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The Graphic Rape Scene in '13 Reasons Why' Wasn't Necessary. Here's Why.

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

For better or for worse, the second season of “13 Reasons Why” was released last Friday. Just like much of the conversation surrounding the show’s first season centered around a graphic suicide scene in the finale, people are now talking (and warning each other) about a graphic scene at the end of season two.

In light of criticism, “13 Reasons Why” creator Brian Yorkey recently defended the graphic scene, telling Vulture that as painful as it is to watch the scene, “it doesn’t even come close to the pain experienced by the people who actually go through these things.”

We’re committed on this show to telling truthful stories about things that young people go through in as unflinching a way as we can. We fully understand that that means some of the scenes in the show will be difficult to watch… When we talk about something being “disgusting” or hard to watch, often that means we are attaching shame to the experience. We would rather not be confronted with it. We would rather it stay out of our consciousness.

Yorkey said he believes people’s vocal “disgust” around the scene is an example of why so many assaults go unreported. He also noted that people seemed more outspoken about the scene because the victim was male.

To be candid — I did not watch “13 Reasons Why” for the sake of my own mental health, but my coworkers Juliette Virzi and Jordan Davidson did. Here’s how Davidson started her review of the last episode of season two.

No one should watch the scene in the last episode of “13 Reasons Why” where Tyler is violently sexually assaulted by Montgomery. I’m not going to share any further details about what happens because it is incredibly graphic and likely triggering for many. I felt sick after watching it and several others whom I spoke to said they felt similarly. I’m not sure why the show felt it necessary to include it, but I recommend skipping the entire scene (from minutes 38 to 40).

Davidson said the victim being male has nothing to do with her reaction to the rape scene. She argued the scene was more violent than the others, and it would feel just as unnecessary with a female character as it did with a male.

Unlike the first season, season two of “13 Reasons Why” provides trigger warnings before each episode. Before the last episode, which depicted the rape, the trigger warning was, “Graphic depictions of sexual assault.”

But Davidson argued the term “sexual assault” includes a number of nonconsensual sexual interactions, and it’s not clear by the warning just how graphic the depiction will be.

“Without that specificity, a person can’t decide whether or not they’ll be triggered by the scene,” she told me. “The warnings also don’t highlight what time the scene is, so by the time the person has that negative reaction, it might be too late to fast forward.”

Yorkey’s argument mirrors one that was made about a graphic scene in season one, showing one of the show’s main characters, Hannah Baker, killing herself in a bathtub. After its release, “13 Reasons Why” writer Nic Sheff argued that in order to dispel the myth that suicide is “peaceful,” they had to show the scene in graphic detail.

Showing a suicide in such graphic detail contradicts guidelines for how to safely report on suicide. Although it’s hard to find media guidelines that explicitly advice against showing scenes of graphic sexual assault, people who make TV shows — especially shows aimed at teenagers — have a similar responsibility to make sure the way they depict sexual assault is safe for survivors.

According to David Lisak, clinical psychologist, researcher and board member of 1in6, an organization that helps men who’ve been sexually abused or assaulted, showing graphic scenes of sexual assault in the name of “awareness” can often have the opposite intended effect. It can cause viewers to emotionally disconnect from what they’re seeing. He told me in an email:

There is an understandable urge to confront the public with the full reality, the horror of sexual violence. And it is absolutely true that much of the public lives in denial of that horror. However, the reality is that depicting that horror and showing it to the public very often has a paradoxical effect. Viewers can very easily block out what it being depicted — not only by covering their eyes, but more commonly, by blocking it out psychologically. In fact, many viewers recoil from what is being depicted emotionally because it is overwhelming to them. So they may see the scene, but they do so while being emotionally disconnected from it. And that disconnection may well — often does — extend to an empathic disconnection from the person who is suffering the horror.

He said he believes some of the most powerful depictions of sexual violence were those in which the brutality was more subtle — but the emotional impact was strong. For example, he said the movie “Spotlight” managed to raise awareness about sexual abuse among young boys in the church by focusing on how the abuse affected those who survived it — not on the details of the abuse itself.

Stephen Montagna, a violence prevention and social justice activist and educator, said although he didn’t watch the scene himself, Yorkey’s argument touched a nerve for him as someone who has directed plays about sexual and domestic violence.

Given my experiences in the violence prevention movement, and lessons I’ve learned from the privilege of hearing from many survivors (of varied gender identities) over the years, I don’t feel like the creators of the show had the needs of survivors in mind if this is their explanation.

If your intent is to raise awareness and open up space for the voices of survivors and to facilitate healing and move a community toward prevention there are lots of creative choices for how these crimes can be depicted in a manner that is dramatic without being graphic.

Many survivors are drawn to view TV shows and films that are about sexual violence. With a show like “13 Reasons Why,” young people might be watching to see their own experience depicted on screen. But sexual assault survivors don’t need to relive their own traumatic experiences to prove to others it was real. Using “shock value” doesn’t raise the kind of awareness that will lead to change.

“I don’t agree with the argument that ‘we need to see this’ in order to start a conversation,” Davidson said. “If you need to see rape to care about it, that speaks to a bigger societal problem. ’13 Reasons Why’ won’t fix that.”

Survivors of sexual assault should be leading the conversation about sexual assault awareness — and any “awareness” that pushes them away with graphic, unnecessary detail isn’t awareness at all. If you weren’t able to watch the scene, that doesn’t mean you don’t care about sexual assault. Let’s keep survivors in mind when having these hard conversations.

If you’re interested in learning more and helping those who’ve been affected by sexual violence, here’s what you can do instead:

What do you think?

Lead image via “13 Reasons Why” Facebook page

Originally published: May 25, 2018
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