American Horror Story:
The Denial of Rape and the Demonization of S/M

This week’s Entertainment Weekly features three characters from the new FX show American Horror Story: husband, wife, and rapist.

I was captivated by the beautiful and disturbing promotional artwork of American Horror Story. The stark red of the walls, the shiny black of the rubber suit, the pale white of the faceless, pregnant woman’s body. I thought to myself, This show is going to be beautiful, and it is going to be fucked up. I was right.

The good:
Though you wouldn’t know it from the EW cover, AHS features many female characters, both central and peripheral. For the most part, women are represented as brave and competent.

The bad:
Once again, “American” is equated with “white upper-middle class.”
Once again, we are squicked out by a Mystical Pregnancy.
Once again, we are subjected to a visual onslaught of violence against female bodies.
Once again, abortion is demonized.

The complicated: (Trigger warning for survivors of sexual assault)

In Entertainment Weekly, AHS creator Ryan Murphy refers to this character as the Rubber Man:

Entertainment Weekly asks Murphy, “Where did you get the idea to add a silent guy in a shiny rubber suit to your haunted-house drama?” Murphy replies:

I was at some weird bookstore, and I saw a book on how to care for your fetish suit. On the cover was this gleaming suit. When we were writing the pilot, I brought the book in and showed it to Brad and said, ‘I’m obsessed with this!’

Entertainment Weekly then divulges a “fun fact”:

In most scenes, the suit is worn by actor Riley Schmidt — though McDermott was actually the one behind the mask for the pilot’s much-talked-about love scene, at Britton’s request.

The pilot’s much-talked-about “love scene” is actually a much-talked-about rape scene, but no one is calling it that. None of the reviews or recaps of the show call it rape, but rape is exactly what this is:

Vivian sees the Rubber Man at the door of her bedroom. She thinks he is her husband.

Thinking he is her husband

Vivian has sex with the Rubber Man.

Vivian does not consent to having sex with who or whatever is in that rubber suit, thus who or whatever is in that rubber suit is raping her. But this is how reviewers are talking about this scene (emphases mine):

“Pretty soon, Vivien is having sex with someone/something in a rubber fetish suit…” Entertainment Weekly
“…Vivien has sex with a silent, bondage-suited man she mistakenly thinks is Ben…” New York Times
“…including some high-jinks with latex catsuits…” Los Angeles Times

High-jinks? Really?

Here is why they aren’t calling it rape:

The scene opens with shots of  Vivian rubbing lotion on her legs, her breasts on display.

Then, thinking her husband wants to have rubber suited sex with her, she takes off her robe and says, “Come on. I can be kinky.”

Because the sex is situated in the context of sexy lingerie leg rubbing and enthusiastic consent, viewers and reviewers don’t see this as rape.

I also suspect that the presence of the fetish suit plays into viewers’ perception of this encounter as “having sex” (vs. “being raped”), as though Vivian’s consent to engage in kink with her husband gives the Rubber Man permission to rape her. This is problematic because the S/M community is all about communication and consent.

Maybe Murphy should take another trip to that “weird bookstore,” pick up a few books on BDSM, and actually read them instead of fixating on the cover images. Pat Califia has written about leather subcultures for years:

[T]he S/M community in general has done an amazing job of educating its members about safer sex, in part because we already had an ethic about taking care of one another, communicating honestly about our limits and desires, and an open attitude about using equipment to enhance our physical and psychic experiences during sessions.

Instead of demonizing S/M, let’s demonize the prevalent belief that rape is only rape when there’s a violent physical struggle. Let’s call a rape a rape. 

5 thoughts on “American Horror Story:
The Denial of Rape and the Demonization of S/M

    • That idea gives the perpetrator of a rape entirely too much power in defining a sexual assault. Whether or not a rape has occurred has nothing to do with the identity of the rapist. It has everything to do with the existence and experience of the victim.

          • Yeah. I was just like, “Maybe it’s supposed to be funny because in real life you would never ever actually have to consider whether or not the perpetrator is human because what else would s/he be?”

            Human or not human is a ridiculous concept when pulled from a sci-fi TV world and thrown into real life, but it’s still uncomfortable because it ignores the victim’s experience, which is really all that matters.

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