Sunday, May 6, 2012

No Means No

A young woman, petrified, tells her mother that a young man lies dead in her bed. The mother, appalled, asks, “Did he force himself on you?” The daughter shakes her head no, her face crumpled in tears.

The thing is, the daughter is absolutely wrong. She was forced.

Downton Abbey is a favorite series of mine on PBS. It is written well, has a terrific cast and a decent storyline. Unfortunately, a Season 1/Episode 2 storyline perpetuates the Hollywood-driven myth that when a girl says, “No” she must mean, “Yes,” especially when an ardent admirer is in pursuit.

Hollywood is not only to blame: this attitude and the one that equates love with violence extends back to ancient times. In the Greek myth, “The Rape of Persephone,” the daughter of Zeus and Demeter is kidnapped by Haides, who is described as “being in love” with her. The Biblical account of Tamar’s rape by her own brother is a more compelling, unromanticized account of a man ignoring a young woman’s “no”  (2 Samuel 13). These are two extreme examples of force, and of ignoring a woman’s right to refuse advances.

In Downton Abbey, the scene is more subtle. It cleverly disguises rape as a romantic conquest. Mary, the eldest daughter of Lord Grantham, meets a handsome Turkish diplomat staying at Downtown for a weekend hunting party. He is immediately attentive to Mary, who becomes quickly infatuated with the debonair Mr. Pamuk. Disregarding English social convention--and the fact that he is a guest in Lord Grantham’s home--he tricks Mary into being alone with him and grabs her for a passionate kiss.

She gives him her first “No!”  after he commands her, “Let me come to you tonight.” She reminds him that as her father’s guest, he would be thrown out if she revealed his behavior. She hurries back to the dinner party. 

Later, despite Mary’s emphatic earlier rejection of his advances, Pamuk has a servant guide him to Mary’s room and he simply walks in. She then gives her second “No,” and he again disregards it, convinced she is already his prize. She tells him she is inexperienced (code word for ‘virgin’) and that this liaison would ruin her reputation. That would again be a “no.” But the guy won’t take no for an answer, and convinces Mary that the act will be “safe” and that she should trust him.

Mary does not tell her mother these details--she believes she willingly allowed him into her bed; therefore, she was not “forced.” (He died of a heart attack that night, despite his young age and virility.)

Gavin de Becker, the author I mentioned in my recent post about fear vs. worry, writes in the “Gift of Fear” that a man who ignores a woman’s “no,” no matter the situation (“No, I don’t need your help”; “No, I don’t want to date you”) is not a trustworthy person. Our sons and daughters are getting a completely different message on television and in the movies.

Downton Abbey nearly had me fooled as well--I did not recognize this as a rape until I happened to watch the episode the other day. Why hadn’t I seen this before? I was probably blinded by the set up of the story, and the seemingly romantic pursuit of a girl by a handsome man. 

From the very beginning of his stay at Downton, Pamuk began forcing himself upon Mary. When a person ignores a “no” and continues to fulfill his own wishes, that is force, bullying, and yes, perhaps rape. Let’s call it what it is, so our Marys and our Pamuks can understand the difference.


  1. So true Kerry. This is an important subject to be brought into the light.
    "What part of NO, don't you understand?"
    I think it is so sad that she, like so many girls/women live with the guilt of so many common beliefs...i.e. " I "asked" for it"..." I led him on"...If I was only stronger"..."It's not his fault, it is mine"
    Oh Lord, help us to reassure our young women that it is OK to say NO and not to be cajoled into questioning their the moment. Also to urge them to think about such scenarios way before they get into these situations. And a self defense class wouldn't hurt either.

  2. I find it interesting how the writers and producers glazed past the fact it was rape and a death of innocence by still continuing to make it about the guy like he was the real victim in the end.