Men can be raped too, and Bridgerton could have amplified that problem instead of contributing to it.
*Warning: Spoilers and description of sexual assault ahead.*
Like many, I looked forward to the release of Shondaland’s Bridgerton, a 19th-century romance set in London, on Netflix. The show is richly beautiful and clever, a welcome break from a year that can’t be over fast enough.
I was enjoying the show immensely until…
…I watched a character I’d grown to adore be raped and then…it not be addressed whatsoever.
Actually, I watched the rapist then get mad at the person they’d raped and feel justified. It gets worse.
It was the rape of a black person BY a white person.
For a person of color to be violated and then…have it not be addressed at all in a show created by Shonda Rhimes, a frontrunner for diversity and equality, feels like a gross and egregious error.
But, then again, maybe the way this rape was glossed over isn’t all that different from how our society in general responds to “these kinds” of rapes. Regardless, Bridgerton could have amplified the problem instead of contributing to it.
For the sake of our inquiry, let’s settle on a definition of rape.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “unlawful sexual activity…carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person’s will or with a person…incapable of valid consent because of mental illness, mental deficiency, intoxication, unconsciousness, or deception.”
Let’s focus on the words: “sexual activity,” “forcibly,” and “incapable of valid consent.”
Rape is still very gendered. Women are primarily the victims of male rapists, though men can and are victims as well of both men and women. The viewpoint that women are primarily the victims is so prevalent that men have been dubbed “silent victims,” yet approximately 1 out of every 10 rape victims is male.
The rape in Bridgerton is further complicated because it’s done 1.) by a woman on a man and 2.) by a wife on her husband (marital rape wasn’t considered a crime in all 50 states until 1993.).
But let me be clear.
Despite these complications, a rape does occur in Bridgerton.
During the debut season in Regency-era London, the young beautiful Daphne Bridgerton makes a mutually beneficial agreement with the extremely eligible bachelor, Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings.
Their “ruse” is to seem as if they are courting.
Simon, who never wants to marry, surmises that marriage-hungry ladies will quit hassling him if he makes a show of courting someone. Daphne also hopes to achieve a promising match if she is courted openly by a man of high rank.
They convince everyone of their affections, but their play at love, of course, ends with their fall in love.
After Simon and Daphne marry, Daphne has absolutely no sexual knowledge. Her mother, out of embarrassment, actually declines to give her any bedroom advice before her wedding night.
With her cluelessness, Daphne takes all of her sexual cues from Simon, her new husband, whom she proceeds to have lots of sex with.
Simon keeps saying he “can’t” have children, though in reality, he “won’t.”He wants his name and title to die along with the memory of his abusive father, so he has vowed to sire no children. During sex, the Duke employs “the withdrawal method” by always pulling out.
Daphne figures out that this isn’t quite normal and eventually pulls the truth of conception out of her maid.
Afterward, Daphne decides to take control. She positions herself on top the next time they have sex. When her husband realizes his predicament right before he orgasms, he cries out. “Wait….Wait,” he says.
“Daphne,” he then begs.
Daphne ignores him and continues until she achieves her goal (of getting him to orgasm without pulling out).
Then the narrative shifts, not to the fact that a person begged the other to “wait” during the sex act and the other continued heedlessly, but to Daphne’s anger at Simon’s deception that he was unable vs. unwilling to have children.
“How could you?” Simon asks.
“How could I?” Daphne retorts.
It’s hard to ignore how many might see this act: Daphne and Simon are married. How can one “rape” a man? It had started as consensual, but had it really stopped being so?
Let’s reverse it.
A woman is having sex with her husband. She tells him to “wait” or “stop” when she realizes he’s about to orgasm because she’s certain it’ll lead to conception. He blatantly ignores her requests and continues.
Would that seem more “rape-y,” or is it still problematic because they’re married?
What if the man was a stranger or a one-night stand? Would that make it clearer that the only way to respond to someone saying “wait” during sex should be to…wait? Would that make it clearer that the only way to respond to someone saying “wait” during sex should be to…wait?
In The Duke and I, the first book of the Bridgerton series which this season is an adaptation of, this scene is even more clearly nonconsensual (taken from here):
“Daphne had aroused him in his sleep, taken advantage of him while he was still slightly intoxicated, and held him to her while he poured his seed into her.”
The fact that Chris Van Dusen (former writer for Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal) who adapted the book to the show, rewrote the scene to be lessrapey (while still being rapey) is very telling.
Bridgerton handles the Duke’s rape as poorly as the rest of society responds to the rapes of men.
As soon as Daphne commits the act, the narrative focuses entirely on Simon’s initial betrayal (not telling her he “won’t” vs. “can’t” have children).He feels guilty for his deception and she is insistent that he must get her forgive him. Simon seems to not suffer at all from the boundary violation. There is no show, for example, of them having trouble in the bedroom later.
The fact that this trauma is not addressed is compounded by Simon being a black man and Daphne being a white woman.
Too often, black men have lost their lives after being accused of sexual violence against white women. Too often, accusations of rape have been excuses for racist violence. Carolyn Bryant, the woman who accused 14 year old Emmett Till of sexually harassing her, admitted 52 years after his gruesome murder that it’d been a lie.
It feels too much like victim-blaming for Daphne to definitely commit a nonconsensual sexual act against her husband and then the focus be on how his initial deception “led her to do it.”
Rape is rape. Even if the couple is married. Even if the victim is a man.
It’s extremely problematic for Bridgerton to bring a rape, even one the show attempts to gloss over, to the screen. If they were already rewriting, as they did in the case of the scene in question, they could have done more to call it for what it was and explore that.
It’s the 21st century, and our talk of consent deserves to amplify the very real problem of male “silent victims.” Bridgerton could have been the start of that conversation, but sadly, it wasn’t.