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Searching for Consent (From Your Partner, and in TV)

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September 23, 2013

I have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with a show called Teen Wolf. Yes, it’s (very loosely) based off of the 80’s movie Michael J. Fox was in where he’s got wicked sideburns. Yes, it’s about, you guessed it, adolescent creatures of the dark. Yes, it’s on MTV. And yes, it can be so, so cheesy.

I’ve been known to fiercely advocate it just as much as I hyper-criticize it. And I certainly criticize it, for falling into some of the same problematic traps so many other T.V. shows fall into, particularly those which are supposedly meant to represent young people. But, it excels in ways I hardly ever (or never) see from other cable TV programming.

There may be werewolves, and lizards, and all kinds of things that go bump in the night crawling around Beacon Hills, but the show also has an incredible amount of sex positivity written into it. Condoms are a frequent appearance on the show, parents show an interest in having open conversations about sex with their children, and women and queer characters are often shown to have a high degree of sexual agency. But one of my favorite moments during all three seasons in terms of sex positivity occurred was one character asked another “Do you want to?”

To put this is context: during the episode “Chaos Rising,” Heather is a girl whose 17th birthday party Stiles, one of the main show characters, attends. Heather, a virgin, wants to have sex with Stiles. Stiles has never had sex either. Heather leads Stiles away from the rest of the party and informs him, while they’re making out, that she’d like to have sex with him. It’s getting hot and heavy, Stiles seems into it, and she reaches for his belt—but then, she stops. Heather has noticed that now Stiles’s body language seems uncomfortable and then backs off. She then engages Stiles is a dialogue about his sexual experience, his comfort level, and before proceeding any further physically, asks “Do you want to?”

Even though Stiles at first dismissively, and then rather seriously, says yes, they don’t end up actually having sex because, you know, Heather ends up being a virgin sacrifice. Typical day in Beacon Hills. But, werewolves aside, in this scene Teen Wolf, a campy little horror show about lycanthropes and hormones, manages to have a display of sexual consent that I rarely see played out on the small screen. I mean, it’s already trumps heteronormative constructions of sex, where the boy chases and has to wear down the girl for sex to occur, to have Heather, a woman, and not Stiles, a man, seeking consent. But the fact that Heather is attentive to her partner’s body language—that she is actively seeking an enthusiastic yes, and not the lack of a no—is an event that hardly occurs in mainstream media.

Even when we believe we’re consent-conscious, we so often wait for the no, and not actively seek a yes. And in an unfortunate amount of the time, we don’t even see that hard no paid attention to. The “chase” is so overly romantized in media that we’ve been trained to see struggle and coercion as almost inherent to sex and romance, with verbal communication hardly ever occurring. And even if there is a preliminary consent, it’s even rarer to see any attention or mention made of a character continuing to make sure they have their partner’s consent.

Teen Wolf, in a scene barely a minute long, managed to have a conversation with their audience that many shows don’t even get close to having—that you need consent, that consent can be given or denied through body language, that verbal consent helps you and your partner stay on the same page, and that if you do receive consent, it should be totally, 100%, enthusiastic.

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