right direction.

I would point to this article today in the LA Times

about how the film industry is starting to deal with one part of the problem.

So the hope is that individuals like Ms. Colb will continue to use the Forums they have to keep the nation moving to the point where the issue is totally resolved and every woman can feel safe and secure with respect to any kind of assualt.

Joe said...

"Without wanting to seem Pollyannish"

Not an adjective I would usually apply to DR.

I understand the linking up of pornography and prostitution, but pornography is visual speech so has more First Amendment aspects. It is conduct too in visual form so it isn't pure speech. But, it is more speech than prostitution itself. I think prostitution is a form of intimate association so still think there is First Amendment overlap of some kind. As to the concerns of mistreatment while filming, there likely is a big issue there but I'm wary of supporting the basic definition proposed.

I would more likely suggest it is in basic danger of having problems which fits it with other things that have a certain inherently exploitative character in some sense. For instance, it is noted by some that various jobs for many people are more horrible than selling sex for money. Such jobs -- such as various horrible factory jobs in food production -- are constant OSHA violations at least. Among other things.

I too concur with the last sentence and welcome a new year of Colb's commentary and her openness to talk about these subjects bluntly.

DAngler said...

I had never thought about the coercive possibilities when a director instructs an actor or actress to participate in a sex scene. Even the act of tongue kissing has to be objectionable to many actors/actresses. No question Ms. Colb has raised serious ethics questions. Hope we see more dialogue along these lines.

Greg said...

Two major issues with sexual harassment involve disclosure and power. The harasser never discloses the sexual expectations, which leaves the victim powerless against the disproportionate institutional power that the harasser abuses.

In the case of actors working in a sex scene, my perhaps naive expectation would be that the content of a sex scene would be disclosed well in advance of accepting the part, and of course would also be in some measure disclosed to the audience after the fact. Excepting reasonable privacy issues, nothing is a secret that is being kept to protect the powerful, and the actors should understand the expectations going in.

In addition, my understanding is that at least successful actors have detailed contracts that disclose exactly what sexual acts they are and aren't willing to perform under what circumstances, and that these are at least in some measure taken seriously. While this doesn't completely remove the power imbalance between the director/producer and the actors, when these contracts are involved it does at least establish a level of considered consent that goes far beyond what even most consensual sexual encounters contain in social situations.

Ultimately, this concept of considered consent is key. We as a society allow certain breaches of generalized social norms in many circumstances where that breach is relevant to the job to be performed. To use an example from the film industry, we allow discrimination on the basis of gender or ethnicity for selecting acting roles where it is relevant to the part. For the time being, I would say the same breaching of general social norms is used in allowing actors to participate in sex scenes, so long as they are consensual between the actors and the others involved in producing the film.

All of the above said, I think it's important to question the trade-offs we're making when we allow these breaches of social norms in the way that Prof. Colb is doing, so that we can continue to reevaluate if the benefits outweigh the risks.

As an aside, while I think Prof. Colb is using the views of spouses as a proxy for our larger societal expectation, it's important to point out that spousal consent is ultimately irrelevant to whether an actor is being exploited. What matters is the relationship between the actor and the others involved in production of the film. That said, many actors choose to avoid sexual roles due to their spouse's concerns.

Shag from Brookline said...

Non-fiction and fiction literature may include sexual harassment/assault as integral parts of stories presented. When films are made of such works, should such sexual harassment/assault be in some manner censored while the underlying literature cannot be censored? To what extent in film might presenting such sexual harassment/assault in such literature constitute sexual harassment/assault on the actors? The film may be addressed to a diverse audience, including some familiar with the literature on which it is based. What should an audience expect from such a film? Reality? Subtlety? [Note: This isn't about porn films.]