Some Thoughts on Switched At Birth Feb 3 2015

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers pertaining to last night’s (February 3rd) episode of ABC Family’s Switched at Birth.

TW: Sexual Assault

It’s rare that I get into the specifics of something happening on a television show, but I’m making an exception for last night’s episode of Switched at Birth, in part because I was pleasantly surprised by ABC Family’s willingness to tackle the issues it included.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by this show before: from actually having a character take the morning after pill in response to having had unprotected sex, to having a deaf, low-income character call her biological father out on his privilege, to its frequent discussions of deaf culture, gentrification, and other major issues, the writers behind this show have been doing some solid work.  But where it already isn’t common for shows targeting young people to take on sexual assault (with notable exceptions like Veronica Mars) , for ABC Family to air an entire episode focused on the issue of affirmative consent and drinking is, I think, an excellent sign.

At the end of last week’s episode, one of the show’s main characters, Bay, wakes up to find that she slept with her ex-~-but she was so drunk that she doesn’t remember it at all.  She has a boyfriend, and doesn’t believe she would have cheated on her him; and it’s not until her birth mom points out that it’s considered sexual assault that she begins to dig into the issue of whether or not she was even able to consent to what had happened the night before.  Over the course of the episode, she works to fill in the blanks, and slowly comes to the conclusion that she pushed her ex away when he initially made his move.

During their conversation, her ex states that “if [you] had said no at any point, [he] would have stopped”.  In response, Bay asks, “Did I say yes?”

Drunk consent is one of the trickiest areas to navigate regarding sexual assault-~-the legal standard is that once someone is drunk, they lose ability to consent.  The problem is, the line for “too drunk to consent” is sometimes a hard one to adjudicate; that said, there are some signs that the line has been crossed, and a lot of them were brought up in the show:

  • Person is too drunk to talk coherently
  • Person is too drunk to stand or walk without assistant
  • Person is passed out or near passed out
  • Person is relatively unresponsive
  • Person has clearly lost emotional control-~-belligerent, crying, etc.

Those lines may not appear written in the legal standards around this, but I think you get the gist of what I’m saying: there is a difference between having two drinks and being buzzed but still able to say no to things you do not want, and being so drunk you’re not even sure what is happening.

This is what brings us to one of the central issues of the episode: affirmative consent.  Feminists and, just generally, advocates of a world free of sexual violence, have been pushing for an affirmative model of consent-~-one that says “yes means yes”, as opposed to “no means no”.  People have complained about this standard-~-“what if they don’t say the WORD yes?”-~-but to be clear, there are multiple ways to indicate consent, and if it comes down to it, many advocates would be fine with people checking in with their partners and saying “are you sure this is what you want” if there is any possible cause for doubt, if that would lead to a world with less sexual assault.   When Bay asks, “Did I say yes?”, this is the  model of consent she is referring to, and it’s one that becomes even more important when you consider her intoxication.

The problem with “no means no” is this: it assumes the default is yes, and there are situations (like when individuals are drunk) wherein an individual may not feel able to say no.  It’s the risk that someone can’t voice their objections, or may not really understand what’s happening or what they’re doing, that laws around drunk consent are designed to guard against.  Enthusiastic consent is meant to be a solution to this problem as well: if someone is able to enthusiastically consent-~-that is to say, a continuous process in which both partners actively participate and both genuinely and freely want to participate.

Why all the bolding?  Because a “no means no” model means that people often fail to recognize rape and sexual assault, even when they encounter it, because there wasn’t a “no”.  Take for example the Steubenville rape case: many of the individuals at the party didn’t recognize what had happened as rape, even though the victim was passed out, because it didn’t meet the stranger in the bushes narrative, and she never said the word “no”.  But of course she never said the word “no”-~-she wasn’t even conscious to do so.  A model of enthusiastic consent, which is slowly becoming introduced as a legal standard, is an easy safeguard against that.

I would never tell anyone that they can’t drink, or that they can’t make decisions for themselves; but I would remind readers that they should be mindful of their own limits, and be respectful of their partners or potential partners, and look for that affirmative consent.  “Yes” is the only thing that means yes, and if you are unsure about where your partner might stand, or you are concerned about their having consumed alcohol, check in with them, respect their boundaries, and be mindful of their limitations.

If you have experienced unwanted sexual contact, or are a survivor of sexual assault, there are resources available.  You can contact RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) through their online hotline, locate your state hotline and resources here, or find your local rape crisis center here.


~ by Randi Saunders on February 4, 2015.

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