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‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Sexual Assault Plot Line Almost Wasn’t Allowed on TV

Update: On Dec. 2, researchers published the results of a study that suggest the March “Grey’s Anatomy” episode “Silent All These Years,” featuring a powerful rape kit scene, significantly increased online engagement with sexual assault prevention resources. The study looked at Twitter and Google search trends two weeks before the episode aired compared to the week after the episode aired. Researchers found online trends mentioning the nonprofit RAINN or “sexual assault hotline” increased significantly after the “Grey’s” episode aired. In addition, the National Sexual Assault Hotline saw a 43% increase in calls in the 48 hours after the episode aired.

On Thursday, “Grey’s Anatomy” premiered its latest episode, “Silent All These Years.” Inspired by the current conversation on sexual violence and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in 2018, the hit medical TV show put rape survivors and consent front and center.

The story follows Abby (Khalilah Joi), who arrives at the hospital after being sexually assaulted outside of a bar. When she arrives at the hospital, resident doctor Teddy (Kim Raver) must administer a rape kit, which includes taking photos, swabs and collecting other samples from the survivor.

Initially, the extensive details of the rape kit were met with pushback from ABC’s Standards and Practices department, according to the episode’s writer Elisabeth Finch and “Grey’s” showrunner Krista Vernoff. After a rebuttal from Shonda Rhimes, ABC changed its stance. Vernoff explained in a Hollywood Reporter interview:

They give these standard notes: ‘don’t be too gory’; ‘don’t be too explicit in your language’; ‘no side boob.’ But the ones we got on this script included, ‘Please don’t show any fluid on the Q-tips’ and ‘Please don’t show any body fluids under the blue lights.’ Shonda wrote back a pretty passionate response of the myriad ways that networks are willing to show actual violence but that what we were doing here was the medical process that happens in the wake of violence and they were trying to tell us we couldn’t show it. She said, ‘Respectfully, I decline these notes.’ Ultimately, ABC understood that she was right.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the episode is one of the most comprehensive depictions of what it’s like to get a rape kit ever shown on TV. Following legal protocol, Teddy gets Abby’s affirmative consent before each step in the process, asking “Are you ready?” As Abby is wheeled off to surgery to repair a tear in her diaphragm, the result of her assault, women of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital line the walls of the hallway in a silent salute to Abby and her experience.

Finch said she titled the episode after a Tori Amos song that reminded her of a friend’s experience with sexual violence.

“I named this episode ‘Silent All These Years’ bc when my friend was raped in college I didn’t know how to help,” Finch said. “But days before I’d gone to a @toriamos concert and took a @RAINN bumper sticker they were handing out. Thank you RAINN and Ms. Amos for helping my friend.”

From there, Finch reflected on her experience watching Blasey Ford testify about her alleged assault. “I felt that the most damaging thing that happened in all that is that young women and men everywhere were told that consent was irrelevant,” Finch told The Hollywood Reporter. She then wrote the episode and its ground-breaking rape kit scene.

Finch also revealed that the hallway scene was inspired by what she had seen doctors do when an organ donor is wheeled through the hospitals — the doctors line the hallways in their honor. She wanted to do something similar in this episode to honor Abby’s experience and by extension, all sexual assault survivors. Vernoff said the female staff members of the “Grey’s Anatomy” production team and production company Shondaland wanted to be involved.

“That hallway contains nearly the entire female writing staff [of “Grey’s”]. It contains exec producers on the show, exec producers in Shondaland, most of our female crewmembers,” Vernoff said. “That entire hallway is Shondaland women and that is because they wanted to do it. So many women came up to us … and asked if they could be in that scene.”

The episode wove the theme of sexual assault and its many impacts throughout the rest of the episode as well. “Grey’s” doctor Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington) learns her mother abandoned her because she was raped. Jo had an abortion while in an abusive relationship. Doctor Ben Warren (Jason Winston George) teaches his stepson about consent. Creators also made it clear that people of all genders are assaulted.

According to Vernoff and Finch, the goal was to illustrate the impact of trauma on survivors, their loved ones and the importance of consent in relationships.

“We have to do something about consent and try to do our part to explain what consent is and how impactful rape is and how it can damage people for years, decades and generations,” Vernoff said. “I hope viewers walk away with a greater understanding of what consent means.”

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.