By Shaylyn MacKinnon
I recently returned from studying abroad in England, and of all of the things that I learned an experienced, one has left me a bit disturbed, especially considering the current environment on the issue in America. What I’m referring to is how rape is treated in British theatre and comedy.
I took a class on British Political Theatre and had to do the first presentation of the semester with one of my friends. The show was Our Ladies of Perpetual Succor. We were meant to prepare a number of questions analyzing the play’s characters, storyline, technical decisions, etc. Upon reading and seeing the play, there was one scene in particular that really stuck with us both—and upon discussing the play with our flat after the show, it seemed to stand out in their minds as well, basically overshadowing the overall impressive performances and entertaining plot.
The scene I am referring to cannot be described (by our definition from Title IX) as anything other than a rape scene. And yet it evoked laughter from the entire audience.
Orla (sixteen or seventeen at the time), while getting treated for cancer in the hospital and having already gained the sympathy from the entire audience as having by far the most emotional storyline, decided to overcome her awkward curiosity about sex by taking advantage of an unconscious boy on the edge of death. Her description of her actions toward this unnamed character, clearly unable to consent or take part in the sexual acts Orla performed, was done under the premise that it was her “gift to him”. A ‘gift’ that ended with him falling to the floor screaming, covered in his own piss and shit, then getting strapped to his bed the following night for what the nurses considered an ‘outburst’.
When I read this scene, I was confused and uncomfortable, convinced that I was simply missing an important detail that would be cleared up when I saw the performance live. But then, seeing it later that night, I simply grew more uncomfortable—even disgusted—as Orla’s character tried to play off her rape of this man as an act that should elicit both sympathy and laughs from the show’s audience. And to her part, a lot of the audience did laugh. They laughed as she described climbing onto his unconscious body, removing his catheter against his will, moving his testicles to make sure “he hadn’t shit himself”, and when she ‘realized this wasn’t about her’, she—absolutely with no consent, but still with laughs from the audience—continued to have her way with him.
I couldn’t understand why people were laughing. Her situation was absolutely pathetic and disturbing. Looking around I realized a lot of other Drew students were squeamish and confused as well, or at least many seemed conflicted about how they should feel about what Orla was describing. After the show, it was the first thing my flat talked about—we were appalled.
So, of course, my friend and I decided to start out our class facilitation with this scene and the question: Was it rape?
The class’s answer was unanimous—Yes. Orla raped the unnamed man. It didn’t matter that he was older, that she was in high school. She took advantage of an unconscious person unable to consent, and thus she raped him. No one could understand how such a scene was meant to stimulate laughs and sympathy as it did. That is, until our professor revealed something shocking about British law.
Women cannot rape men. As he put it, an erection is considered consent. He said, from the British perspective, that entire scene was hilarious because of the extent Orla was willing to go to lose her virginity. The fact that she would be desperate enough to sleep with an unconscious man unable to even pee for himself was apparently prime humor.
To say the least, the joke fell flat with the rest of us. Instead, we were struck by this huge cultural gap between the US and UK. Until this point, nothing about London life had really struck me as fundamentally different to my life back home. To their cores, it seemed both nations held the same things in importance—the same fears over jobs, national political divides, and ideas of what it means to be generally a good person.
Now though, I was hit with the overwhelming feeling of difference. It left me with an entirely altered view of the United Kingdom’s laws and humor and made me question what else I didn’t know that really separated our two nations.
The more I thought about it, the more our different definitions of rape and consent seemed to be displayed. In Road, another play we saw later in the semester, a scene involving a middle-aged woman trying to sleep with the young soldier clearly too drunk to even speak, let alone consent to sex, gained so much more meaning. Watching it, I couldn’t imagine how others in the theatre ignored what was wrong with the scene, and yet the woman sitting next to me couldn’t stop laughing.
Having gone through so many classes and speeches about consent between high school Health and freshman orientation, the flippancy with how it is treated in British theatre when a woman is going through the motions rather than a man is disturbingly bizarre. It makes me wonder about the feminist movement at large in the UK considering how equal treatment in instances of rape and sexual assault has been an important issue for feminists in the US. What other issues beyond rape and consent have been drilled into my mind as an American that doesn’t hold the same importance abroad? How does something so serious in the United States get treated as a funny plotline in British theatre?