Is Televised Rape Muting The Reality?

As I was watching the most recent season of Orange is the New Black, it was not the nudity or the bed bugs epidemic that made me look away.

I could not force myself to watch as Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett got raped (twice).

The shock of the rape's occurrence, and the tight camera angle on Doggett's face that exposed everything she was feeling brought me to tears.

When the screen turned orange and the episode was over, I sat in silence processing my reactions.

Was it necessary for the writers to show Charlie Coates, one of the new guards at the prison, rape Doggett?

Did the event in any way impact how I feel and react to sexual assault in real life?

Orange is the New Black is far from the only show that has explored this topic.

Although varying in terms of premise, geographic location, and time period, shows like Game of Thrones, Scandal, Mad Men, The Americans, Downton Abbey, and House of Cards have at one time or another turned one of their female characters into a surviving rape victim.

So, the prevalence of televised rape cannot be ignored.

What can and should be questioned however is whether or not the premise of showing rape on television should be allowed.

Some will argue that it is important for television shows to explore the issue because it forces viewers to confront the reality of sexual assault and witness the permanent pain and damage that such a horrific act causes.

This argument starts to fall apart however when you break down how television shows today actually approach sexual assault.

For the most part, the rape scenes that we watch on TV follow a disturbingly similar pattern. Writers take one of their main female characters, have them raped by a respected member of the cast that viewers all know, and leave out most of the woman's recovery process.

There is no restitution. No law enforcement. No payback.

In Scandal for example, Mellie, who was raped by her father-in-law, suffers in silence, afraid of what sharing her story of survival would do to her marriage and her husband's political career. Instead of taking legal action, Mellie turns her experience into a bargaining chip that she uses as leverage to help her husband's presidential campaign. Even when she does reveal her deeply rooted scars, Mellie's recovery process is guided away from judicial action.

Mellie's survivor story of rape like others (specifically Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones) is used to explain why her character is the way she is. Her rape is simply added to her laundry list of character traits, and is not treated with the seriousness and attention it deserves.

Introducing rape scenes as a strategic ploy, rather than mirroring for the audience how a case of sexual assault should actually be handled, detracts from the initial reasons for putting the scene on television; instead of igniting a desire for change, rape scenes like Mellie's, Cersei's, Joan's, Elizabeth's, Anna Bates', and Claire's simply evoke sympathy from the audience and provide further backstory into a character's development.

Televised rape does not treat sexual assault with the due diligence that we expect of ourselves in real life.

Since the prominence of rape cannot be ignored, does showing a misrepresented version of rape on television suggest that rape is just a part of our current culture that we must accept?

The unfortunate reality is that to some, sexual assault is still seen as a women's issue that survivors neglect to speak up on.

This is about trying to unpack what role television has in propagating our current stigmas toward the issue.

I believe that distorting the experience of rape on television, in which the recovery process is short-shrifted and legal action is discouraged, has had a deeply devastating impact on the support system of rape victims.

As the audience watches the characters around the rape victim downplay her experience and convince her not to take legal action, such unfortunate practices have the potential to become accepted norms in real life.

Meaning, the act of watching these scenes, in which the viewer is helpless to rectify the situation, has the ability to desensitize us to the presence of rape and our reaction to it.

We basically have digitized the Kitty Genovese tragedy.

Although credit must be awarded to all those who are trying to combat negligence in bystanders of sexual assault and enhance rape prevention, we cannot ignore how rape bombards the story lines of most of the top-rated dramas.

This is not about the legal and educational systems, and their inadequate ways of handling the issue.

This is not about unpacking why sexual assault cases continue to be a national issue.

This is about highlighting the holes that exist in a survivor's support network.

This is about acknowledging that the accepted norm for those who are indirectly affected by sexual assault cases choose to disassociate and suppress the problem, and how I believe this reality is generated from what we watch on television.

This is about recognizing that after the scene is over and the screen goes dark, only your reflection stares back at you.