Oy. I know I'm wading into a topic here that's likely to provoke some strong reactions, but I think this is a conversation that needs to happen.
I've been watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and if I'm being totally honest, I've stuck with it mostly out of potential for what the show could be rather than any significant enjoyment of the stories and characters. As I'd rather not derail this into a "what S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to improve post, I'll merely note that this week's episode largely represented an upswing from the usual quality. It's probably not a coincidence that it's one of the few episodes to make a significant effort to tie into the wider Marvel Universe.
In a nutshell, an Asgardian named Lorelei escapes to Earth following a jailbreak from Asgard (as shown in Thor: The Dark World.) As Lorelei has the ability to mind-control men, making them enamored with her and willing to do anything for her, Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander, reprising her role from the Thor movies) is sent to bring her back and crosses paths with Agent Coulson's team. You'd think that the men on Coulson's team would be made to sit this one out considering a touch from Lorelei is all that it would take to get them to betray their friends and their country. Oddly this doesn't happen, and predictably, Lorelei ensnares Agent Ward with her mind control.
On its face, it opens up an interesting conflict, as our heroes are faced with the possibility that they'll have to kill Ward in order to stop them. Lorelei is an especially nasty manipulator and it's pretty clear she'd get off on ordering Ward to his death against his comrades, especially for the angst it will cause them. It's pretty standard mind-control stuff. The problem is that during said enchantment, Ward and Lorelei head off to Vegas and spend a passionate night in a suite together.
What unsettled me was that this moment was played as a "hot" scene - not what it really was: a woman forcing sex on a man who is not in a mental state to give consent. Sure, in his mind, Ward has been convinced that this is what he wants, but that's only because he's been given a magic roofie. I don't think it's a stretch to call this a rape scene.
The problem is that the show seems blithely unaware of this subtext. If anything, there's a leering "Awesome, Ward had hot sex with a babe!" feeling floating over the moment in question and then beyond that, there's zero follow-up. He's not even the one who ends up taking down Lorelei.
Pretend for a moment that the genders were reversed. Let's say it was Skye or Simmons who got the mental whammie on her and suddenly she can't get enough of Loki. The two of them get to a suite and she can't tear her clothes off fast enough for some steamy action. (A) Do you think this scene would even make it to screen? (B) If it did make the final cut, how much do you want to bet Loki would be explicitly punished for this, with Skye or Simmons mortified or even traumatized by their own behavior and (C) If so, is there anyway that scene gets made without it being called out as rape?
(If such a scene with Skye or Simmons DID make it to air in a fashion as tone-deaf as the Ward scene, I have no doubt there'd already be a couple dozen blog posts and "think-pieces" about how abbhorant S.H.I.E.L.D. was to do that and how it plays into rape culture. And the writers of such scenes would be right to call it out for that.)
If a woman was the victim here, I have little doubt that the non-consensual sex would been treated as wrong. It probably would have been portrayed in a similar tone to another mind-control near-rape done on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer called "Dead Things." In that episode, the Nerd Trio finally invents a mind control device to get the hot sex slave they always wanted. When the subject is first raised, it's through the lens of the juvenile teenage boy who thinks it would be pretty cool to have a hot chick at his whim. Unfortunately for them, their intended victim comes to her senses and calls it out for what it is - rape.
There's no similar lamp-shading of what was done to Ward. When I raised the issue on Twitter, Emily Blake correctly drew an analogy to how we as a society perceive cases of teacher-student sex. If a teenage girl has sex with her older male teacher, then he's a pervert and the worst kind of sex offender. She's a victim who was taken advantage of. When a teenage boy has sex with his hot teacher, he's lionized and practically given a high five. He's not a victim, he's a "lucky dog."
I think that does a great disservice to the young men who are victims of non-consensual sex. The message they're given in society is that they're supposed to want it, that they should feel excited whenever they get it, that if their victimizer is "hot" then there's no reason to get upset. And maybe I'm making too much of a few minutes of a TV show. Had they treated this moment maturely, it still probably wouldn't change anything in society. But it sure as hell reflects society and it's not doing anything to make someone question the wrongness of this message.
Think of how many 80s movies feel kinda "rapey" now, viewed through today's mores. I ran across an article that is an excellent examination of that culture, including a good take on 16 CANDLES:
16 Candles is not only rife with cheap racism, it’s cavalier about sexual assault. Worse, Jake Ryan - the beau hunk himself - is the one who orchestrates it. In exchange for information about Sam, he offers The Geek the opportunity to drive his girlfriend Caroline home and basically gives him permission to do whatever he likes as long as he doesn’t leave her abandoned in a parking lot somewhere. (This is after he tells The Geek that if he were interested in her anymore, he could go into his bedroom where she’s passed out cold and ‘violate her ten different ways’. ‘What are you waiting for?’ The Geek splutters.) But worst of all is when The Geek and Caroline wake up in the car the next morning. Despite neither of them really remembering the previous night’s ‘activities’, The Geek asks Caroline if she enjoyed herself. ‘You know,’ she replies, ‘I have this weird feeling I did!’
80s movies. Encouraging hilariously rapey ‘sexcapades’ enjoyed by beta males, and making it an extra triumph for them because the girl really enjoyed it. (See also: Revenge of the Nerds.)
One day, the Ward/Lorelei hotel romp is going to be just as repugnant to more progressive eyes. Trust me.
Don't let that happen to your writing. Be aware of what you're putting into the culture and what your scene is really saying.