Originally published on AlterNet and republished here with the author’s permission.
Pop culture often promotes some lousy ideas about consent.
Persistence and not taking no for an answer are portrayed as romantic. Rape and sexual assault are excused because the victim “wanted it.” Lying and manipulating people into bed, and having sex with people too drunk to consent, are offered as light, prime-time humor. Rape victims stay friends and lovers with their rapists, with rape being trivialized and even denied.
But pop culture does have its moments. Whether it’s because the creators were thinking consciously about consent or simply had good values, here are five times pop culture got consent right.
(Spoilers for Steven Universe, Thelma and Louise, Frozen, The Philadelphia Story, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
1. Steven and Connie, Steven Universe
In “Alone Together,” Steven and Connie fuse (a magical process where two beings fuse into one, usually temporarily). And when they fuse into Stevonnie, they do something rarely seen in pop culture.
They don’t just check in at the beginning of their encounter. They continue to check in.
The fusion is a surprise to them both – to everyone, in fact, since nobody had imagined it would be physically possible. It’s both fun and scary, exciting and disconcerting. And after they’ve been playing with their new body for a while (running, swimming, and eating doughnuts – yeah, that sounds about right), they touch base: “Are you okay? We can stop if you… No. Don’t worry.”
When it starts getting seriously uncomfortable, they check in again, talk through how they’re feeling, and when a stranger intrudes on them and things get even scarier, they break off the fusion. It’s an amazing example of ongoing, active consent.
Too often, our culture assumes that when you’ve consented to something once, you’ve consented to it forever. But that’s crap. It’s always important to get clear consent, and we always have the right to say no, to people we’ve said yes to before, to experiences we’ve said yes to before, at any time.
We have the right to change our minds, and to stop doing things we aren’t enjoying.
And with new partners, new experiences, or both, it’s a really good idea to periodically check in and make sure everyone’s still happy.
Steven and Connie – Stevonnie – clearly followed the advice of Garnet, Steven’s mentor and mother figure, when she finds out they’ve fused: “You are an experience. Make sure you’re a good experience.”
2. Thelma and JD, Thelma and Louise
There’s a moment in Thelma and Louise, when Thelma and JD (Geena Davis and Brad Pitt) are starting to have sex. They’ve been having a grand time together in her motel room, giggling and romping, horsing around and making out.
But when he moves things forward, gently sliding her onto her back and kissing her belly, Thelma suddenly stops and says, “Wait. Wait.” And JD immediately takes his mouth off her, takes his hands off her, backs away from her, and waits. He says nothing, does nothing, until she reaches out to him to show she’s ready to start again.
It’s one of the hottest, sexiest moments in the history of pop culture sex. It’s a moment that lets her know she can go ahead with the wild romping, because nothing will happen that she doesn’t want.
Being careful about getting consent is often seen as an unsexy buzzkill. It’s a baffling idea for a lot of reasons, including all the ways that clear consent makes sex better. It makes people feel more open, more relaxed, more trusting, more comfortable in their skin, more willing to try freaky new things. That’s not the most important reason for it, of course – not raping people is the most important reason – but it’s one reason, and it’s real.
3. Anna and Kristoff, Frozen
“I could kiss you! I could. I mean, I’d like to. I. May I? We me? I mean, may we? Wait, what?” (Smile.) “We may.”
Hell yes. Ask before you kiss someone. (Or touch them, or dance with them, or hug them.) It’s a frustratingly common trope in pop culture that impulsively grabbing someone and kissing them is romantic, a sign of true love and passion. But it’s a lousy model for consent, especially with someone you’ve never kissed before.
If you know someone well and have kissed them a lot, you can probably read their body language pretty well, but if you just grab someone you’ve never kissed before, you’re not giving them room to say “No,” or “Maybe,” or “Not now but maybe later,” or “Can I think about it?” You’re forcing them into a position where they have to decide right that second, while your lips are on their body.
If you’re thinking that asking first is awkward, unsexy, clinical, or unromantic, ask yourself, why is that?
Why does our culture think it’s weird to talk about physical intimacy and make sure it’s consented to? Why is it seen as graceful, sexy, passionate, and romantic to grab someone and kiss them when you aren’t sure they’d like it?
Asking before a kiss can be sweet, intense, and a great way to show that you care about the other person’s pleasure. This kiss in Frozen is a beautiful example.
4. Oz and Willow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
There are lots of things to like about Oz and Willow’s sexual courtship. It’s moved forward by both of them, with each initiating intimacy at different times. It breaks with gender stereotypes by having Willow be the one who’s generally more eager for kissing and sex, and Oz being the one who wants to take things slow.
But one of the best things about their courtship is that it’s so verbal. When Willow makes her first pass at him (in “Innocence”), she says, “Do you want to make out with me? They have a conversation about how he’s interested, but doesn’t want to just yet.
When she wants to let him know she’s ready and eager for sex (“Amends”), she uses non-verbal cues, but they also talk about it: He lets her know he’s interested, but isn’t ready, and while she’s disappointed, she respects his decision. They even have a hilarious meta-conversation (in “Surprise”) before they start dating, in which they discuss the fact that he’s going to ask her out.
Their relationship does look different when you know that Willow is a lesbian (or possibly bisexual). Their breakup is a disaster, of course. And Oz does lose a few points for his one use of the Impulsive Grab-and-Kiss in Graduation Day, Part 1 (see #3 above).
But even then, they talk (briefly) about what they’re doing before they move forward. And they’d been dating for a while at that point, and she’d made her interest in him clear, so it’s not unreasonable to think he was able to read her body language. Their courtship isn’t perfect, but I’m going to give it a solid eight points out of ten.
5. Tracy and Mike, The Philadelphia Story
Even in 1940, some movie writers were getting it right.
In this classic romantic comedy, Tracy (Katharine Hepburn) is confused and uncertain about her impending wedding to George, and gets very drunk with Mike (Jimmy Stewart). They go for a nighttime swim, kiss twice, and he puts her to bed and leaves her there. Alone.
Afterward, when Tracy asks him why nothing happened between them (“Why? Was I so unattractive, so distant, so forbidding?”)
He replies, “You were extremely attractive, and as for distant and forbidding, on the contrary. But you also were a little the worse – or the better – for wine, and there are rules about that.”
Even in 1940, people knew that. You don’t have sex with people who are so drunk that their judgment is seriously impaired. You certainly don’t have sex with people who are barely conscious. It’s sad that more than 75 years later, this should still be controversial.
I’m not going to call this heroic. Not being a rapist isn’t heroic; it’s a baseline for decent behavior. But it is a good model of consent.
And importantly, Mike doesn’t shame Tracy for getting drunk, or for getting wild and loose. He describes their escapade as one “which I thoroughly enjoyed, and the memory of which I wouldn’t part with for anything.”
Dishonorable Mention: Xander, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
When good models of pop culture consent are discussed, Xander Harris’ name often comes up. After all, in the “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” episode, when Buffy is under a love spell and comes on to him, he refuses her, even though he’s had an intense, unrequited crush on her for some time.
But this overlooks two things. One: The entire reason Buffy was supernaturally hot for Xander was that he’s the one who did the love spell, a spell on Cordelia that misfired. Casting a love spell – forcing someone to desire you against their wishes – isn’t exactly a model of great consent.
Casting a love spell, and then refusing the sex that’s offered as a result, is like putting roofies in someone’s drink and then changing your mind at the last minute. In this case, it’s like putting roofies in someone’s drink and then changing your mind because the wrong person drank it.
When Buffy rejected him, he reacted by getting hostile and sex-shaming her about Angel, the guy she really likes. Long after Buffy rejected him, he continued to hit on her and sex-shame her about sleeping with Angel.
He held a grudge for years against Angel, and even neglected to give Buffy crucial information that might have helped her save his life. And he complained for years about how Buffy only liked bad boys instead of nice guys like him, and took it upon himself more than once to critique her choices in men.
You may have noticed that in some of these examples, the encounter ends with no encounter. No sex, no kiss. Being careful about consent sometimes means not having sex you might otherwise have had. Think for a moment about what that implies. When you’re not careful about consent, you’re taking a real chance that some of the sex you’re having isn’t consensual.
I’m going to assume that nobody reading this wants that. If that’s true, a good way to start is to pay attention to what your culture has taught you about consent and think about which messages you want to burn in a fire, and which ones you want to embrace.