Elizabeth Jennings, Mellie Grant and Claire Underwood have something in common. A few things, actually: Calculating relationships with their husbands, bottomless wells of nerve, awesome cheekbones. And one other thing. As The Americans, Scandal and House of Cards have revealed throughout their first and second seasons, all three are rape survivors.
A rape scene on a show that isn’t specifically about crime — your non-SVUs and CSIs — is shocking almost by definition, but what was particularly striking about these scenes is how they seemed to be astonishingly true to life. None of these women fit some stereotypical “victim” mold. None was attacked by a stranger who jumped her while she walked down an alley, none reported the crime to the police or even to her family. And while all of these survivors found a way to move forward and lead productive, healthy lives (to various degrees), they all still wrestle with trauma in their own personal, usually private ways.
What did each of these shows get right about the reality of rape and sexual assault? To find out, I called up Dr. John Foubert, founder and president of One in Four, a national non-profit organization to implement rape prevention programs in the military and on college campuses. Our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for space, is below. (FYI, if you aren’t caught up on any of these shows, spoilers abound):
Let’s start with The Americans. Elizabeth, a KGB agent, is raped by her commanding officer when she’s a teenager in training. She never tells Philip, her partner and “husband” (their marriage is arranged by Russia; though they have children together, they’re deep undercover and aren’t really married). Is it common it for rape survivors to never tell the people closest to them what happened?
Definitely. One of the things that a lot of survivors will say is that they’ve never told anyone. That’s not a majority, but a significant minority of survivors never tell anybody.
In the pilot, Elizabeth is reunited with the man who raped her and, because of her special, being-a-spy circumstances, she gets to be face-to-face with her attacker again. She has the chance to tell him off, and then Philip murders him, essentially on her behalf. Is there a wish-fulfillment element to that? Are there survivors who want to see that attacker again and attack them back?
Most survivors hope to never encounter that individual again at all. Although, because they’re usually an acquaintance, it’s often difficult to avoid the individual, whether it’s family or a close friend. I haven’t heard too much about killing the attacker, although I’m sure the desire to do so happens in some cases.
On Scandal, Mellie Grant is raped by her father-in-law. We see the assault in a flashback; it occurred before her husband ran for president. It seemed like she had plenty of opportunities to tell her husband and that in fact he might be a better partner to her if he were aware that this had occurred. You mentioned before that a significant number of survivors never tell anyone about their experience. What about when there’s this added complication of the assailant being someone in the family?
You have a survivor who is unable to get away from the perpetrator because of the family dynamics. When you have a father-in-law situation, the survivor may be seriously concerned about whether her husband is going to believe her or not, and that’s certainly a very common thing that survivors go through in general. Sometimes someone is raped by a mutual friend, in a group of friends, and the survivor is afraid to tell the friends because she’s afraid they’ll all turn on her. In a family, those dynamics are even more heightened. It would not be surprising in the slightest for someone sexually assaulted by a father-in-law to not report it.
On House of Cards, the man who is accused of being a rapist is a high ranking military official. We find out that he raped Claire Underwood when they were dating and in college, and once Claire discloses the assault on national TV, a young woman in the military comes forward to say this man raped her while she was in service. Can you talk a bit about the rates of sexual assault in the military?
Sexual assaults happen more often in the military than in the general population. The best statistics we have are 1 in 4 women in the military are raped during their military service. So, certainly more than 1 in 4 women in the military have had that experience, but 1 in 4 had it while serving, and overwhelmingly, the perpetrator is someone else in the military, not the enemy and not a random person.
When Claire and Frank see Claire’s rapist again, at a formal function where the assailant is supposed to be honored, Frank has a much more violent reaction than Claire does. She’s mostly calm, but Frank needs to be talked down from clocking this guy in the face. Does that ring true with what you know about how assaults affect the loved ones of survivors?
That can partly be a gender difference, combined with the affects of trauma. When a lot of people have a traumatic experience, they don’t necessarily have the visible terror in the sense of crying uncontrollably or being really freaked out by something. Because of the nature of the trauma, that can mute the person’s emotions. When you have what some people would call a co-survivor, a close individual to the person, they weren’t directly impacted by the trauma in the sense of experiencing it in a bodily way, so they won’t necessarily have that muting of emotion that would come with the traumatic experience. But they often have a wide range of reactions, from resenting their partner [to] wanting to take physical revenge against the attacker. Particularly with men, a lot of that comes out with the form in anger. They’re told that is the emotion that’s okay to express. So you’re more likely to see a very visible display of concern that comes out in the form of anger as opposed to something that’s more muted, someone in a state of shock form a traumatic experience.
Given what we know about how people react to trauma, why is there often this expectation that survivors will be more “visibly” upset: crying, screaming, that sort of thing? Shouldn’t we know that’s not how real people typically respond?
I think society generally is dominated by men, and men are the ones who are perpetrators. So often it’s their perspectives that are most often repeated and perceived the be the norm and what’s acceptable. So often in that scenario, the victim is blamed for what happened, as opposed to blame being assigned the perpetrator. And there are attitudes in our society that researchers call “rape myths.” So there’s this false or stereotype belief that people have of what rape might consist of, but the reality is in many cases is a different picture: It’s someone who the survivor knows, it may start with some consensual behavior but then it turns non-consensual, there’s rarely a weapon involved, the survivor rarely tells the police.
The younger woman on House of Cards is hesitant to go public with her own sexual assault story, in large part because she’s afraid that she’s not the right “poster girl” for rape victims. She has casual sex with lots of different strangers and describes those trysts as being the only way to quiet the voices in her head. Is that reaction more common than people think?
There tend to be two different reactions in that regard: either hypersexuality, what you’re describing, in terms of having a lot of sex with a lot of different people. And the other direction, of not to have sex at all. The direction of hypersexuality I believe, it’s a little bit more common. And tends to be focused psychologically inside the survivor as a way to reestablish control over that facet of her life.
Overall, how realistic do these portrayals seem to you?
It does sound like these examples are much more like reality than we saw 10, 20 years ago. Then, [what you usually saw on TV] was an assault by a stranger… I’m not exactly a fan of having sexual assault situations on TV… so if we’re going to depict or talk about rape, I at least hope they’re doing so in a way that keeps with how it usually happens, and gets discussion going, [in] terms of the reality.