Film Forward

How An Online Database Is Helping Sexual Assault Survivors Avoid Triggering Content

"In a world where we have access to so many resources, it felt silly that this one didn’t exist."

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

Spoiler alerts may be a common courtesy on the internet these days, but some viewers actually prefer to know what happens in a movie or television show before they watch it — and there are several websites to help with that. These resources can alert parents to age-inappropriate content, let animal lovers know if a canine character dies, and tell anxious moviegoers exactly when to expect a jump scare.

Now we can add Unconsenting Media to the list. The website provides an ever-growing database of movies and television series, with each entry informing potential viewers whether the media in question contains sexual violence. The project was started as a Google Doc by Cambridge University student Rose Payne in April 2017, with the website launching in December.

"Taking stock of general attitudes towards and practices regarding media consumption, she noticed that one facet of these things was being routinely ignored: sexual violence," Unconsenting Media Director Samantha van Staden told A Plus of Payne's inspiration for the database. "In a world where we have access to so many resources, it felt silly that this one didn't exist."

Users can search for a specific title, or they can look at an overall list, organized alphabetically or by genre. Each movie or series is given a green, orange, or red dot based on the type of content. A green dot means there is no rape or sexual assault; an orange dot signifies that there is implied rape, sexual harassment, sex between an adult and a teen, or incest; a red dot is reserved for titles containing rape (onscreen or offscreen), child sex abuse, or attempted rape.

In addition to a checklist of these topics, many of the titles with orange or red dots also include more specific descriptions of the type of content to expect, even down to episode numbers for television series. Van Staden encourages users to add to the database with titles they have seen in order for it to be "as close to comprehensive as we can make it."

These warnings can be extremely helpful to sexual assault survivors, or anyone who would prefer to enjoy media without the fear of unexpected sexual violence. Van Staden told A Plus that the purpose of the site is "not censorship or prudishness but empowerment through the providence of information and, with it, choice."

She pointed to one of the first posts on Unconsenting Media's blog, in which Rachel Parkes describes the changed experience of watching movies after she was sexually assaulted, and how "vulnerable" she felt not knowing whether a film would contain triggering content. 

"The ability to check in an instant whether a film features themes of sexual assault without ruining the plot has allowed me to stay in control of my mental health and emotions, and reduce the anxiety around going to the cinema with family and friends unaware of what I might see," Parkes wrote. "It granted me the peace of mind that I needed, and gave me the freedom and ability to love films again."

In a report last year, Kate Hagen of The Black List pointed out that the MPAA has no specific category for sexual assault when assigning ratings to movies, instead listing it as "sexual and violent content." Additionally, a study into spec scripts submitted to the site found that 5.3 percent were tagged as including some form of rape. Among writers who submitted demographic information, over 70 percent of these scripts were by men, and only 29 percent passed the Bechdel Test.

Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller, meanwhile, told Entertainment Weekly in 2015 that rape stories are "ubiquitous on television," and promised his "largely female" audience never to include them in the series. He explained that "it's so overexploited, it becomes callous," adding, "You're reduced to using shorthand, and I don't think there can be a shorthand for that violation."

When asked whether the current media depiction of sexual assault needs to change, van Staden said while the simple answer is "yes," there is a bigger conversation to be had.

"Something that we really emphasize, of course, is that not all media depictions of rape and sexual assault are made equal," she said, "and there is a distinct difference between a scene which might generally be considered gratuitous, violent and even fetishistic, and one which might deal with complex dialogues regarding the real-life complications that surround sexual violence. Even then, in most cases life exists in shades of gray, and it's worth examining how media which is considered generally praiseworthy in this respect might sometimes miss the mark, and vice versa."

"Beyond the ostensibly simple objective of providing a tangible resource for those who want it," she continued, "the point of Unconsenting Media has also been — perhaps more ambitiously — to precipitate a conversation about how we consume media, what our media looks like, and what these things reflect about our society."

One way Unconsenting Media is contributing to this conversation is through its aforementioned blog, where several writers have contributed thoughtful articles about specific series or films (such as The Americans and Blade Runner 2049), as well as broader topics such as parental ratings and even how society defines rape.

The project also aims to help users better understand and respond to sexual assault off screen. The site features a thorough Resources page, complete with explanations of what is and isn't consent, definitions of key terms related to sexual assault, and links to supportive organizations and help lines for survivors.

Van Staden shared her hope for greater visibility so that the database "becomes available to as many people as possible who might need or want it," with "as many active users as possible." She encouraged anyone who wishes to get involved or share ideas to get in touch through the site's contact form.

According to Unconsenting Media's About page, the goal of the site is to "bridge the gap" until warnings for sexual violence are included in title cards "as an industry standard." Hopefully, as the site expands its data and reaches more people, the media at large will catch up.

As founder Rose Payne wrote in an article for the Cambridge mental health magazine Blueprint, "This isn't about boycotting or even avoiding particular media, or about *spoilers*, it's about making life a bit easier for an already vulnerable group by giving a heads up so that they can decide whether they want to continue watching. I think that everyone should be able to see the sense in that."

Cover image: Lolostock / Shutterstock.com

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