My best friend lives in Southeast Asia next door to an orphanage. One day she messaged me about two new girls she’d seen arrive.
Their heads were shaved to combat a chronic lice problem. And one was missing teeth. This, she told me, was a strong indication that they had been sex trafficked.
Missing teeth facilitated oral sex. One of the girls does not speak; the other, rarely. My mere two degrees of separation from their nightmare has changed the way I experience American media.
Saturday afternoon, I checked my email with the TV on in the background. I looked up when I heard sharp syllables of fear to see a young girl being raped. Little of her was visible — this was a broadcast TV network, after all. But I heard plenty.
The camera framed the attacker’s face with its grisly gratification. My heart beat faster, and my mouth tasted metal.
Abroad, much of the world’s understanding of American values is gleaned from our exported TV/movie culture. On our soil, international students and new immigrants use TV to learn our language and lifestyle.
When they see sexual violence in shows like “Criminal Intent” or “Law and Order,” what do they make of us? “Women in peril” aren’t just themes in books and digital media.
They exist in real life. Nigerian schoolchildren. Indian girls gang-raped on their way to the bathroom and hung on a tree. An Ohio teenager hauled from party to party, like a keg of beer, almost naked and nearly unconscious.
I said to my mother recently: “These are the situations we learn about, thanks to (the) Internet. What must have happened to women in the past, unknown to anyone?”
My mom said, “It doesn’t bear imagining.”
Yes, too awful to think about and too appalling to watch from the safety of our sofas. Recent episodes of “Mad Men,” “Scandal,” “House of Cards” and other beloved programs have included rape in their storylines.
It’s all for the good, we are told. Sensitive portrayals will help us understand the world of the rape survivor.
So it’s educational programming?
This is not moral high ground. It is bad logic. If viewing violence does not “make” us violent, then observing compassion will not make us compassionate.
Scenes with sexual violence shock us. Until one day, they don’t.
What remains is a vague unease and an indefinable distrust between men and women. As media consumers, we have a responsibility to set boundaries for an industry that either won’t or doesn’t know how.
America women should lead by demanding fewer depictions of sexual violence on our screens. Our power is personal intolerance.
Change channels. Stream a different movie. Read the IMDb database summary before buying that ticket.
If your protest is but one in a crowd of jaded theatergoers, leave them to it — but by all means, leave. And make it seriously uncomfortable for your man to stay in the room without you.
It is an act of coarse disrespect to watch virtual sexual violence, popcorn in our laps, while women throughout the world experience real pain, humiliation and fear. We are becoming a nation of voyeurs rather than a voice for those who cannot speak.
Teresa Williams of Kansas City is a freelance writer and home-schooler. To reach her, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.