How An ABC Family Show Tackled Campus Rape In An Honest & Real Way

Photo: Courtesy of ABC Family.
"I want to make sure I understand. Are you saying that you regret having sex with Tank, or that it was not consensual?"

"I'm saying something happened and ... I wasn't okay with it."

Those are the words that seal fan-favorite character Tank’s expulsion from the University of Missouri-Kansas City on last night’s episode of Switched at Birth. The ABC Family show, which is now in its fourth season, has won already a Peabody Award for exploring controversial issues like racism, class, and the obstacles faced by the deaf community. Last week, the teen drama delved into on-campus sexual assault when main character Bay Kennish, played by Vanessa Marano, woke up naked in bed with her ex-boyfriend, Tank, after blacking out at a college party. Bay was upset when she woke up and slipped out the door, but her immediate concern was that she had cheated on her long-distance boyfriend, Emmett.

Bay told her mother what happened, but pretended the story was about a friend of hers. She asked her mom if it was wrong that her "friend" cheated, even though she doesn't remember. Instead, her mother replied that it was wrong her friend was raped. Bay was dumbfounded — it never occurred to her that she might be a victim of a crime. Regina insisted that, at least in her opinion, if Bay's "friend" was really drunk, then she couldn’t give consent. Bay wasn't so sure; that label sounded scary and foreign, and it didn’t describe how she felt.

She decided to discuss the night with Tank, who became defensive. From his perspective, Bay wanted to have sex. She was the one who kissed him, and if she had said no at any time he would have stopped.

We then watched two different flashbacks of Tank bringing Bay water in bed during the party. We don't know whose version of events to trust, or if either one provided an accurate portrayal of what happened. In Tank's version of the night, Bay insinuated that she was going to dump Emmett and leaned in for a flirty kiss, laughing about being really drunk. In Bay's version, her vision was blurry, and she was visibly intoxicated, mumbling incomprehensible things about her boyfriend. She pulled away from Tank's kiss and said how drunk she was before passing out. The conversational details are the same, but the tone and body language were very different. We also find out that Bay felt sick and hit her head during the party.

During a pivotal moment in their confrontation, Bay told Tank that she may not have said "no," but had she ever said "yes?" Tank doesn't answer the question. It was obvious that Bay "wanted it," he insisted. Did she really expect him to ask her if every touch was okay?    

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Photo: Courtesy of ABC Family.
By the end of last week's episode, titled "At the First Clear Word," Bay was distraught. She decided to tell the entire story to her friend Daphne:

"I was drunk," Bay began.

"So what? That doesn’t mean he can do whatever he wants," Daphne replied.

"What if I said yes, but I don't remember it?" Bay wondered.

"Could you have?" Daphne gently probed. 

"All I know was when I woke up, I felt like something was wrong. But, is that crazy, going on intuition?"

"No. You have to trust yourself," Daphne replied.

After the episode aired, creator and showrunner Lizzy Weiss and the cast and crew held a live Twitter chat with fans in partnership with Break the Cycle, a nonprofit that provides dating abuse resources for teens. #BaysInstinct was trending on Twitter as fans took to the Internet to debate what really happened between Bay and Tank.   

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Opinions were mixed, which meant the episode had accomplished its goal. It initiated conversations about rape and encouraged viewers to reconsider or rethink their definition and understanding of consent. "We really wanted to [open] up a dialogue about this. Right now there is not consensus. It is so polarized on campuses, not just between genders — but administrators, professors and parents in particular," Weiss explained in an interview on Zap2it. "What is considered rape or assault? We really wanted to do a story in which everyone has to look at their choices. Everyone has to think about and talk about how to behave under these circumstances."

On last night’s episode, the aptly titled "Black and Gray," the situation spiraled from intimate conversations among family and friends into the public eye. The school administration was tipped off about a potential sexual assault and initiated a Title IX investigation. Since UMKC is a public college, it's required by law to follow up on assault allegations — even though Bay explicitly stated she didn't want to report Tank and refused to participate in the investigation.

Once it became public knowledge, the investigation spurred a vague article in the student newspaper, and commenters were eager to out Bay's identity. Getting the cyberbullying and slut-shaming comments moderated and removed was yet another hurdle. The discussion continued offline all over campus. One female student said that Bay is an adult and shouldn't have drank so much. "We have to be smart," she said. "We can’t let our guard down. It sucks it's that way for us, but that's how it is." A male student opined that the investigation was a waste of time: "They're making a big deal out of nothing. You could tell Tank and that chick were going to hook up that night."

A student in an assault survivors group invited Bay to a rally. Bay's mother shared a story about waking up to a friend's hands "in places they shouldn't have been" when she was a teen. Tank pleaded for Bay to not cooperate with the investigation.

"This will ruin my life. Do you think I deserve that?" he asked.

"Did I deserve having something done to me when I was too drunk to give you permission?" she replied.

"I didn't know it was without your permission!" Tank said.

"Somewhere, in your mind, did some part of you know that what you were doing was wrong?"

"I was drunk, too!"

"But, did you have a feeling that you were doing something wrong?"

"I don’t know! I don’t know…"

After Bay finally told her version of events to the Title IX investigator, Tank was expelled from UMKC. Fans reacted to the powerful episode on Twitter, and #BaysDecision was a national trending topic.
In choosing to tell this story, Switched at Birth compelled viewers to challenge their preconceived definition of rape, which can leave many survivors feeling isolated and ignored. In an interview with Cosmopolitan.com, Weiss explained: "I think the more common circumstance is what we're showing, which is a good, thoughtful guy who does not have bad intentions who makes a mistake. And, of course, the real question is, 'If you get a really drunk 'yes,' and you don't get a 'no,' is that enough?' That's what we want to help guys understand: Even if it's a yes, if she's too drunk to know she's saying yes or to remember it the next day, you might be called to the carpet for that. And, you need to be aware of that making those choices going forward."

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Photo: Courtesy of ABC Family.
During his hearing, Tank insisted to everyone how much Bay means to him, and that he would never do anything to hurt her. He's a nice guy, he said, even though his judgment was impaired. However, he knew she was intoxicated, she was exclusive with Emmett, and she said a very sober "no" to having sex back in season 3 when they were dating. He told Bay the morning after, "I know you probably think last night was a mistake, but I always wanted it to happen."

While there's a lot of ambiguity in these two episodes, it's apparent from the moment Bay wakes up in a strange bed that this was not what she wanted to happen. That’s where the definition of rape is clear, and what sealed Tank’s fate at school. Bay never said "yes."


If you or someone you know is a sexual assault survivor, these resources are available to you 24/7.
— The Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Support Coalition provides 24/7 guidance and listings of shelters, legal and free counseling services by state
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)
— For questions about domestic violence and abusive relationships, visit Love is Respect 
— Just looking to talk? 7CupsofTea, or "Free, anonymous, and confidential conversations with trained active listeners. All conversations are deleted."
— Not sure you are ready to talk? The tumblr I Believe You, It's Not Your Fault, founded and edited by Lindy West, is a teen advice blog that publishes relatable, true stories by sexual assault survivors alongside anonymous letters from readers.    
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