Today in Rape Culture

[Trigger warning.]

So, I've been watching Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew, which I suspected would by its very nature really be a show about surviving sexual assault, and, in fact, it is: Every one of the female patients has survived sexual assault, usually multiple incidents, as has the only gay male patient, Duncan.

There are also two straight male patients in the group, neither of whom have reported any sexual abuse.

In this weekend's episode, one of those two straight male patients, James, told one of the female patients, Jennifer, that he wanted to "rape the shit out of [her]." As the incident is discussed in group therapy, it's explained that it wasn't a threat, but an intended compliment. James explains he just wanted to "bring joy" to Jennifer.

Jennifer explains to him that he did not bring her joy, but caused her to feel anxious and scared for the entire day; she was shaking and couldn't eat. Some of the other women back her up by explaining, in no uncertain terms, that there's nothing "joyful" about rape. Later, in his room, James can do nothing but complain that he was being ganged up on, still mystified that saying he wanted to "rape the shit out of" Jennifer didn't bring her "joy."

That a young, privileged man who's never been sexually assaulted thinks rape is a compliment and is better at self-pity than empathy when called on his casual cruelty is hardly remarkable. What I did find remarkable, however (and not in a good way), was the reaction of the therapists during the group session.

Obviously, the scene is edited, so we can't know everything that has been said, but, given Duncan's reaction to (what seems to be) their lackadaisical response, it seems rather likely the response was just as insufficient as it appeared on the show:

Jennifer Ketcham (aka Penny Flame), Adult Entertainer: [choking back tears] I haven't allowed myself to feel anything in a long time, [deep breath] and the second that you said "rape," my head started turning, [deep breath] and it really fucked me up.

Jill Vermeire, Therapist: Mm-hmm.

Jennifer: If somebody tells you that they want to rape the shit out of you, it is crossing the line.

[James shakes his head. James is, btw, James Lovett, a professional surfer.]

Jill: I wanna say the reason you couldn't sit with it, and you were shaking, and you feel the way you feel, is because you really do wanna be better. [Jennifer is heard crying.] You really are here to get some help. You know, you wouldn't be feeling this way if you weren't ready. [Jennifer and Duncan dab at their eyes.] And I wanna say to James, too, and to everybody, you can't cross a boundary if one hasn't been set. So, you're setting the boundary, and you get to maintain it, and you get to now honor it, you know, so you have—it's our job to set our boundaries and hold our boundaries. There is none unless you have one.

Dr. Drew Pinsky, Internist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Keck USC School of Medicine: Duncan, you had a pretty powerful reaction to this thing—

Duncan Roy, Producer/Director: Well, I suppose I find it really hard to just, like, [makes sweeping gesture with hands]—well, that's that. And I think, you know, words do have a huge amount of power, "rape" being one of them, and especially with vulnerable girls, who are trying their damnedest to help themselves. And, you know, every single one of the women in here has, at some point—including myself—been in a situation where we've been at the mercy of men. And, as children, when we couldn't do anything about it. And for me, it's just like, it's all too easy to just brush it under the carpet. I'm sorry, but there you go. That's my feeling.

[The women nod in agreement; Duncan takes a deep breath.]

Dr. Drew: You're angry.

Duncan: I don't know. I care about her [gestures at Jennifer, who's sitting beside him] obviously, and it's that I don't want anything bad to happen to her, and I don't want to hear that somebody's said those things to her. You know, anybody. I can't bear it. [He shifts angrily in his seat and sighs emotionally.]

Jennifer: [her voice a squeak] Thank you, Duncan.

Duncan: Because she doesn't fucking deserve it, that's why.

Dr. Drew: None of you deserve the stuff that's happened—

[Nicole Narain gets up to give Jennifer a hug. Jennifer sobs gratefully.]
What irked the fuck out of me was Jill's assertion that "you can't cross a boundary if one hasn't been set" with regard to what James said to Jennifer—as if what he said wasn't a problem because Jennifer had never specifically said to him, "Please don't say you want to rape the shit out of me." As if Jennifer, who has already told the group that she is a survivor of multiple sexual assaults had the responsibility to communicate to James that she doesn't consider rape a compliment, rather than James having any responsibility for acknowledging the gravity of rape, even as he participates in a group including multiple survivors. As if there's some context in which saying he wants to "rape the shit out of" someone could be appropriate.

What makes the therapist's response even worse is that James is there as a sex addict himself. That he considers rape a compliment (no less a way of "bringing joy" to women) should be a huge red flag to the therapist that his respect, or lack of respect, for consent need to be explored. But instead of taking the opportunity to discuss consent with him at all, instead she effectively frames boundaries around rape jokes and threats as implicit consent unless someone tells you otherwise.

That's exactly the way opportunistic rapists view women—in a constant state of affirmative consent. Only someone who explicitly says "no" is off-limits (which is why incapacitated women are "fair game").

It's positively shocking to me that a therapist dealing with sex addicts would allow a teachable moment like that to pass, no less treat issues surrounding rape—even rape jokes and threats—as "our job to set our boundaries and hold our boundaries." That's certainly an important discussion for sex addicts (or any sexually active person) as regards involvement in consensual sexual activity, but in terms of sexual assault, it's precisely the wrong message.

Which is why Duncan jumped in to angrily protest that he could not accept how the situation was being handled, to explain why it's anathema to survivors to point out that the language of rape is a victimization all its own.

But why did it take one of the survivors in the group to reject the casual assertion that rape jokes and threats are fine until someone "sets a boundary" that they're not? I expect the promulgation of the rape culture in lots of spaces and from lots of people, but from a therapist whose expertise is sex addiction is not one of them. I've rarely seen such an egregious violation of a safe space—a sex addiction group therapy session in which a survivor was triggered by rape language, and the offender not only allowed to remain in the group after showing no remorse, but accommodated with an admonishment to the survivor to set firm boundaries.

This incident carries over into the next episode, and I'm very curious—and fearful—to see what happens next.

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