What Movie Romance Teaches Us About Sexual Assault and Manipulation

We’ve all seen them:  the scenes where the guy hits on the girl, who rejects him. Then he rushes to her, spins her around, and plants a big sloppy kiss while squishing her body up against his. In movies, this is love, passion, and a sign of things to come:  the start of a happy relationship. In reality, this is called sexual assault. This kind of behavior should never be condoned in real life, and boys and men alike watching these scenes get the wrong idea about how romance works. Worse, sometimes they act them out in real life. These scenes can also give girls an inaccurate idea about love, and even render them incapable of recognizing sexual assault when it happens.

As someone who has experienced sexual assault in the past, I can’t help but cringe a little at these scenes, even in iconic movies and musicals that I’ve loved since my childhood. I’m not going to argue that sexual assault (or rape for that matter) shouldn’t be shown in films or books–it should. But I’d like for it to be presented as what it is, and for the characters involved to have to at least discuss what one did to the other so that they can have some semblance of a truly healthy romantic relationship in the end, rather than a hastily scripted wedding scene.

Take this scene in Guys and Dolls, for instance (if you don’t mind the singing). If you want to skip most of the singing, start watching at 3:16. You’ll get the idea.


Sky and Sarah are one of the show’s lead couples, and–you guessed it, at the end, they’re married. Even though Sarah is clearly repulsed by him, and not at all interested–heck, she freaking slaps him–the hero gets the girl. What kind of world do we live in where even a violent act like smacking someone in the face as hard as you can doesn’t mean no, and isn’t taken as a sign that things won’t work? Granted, in the plot of the story, Sky has a lot of money riding on his bet that he can take prudish Sarah on a date–but still, she rejected him multiple times. This is not the start of a beautiful romantic relationship; it’s a crime. While she does eventually fall for Sky, that isn’t the point. She’d rejected him, and once a person is rejected, he or she needs to back off and leave the rejecter alone. The only person who can turn that rejection into a date is the rejecter. If that person changes his or her mind, then yay for the rejectee! But in reality, that doesn’t happen often.

Scenes like this one have perpetuated the idea that the key to successfully getting someone to date you is persistence, not, you know–asking politely and letting the other person make their own damn decision. While yes, persistence can eventually get someone to do what you want, it’s not acceptable to beg that person until he or she just wants you to stop. Besides, do you really want someone to date you just so that you’ll shut up and stop hitting on them? Wouldn’t you rather have that person date you because he or she is attracted to you and wants to date you? I’m going with the latter reason.

Not to mention the fact that sexual assault is ILLEGAL, and morally objectionable. Just because there’s no penis-in-vagina action doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong. There’s a reason consent is required in relationships. Both parties have to decide they want to do something, and pressuring that person until they give in is not true consent.

An important part of the concept of consent is that if one of the parties involved is not emotionally or physically capable of saying no, they can’t give consent. All participants need to 1) understand what they’re doing, and 2) know that at any time they can say no, and that no will be respected. I once saw my brother hitting on a girl who was maybe 13 at the time. He was about 14, and much taller than she was. I could tell she was trying to shrug his arm off her shoulders, and her body language told me she wasn’t interested in his advances, but she wasn’t saying anything with her words, and he was still, well, advancing. My brother’s very bad at reading social cues from body language, so I wasn’t surprised by this. I was maybe 16 at the time, and I said to her, “He’s not responding to your body language that you’re not interested. You should tell him verbally.” She responded, “No, it’s ok, I don’t mind.” Granted, this was in front of him. Had I been older, I would have taken her aside and said this to her privately, but I still stand by my observation and the words I said to her. The girl probably didn’t understand this, but it is clear to me that at the time she was not mature enough to give consent. If you don’t feel comfortable verbalizing your no, then your yes doesn’t mean anything. Which brings me to another scenario where movies are at fault:  manipulation.

There’s this scene in The Notebook that reminds me of my sexual assault, and it sucks that this is considered the start of a great movie romance, when really, it’s manipulation.

This is the beautiful Ferris Wheel scene, where Noah threatens to kill himself to get a date with a hot girl he’s never met.

Let me repeat that. HE THREATENS TO KILL HIMSELF TO GET A DATE. And she says no at first, until he drops one of his hands and dangles, pretending to slip. The girl below them yelling at him has to be my favorite character in this scene. It’s been a while since I saw the movie all the way through, but this scene always stuck with me. I thought at first it was romantic, and a beautiful image of the persistence that proves that Noah loves her. Frankly though, it’s actually proof that Noah is a manipulative jerk who knows he’s getting a pity date, and doesn’t care. He’s convinced himself that if he can just get a date with her, she’ll fall for him. It happens to work out that way for him–just as Sarah’s one date with Sky happens to work out for Sky too, but in real life, that’s simply not the case.

She seems to be thoroughly turned off by Noah’s irrational, immature behavior. The only thing she’d be thinking in real life is, how do I get this guy to leave me alone and get off the Ferris wheel? Noah is not actually suicidal, and she doesn’t like him, so there is no reason for her to date him. She should say no, or, if she says yes, should say no once they’re back on the ground. So she does something immature to retaliate? It’s funny, but pantsing someone doesn’t make up for the manipulation.

Having been sexually assaulted by a guy who threatened to kill himself so he could get alone with me, and have my undivided attention whenever he felt like it, I can honestly say that this is a tactic used in real life by real douche bags–and listen–whoever’s reading this:  DON’T BUY INTO IT. It’s one thing if a close friend reveals his or her depression or suicidal thoughts. If it’s someone you know well, it may be legitimate, but when a person you don’t know well does it, there are 2 reasons they could be doing it for, and those are for your attention or pity, both of which can be used to manipulate you.

As a young woman who watched these scenes growing up–and saw many others just like them–I didn’t recognize my sexual assault until well after it happened. I knew I had been touched, often against my will by that manipulative loser, but I didn’t understand consent. I thought my absence of a no was giving him consent, but in reality, I only let him touch me because I was afraid he would kill himself if I did anything that would upset him. Even after I broke off my relationship with him, I still thought he was genuinely suicidal. It took the convincing of some very close friends, one of whom had legitimately struggled with depression, to get me back on the path to safety and healthy thinking–and guess what? That “suicidal” asshole? He’s still alive, even though I broke it off. He had no intention of killing himself, but man, did he milk it for the attention. This is not to say depression is not real–it is. I’ve known people who’ve suffered from it. But usually, they don’t talk about it to people they don’t know well, and when your distant acquaintances start telling you what sound like their most intimate, dirty secrets for absolutely no reason, after conversations that you could barely call deep or intimate,  you should be suspicious. They’re not telling you because they’re your true love. They want your pants off, and your shirt too.

Happy thinking my fellow daters.