While I was listening to an internet radio station at my desk a couple months ago, an ad came on, between songs, for the second season of the ABC series American Crime. I mentally tuned it out -- until I heard a character frantically exclaim "My son was raped!"
I stopped what I was doing and texted my colleagues: "Have any of you heard about this show?"
I have been a victim advocate for the better part of 15 years, currently working at a small non-profit in the Midwest. I provide free, confidential support to survivors of sexual violence who want help navigating their trauma recovery: a path that can be circuitous, complicated and full of frustrating double backs.
I also watch a lot of TV. And I've become unfortunately inured to sexual assault being used by shows as a well-tread, sometimes crass, plot device: rarely speaking to the true depth of survivors' experiences. My optimism for American Crime, then, was beyond-cautious.
American Crime's creator, Academy Award-winner John Ridley, uses an anthology format for the series, a la American Horror Story. Members of the first-season cast, including Timothy Hutton, Regina King, and Lili Taylor, have returned in different roles. The central crime is different, too: "It's like Steubenville," a friend told me, "But with a boy."
Well, kind of. American Crime does draw some inspiration from the Steubenville, Ohio rape case, in which an incapacitated teenage girl was repeatedly sexually assaulted while other students took videos and photos, later passed around on social media.
American Crime's victim is Taylor (Connor Jessup), a scholarship student at a prestigious private high school who is suspended after pictures of him from a party -- drunk, barely conscious, and partially undressed -- show up online. But Taylor claims he wasn't just humiliated by his classmates: He was raped. And the accused perpetrator, Eric (Joey Pollari), is co-captain of the basketball team. What's more, it's revealed that the encounter started as a consensual hook-up.
I spent the first half of the season bracing myself for the ways in which American Crime, with all those layers of complexity, could spectacularly miss its mark. Instead, I have been surprised to find, each week, a consistently shrewd window on some little-acknowledged aspects of our society's relationship to sexual violence.
Here are three ways American Crime keeps things real:
1. Male survivors not only exist, they face familiar challenges, too.
It is unprecedented to see the story of a young, male survivor of sexual assault brought into such sharp focus on a network television series. That American Crime reflects and validates the experiences of real-life male survivors is only part of why this is remarkable, though.
American Crime looks at the dynamics that result when rigid stereotypes about sexual violence collide with rigid stereotypes about masculinity. For example, Taylor is initially reluctant to characterize what happened to him as rape because, unlike women and girls, he has not been socially primed to think of himself as a potential victim.
However, Taylor also, overwhelmingly, encounters the same hurdles as female survivors. He is scolded for using alcohol and blamed for "putting himself in a dangerous situation" . He is called a "whore", and told that what he views as a violation is really only morning-after regret.
American Crime tips its hand with these subtle parallels. It isn't using Taylor to shift attention from women's stories; it's expanding the lens through which we understand the impact of sexual violence.
2. Every option available to survivors is imperfect.
Just as victims often face criticism for what they did and didn't do leading up to an assault, they can also face scrutiny for when, how, and where they decide to seek help after the fact. In American Crime, Taylor is second-guessed each step of the way: Why did he wait so long to disclose? Why did his mom approach the school administrators first instead of going to the police? Doesn't a civil suit make Taylor seem greedy?
There are really no "correct" choices for survivors, because sexual violence doesn't happen in a vacuum. Each individual's needs are unique and informed by personal, cultural, and historical factors. And even options widely understood to represent a sort of "neutral good" -- like counseling sessions with a therapist, or a sexual assault forensic exam -- are shown to take an emotional toll.
Like many survivors, Taylor struggles with feelings of isolation and confusion as he tries to square the competing agendas of different systems and his own ideas about what is useful. Here, American Crime relates another surprisingly common sentiment of victims. While legal remedies may satisfy the community's need for justice, what Taylor wants is less ceremonious, but harder to come by. He is seeking simple recognition of his ordeal: acknowledgement - from Eric, from the school, from other students and their parents, from the police and the media -- that what happened to him was wrong.
3. The current lack of support for LGBTQ youth can cause profound harm.
But what does that have to do with sexual assault? American Crime follows this thread with exceptional clarity.
Taylor, who says he is "figuring things out," has been involved with male and female peers. Eric identifies as gay, but, until publicly forced out, is kept closeted by his family's religious conservatism and the homophobia of his team and schoolmates. Both are ill-equipped to navigate issues related to consent and relationships: offered no role models, and no meaningful template for how to balance boundaries and desires, by a society that shutters their realities. They are pushed to the margins, and made to fumble through relationships in secret.
Eric is strong-armed into the role of "trailblazing gay athlete" by school administrators trying to mitigate their PR nightmare. Taylor is cast, by the same, as pathetic, desperate, and disturbed. In truth, we see that Taylor is just an incredibly normal, incredibly vulnerable kid. And so is Eric.
This is one more instance of American Crime looking upstream and inviting nuance instead of giving viewers an easy-to-hate villain in Eric. Because, while he is ultimately responsible for his actions, it's also not hard to see the line from his aggressive, misogynistic, hyper-masculine posturing , as he grapples with the terror of rejection by family and peers, to his offense against Taylor. Moreover, Eric's own, eventual victimization (he is brutally attacked during an encounter with an older man in whom Eric, painfully alienated from his parents, brother, and former friends, tries to confide) is not gleefully portrayed as "just desserts". Instead, we understand it as the other, equally terrible side of the same coin.
The season's seventh episode pivots on another act of violence: one that might be described as "shocking". But the foundation American Crime has so carefully laid makes it register as almost tragically inevitable. Viewers, are reminded of our shared responsibility to ensure that this doesn't have to be a foregone conclusion. We are called to challenge the attitudes, behaviors and beliefs that both set the stage for sexual violence, and keep victims -- like Taylor, like Eric, and like the survivors I see every day -- from knowing relief.