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.