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Last Tuesday's “The Mindy Project” featured the first ever anal sex scene on broadcast TV. For a recap, we need look no further than the title, which doubled as her boyfriend Danny's explanation for attempting anal without permission: “I Slipped.” The episode was met with some backlash, which Kaling responded to at the New Yorker Festival saying she is disappointed that fans were offended and that it was "not an issue of sexual unsafety." Especially in light of the Affirmative Consent Laws spreading across the country, the whole thing raises some questions about what consent looks like on TV and what it should look like in real life.
Outside of the "Mindy" universe, there’s a heated argument about whether explicit consent is realistic. Some argued that it will ruin sex. The obvious counter is that good sex is consensual. And yet, as TV and film would have it, the kind of “Do you want to have sex now? Y/N?” question that the law requires is rarer than the flying unicorns Ron and Veronica ride when she clearly asks him to take her to “Pleasure Town” in "Anchorman." (Strangely enough, the other standout pop culture moment of this kind of verbal exchange is the “Rosemary’s Baby” scene, in which she declares, “Let’s make love.”)
Is that so awkward and unrealistic? If you're comfortable having sex, you should probably also be comfortable asking for permission. That said, we can’t reasonably expect TV and film to mirror this moral fact of how things ought to be IRL. The need for these laws derives from the persistence of rape culture, which does not necessarily persist in small screen universes. Also, obviously, TV cannot be so simply equated with real life. That means our best bet or, rather, our least awkward and unrealistic bet, is for scenes where both parties are clearly enthusiastic participants. If they’re not, the show is depicting rape or some version of it, and there are specific ways that should be handled.
Now, the “Mindy” scene did not include two enthusiastic participants. It was more like one enthusiastic participant and a very "startled" one (Kaling's word). In addressing the backlash, she said "I don't think that in the relationship that Mindy's reaction to it was 'I feel violated'; it was 'Hey man, run that by me!'" She could have provided a much stronger answer, but the basis of her defense is valid. She used the episode to address the nuances of consent within a relationship, and ultimately brought the couple to a place of communication by the end of the episode. If there was a lesson to “I Slipped” it was: “Let’s discuss all our sexy time stuff because that will make it better and sexier!” And that’s positive.
The takeaway here is that consent can be complex, even more so within a relationship. These issues of what constitutes rape often boil down to a mere smile or sigh on TV (as was most recently the case with the complex set of scenes on “The Affair”). And yet, while no one is asking showrunners to follow affirmative consent legislation, real life doesn't have the luxury of subtly. That’s where the backlash to the "Mindy" scene comes from. She’s a progressive role model and we hold her to the highest standard. But we can’t expect to learn how to conduct our sexy time via television. Although, if you're looking for a fictional example to use once the laws are passed, now would be a great time to add "Pleasure Town" to your vernacular.
Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca