Why do rape scenes in TV shows give me panic attacks?

Mary Engle
asks:
I am 20 years old and certainly no prude, but as a rule I will avoid any shows/movies that involve a lot of rape or implied rape. This week I became very obsessed with a TV show and I was really enjoying it and really loved all the characters, then I got to an episode where someone threatened to rape a character. I fell into a state of panic and kept telling myself someone would come to save them, but the scene kept continuing and no one came to save her and I started sobbing, I couldn't believe they would do that. I know this is not a normal reaction, many of my friends watch shows like game of thrones whereas the plenitude of rape scenes in that prevent me from ever watching it as it makes me cry. I think for me it's vulnerability, whenever people are raped on TV or women are objectified I feel vulnerable, as if I'm watching it naked and anyone in the room can see me naked. I am really annoyed and upset, because the TV show I mentioned was fast becoming my favourite show, but I paused it in the middle of the scene and I'm terrified to press play. I keep crying at the thought. Please help me find the cause of this.
Mo Ranyart replies:

First off: I'm sorry you had such an upsetting experience watching a show you had been enjoying. I think it's completely understandable that this was distressing for you; even if you hadn't had such a strong reaction to rape in media before, it sounds like something in this particular scene really got to you. While this may not be a reaction your friends have to sexual violence in TV or movies, a lot of people do feel uncomfortable with it, and I certainly hope your friends haven't given you a hard time if you've mentioned that watching rape on screen upsets you. As someone who often finds on-screen sexual assault difficult and distressing to watch myself, I empathise with you; while I can't know exactly why you had such an intense reaction, I have a few theories that might help explain it.

I don't know your personal history with rape or other sexual violence, but if it's something you've experienced, that history can easily make similar scenes in media cause panic or distress. Depictions of rape or other abuse can be deeply upsetting on their own, but they can cause additional pain by bringing up traumatic memories or flashbacks for survivors of sexual assault. Watching such scenes with other people can make this even more challenging, whether or not those people know about a survivor's history with assault.

Many people who don't have direct experience with rape have been in situations where they felt it could have happened, or have seen its impact on friends or loved ones, and can be similarly affected. Seeing an assault on screen might bring up some "what-if" feelings around previous unsafe or threatening experiences someone's had, or make them seem more sinister or dangerous in retrospect. An on-screen assault might also lead a viewer to understand an event from their past as a rape or sexual assault when they hadn't considered it that way before, or had tried their best not to think about it at all.

Especially at a time when conversation and news about sexual violence of all kinds can feel inescapable, having it appear in media you're consuming for pleasure can be especially upsetting. When a rape scene pops up in something we're watching for fun, it can feel like a mini-betrayal, or like there's nowhere we can go to escape the realities of assault. In hard times, everyone deserves to have media that can be a comfort or an escape, and it sucks to lose that feeling of comfort because a TV show's chosen to show something that's upsetting to you.

As you mention in your letter, scenes with rape or other sexual violence can make someone feel especially vulnerable if they're watching with other people. One might worry that their reaction is being being scrutinized by others in the room, or that their friends might react inappropriately to the assault. If you're thinking things like "Are they going to laugh at this? What will I do if that happens? Do they notice how upset this makes me? Will they think it happened to me?" it can be a short step from there to "Would they even believe and support me if it did?" Even if no one in the room reacts in a way to make you more upset, being aware of the possibility that it might happen can add to your stress level. If someone does laugh or make a disparaging comment, it can be devastating.

How an assault is presented can be just as upsetting as the fact that it's present on screen at all. A lot of media depicts sexual assault in a way that is insensitive at best and offensive at worst. Far too often, rape is used as a clumsy plot device: it's a lazy way to give a character a "damaged" persona, to punish them for a certain type of behavior, or to give their romantic partner or family member motivation for an angry revenge quest. Often, sexual violence is shoehorned into a narrative in a way that doesn't feel natural or appropriate, and winds up being more jarring or upsetting as a result. In addition, such scenes are often shot in ways that sexualize the act of rape, which makes them more uncomfortable to watch; it's upsetting to see a traumatic event packaged in a way that suggests the audience is supposed to find it enticing or arousing.

The example of this I think of most often is a sexual assault that takes place late in the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I watched Buffy years after it went off the air, and a friend had told me about this particular scene, but even though I knew it was coming, I found it more upsetting to watch than I'd expected. Much of my reaction was due to how the scene's presented: it's filmed from angles that feel creepily voyeuristic, the camera focuses on the victim's face when she's extremely distressed, and to top it all off, clips of the assault are shown in the "previously..." reel before several subsequent episodes, so it's hard to avoid seeing it over and over again. It's a scene that makes a spectacle of of sexual assault and forces the viewer into an uncomfortably invasive viewpoint, and to be honest I still feel frustrated and angry when I think about it.

I do want to specifically say that not wanting to see sexual assault in media doesn't have anything to do with you being prudish or anti-sex. It's ok if you don't want to watch shows with consensual sex scenes in them either, but scenes of rape or sexual assault are not at all the same thing. As I noted above, rape scenes can be filmed in deliberately sexual ways that feel a bit like sex scenes, but I think it's vital to remember that sexual assault is something else entirely. If someone gives you a hard time for not wanting to watch media with sexual assault in it, and calls you a prude because of it, that's a problem on their end, not yours. It may or may not be worth it to spend time reminding them of the very real difference between sex and assault, but either way, it's important to keep in mind, no matter how inappropriately sexual the framing of assault in media may be.

As for what you can do to minimize your future discomfort, if you tend to watch TV with friends and you feel comfortable opening up to them about this at all, could you ask friends who've already watched shows you're thinking about watching if there are episodes with sexual assault that you might want to skip? If you're watching with other people you start to feel nervous about the potential for sexual violence in a particular scene, that might be a great time for a bathroom break, a refill on your drink or snack, or a quick step outside for some fresh air. Take five or ten minutes and then ask if you missed anything important to the plot when you get back. If you find yourself confronted with sexual violence and aren't able to leave the room or otherwise avoid it, maybe a friend would be willing to check in with you afterwards to make sure you're ok and offer comfort or distraction if you need it.. If people give you a hard time about stepping away from something that's upsetting, that might be a sign that they're not great TV buddies for now.

If you don't want to ask friends for content warnings, or you're interested in something they haven't seen, one option is to check IMDB's parental warnings for a particular piece of media; they tend to be pretty specific about content, and when I entered a few TV shows and movies in to test this feature out, I found that sexual violence is pretty well covered there. Unconsenting Media is another potential resource; it tends to be more general in its warnings, so you might find out that a TV show has sexual violence but not what episode it's in, but it could still be a helpful tool.

Ultimately, I hope you can feel free to take wahtever steps you need to in order to be able to enjoy the media you consume. For now you might want to focus on shows that feel a bit lighter in tone or content, or only watch things a friend's pre-vetted for you. (My suggestion, if you want one, is The Great British Bake-Off. It has friendly rivalries, excitement, bad puns about baked goods, and LOTS of cake to admire, and I find it both engaging and soothing to watch.) I do want to suggest, too, that if you're still feeling really distressed about what you saw, if another show or film impacts you in a similarly upsetting way, or if thinking about any of this has brought up thoughts or memories from your own experiences that are causing you pain, you may find that talking with a counselor or therapist about your feelings is helpful. I suggest this not because there's anything wrong with having a strong emotional reaction to scenes of sexual assault, but because it can be useful to have a safe space to process and get support for the distress that reaction can cause. This article about accessing and getting the most out of therapy may be a useful resource, if you want to go that route.

You're not alone in feeling the way you do, and I hope you can find ways to take care of yourself and enjoy media that feels affirming, comforting, and positive to you.