6 TV Shows That Got Sexual Consent Right (& 4 That Got It So Wrong)

Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX.
Waves of new consent laws have swept across the nation over the past several years. "Yes means yes" is the new "no means no" — although "no" does indeed still mean "no," to clear up any potential confusion. But, despite the fact that these phrases are so very short and sweet, they're also deceptively simplified. The truth is: There's more to consent than just a three-letter word of affirmation or the lack thereof.

One way that college kids and people at large are getting to know the nuances of the consent conversation? Television. In fact, a 2015 study showed that exposure to crime shows can really help people better understand consent laws. Law & Order: SVU was a standout series in this respect, but it's certainly not the only show that tackles issues of consent, and forces audiences to confront sexual coercion on-screen.

We've pulled together some series that have put consent issues front and center — for both better and worse. (Trigger warning: The following slides contains sensitive subject matter.)
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Image: Courtesy of Starz.
The series: Outlander (Season 1 Finale: "To Ransom a Man’s Soul")

How consent came into play: Refinery29 covered this scene in depth when it premiered — and pointed out how it marked a major change in the way that sexual assault is portrayed on TV. Why? Because Jamie Fraser's (Sam Heughan) repeated rape by Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), as well as the aftermath, came entirely from the perspective of the victim. As Lauren Le Vine wrote, "Jamie became a survivor." The audience wasn't spared his painful journey — or the healing process that allowed him to become much more than a one-dimensional victim.

Did the show get it right? We're going to go ahead and say yes. While it was definitely a graphic portrayal, the series managed to recast the portrayal of rape on TV by shifting perspectives from the experience of the abuser to that of the abused. And, though it's clear that Jamie is marked forever by the suffering he endured, in the end, he's allowed to move forward with his life and leave victimhood behind.
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Image: Courtesy of HBO.
The series: Girls (Season 2, Episode 9: "On All Fours")

How consent came into play: Adam (Adam Driver) starts dating a new woman, played by Shiri Appleby. She's pretty forthcoming about what she wants sexually, and the first time they do it she's crystal clear that she wants to take things slow. Their first time seems pretty nice — but then she takes Adam to a party with her friends, where he becomes insecure about her interest in him, and has a drink. Ultimately, he steals her away from the event and takes her back to his apartment, asking her to crawl on her hands and knees into the bedroom before picking her up, taking her into the bedroom, going down on her when she asks him not to, and then having aggressive sex with her from behind. She makes it plain that she didn't enjoy the experience, and while he apologizes for what happened, it's impossible to return the relationship to the moment before it happened.

Did the show get it right?
This one actually took things a little far, and Adam seemed to get off scot-free, for what was a borderline assault. It's definitely fair game to show that consent can sometimes be conflicted; but this episode played off something highly serious as an awkward, forgivable encounter — when there was definitely something darker at play.
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Image: Courtesy of AMC.
The series: Mad Men (Season 2, Episode 12: "The Mountain King")

How consent came into play:
Joan's future husband and newly-minted fiancé, Greg (Sam Page), drops by the office at the end of the day to take her out on a dinner date. When she shows him Don's office, he takes the opportunity to force her into sex right there. The whole scene is about Greg wanting to dominate Joan (Christina Hendricks) — to show her that he's the boss, and that she is not the one in the power seat.

Did the show get it right?
Yes and no — we were primed for this moment earlier on in the episode, when Joan and Greg are in bed and he's not, ahem, rising to the occasion. He feels sexually threatened by both Joan, as well as Roger Sterling, who he meets for the first time the night of the rape. It's a clear presentation of the gender power politicking that ran rampant during that era. In the aftermath of the episode, viewers were a little unclear as to whether or not what happened in Don's office between Joan and Greg was technically rape, especially in light of the fact that — at the time — it was legally impossible to rape a spouse. If nothing else, "The Mountain King" showed us how far we've come since the '60s. (Let the record show that Joan's rape is absolutely not the the only Mad Men scene that explores consent issues. Not by a long shot.)
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Image: Courtesy of The WB.
The series: Felicity, (Season 1, Episodes 7, 8: "Drawing a Line")

How consent came into play: When Julie (Felicity's BFF, played by Amy Jo Johnson) and Zach (Devon Gummersall) start liking one another, everything is rosy and adorable for a while. They see movies. They eat lunch together. They smooch for the first time. But one night, after recording music together, they head back to Julie's dorm room. Zach's a little buzzed, but it doesn't seem like anything bad is necessarily going to happen — until afterwards. Later, she confesses to both Felicity and a doctor that Zach pushed things farther than she wanted them to go.

Did the show get it right?
This two-part episode was ahead of its time. Julie is pretty clear about the fact that their hookup began as consensual, and then switched partway through the encounter — and that she hesitated to report it as rape, because it wasn't violent and she didn't scream. The situation accurately portrays the ways in which victims self-doubt or demote their experience; but it also did a good job of showing what positive resolution can look like on campus, and even gives Julie an opportunity to confront Zach. He inevitably takes responsibility for what happened, and tells her he is sorry.
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Image: Courtesy of HBO.
The series: Game of Thrones (Season 5, Episode 6: "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken")

How consent came into play: Game of Thrones fans were split on the scene in which Sansa Stark (played by Sophie Turner) was raped by her newly-wedded husband, Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). It didn't exactly land as a shock — dread that this could happen began basically the moment the pair became betrothed. But the rape itself posed some major problems: While we see Ramsay rip off Sansa's dress, the camera then pans to Reek, another one of Ramsay's victims, who is forced to watch. In effect, we see Sansa's assault play out through the horror of someone else — which robs the victim of her own perspective.

Did the show get it right?
By all accounts: Nope. This was a pretty clear portrayal of what consent does not look like — but the real problem is the way the show robbed the character of her selfhood.
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Image: Courtesy of NBC.
The series: Law & Order (Season 8, Episode 22: "Damaged")

How consent came into play: Let's establish one thing off the bat — there are dozens upon dozens of Law & Order as well as SVU episodes to choose from when it comes to analyzing how the series and spin-offs portray consent issues. Some are better than others — but this one especially sticks out in our minds. In it, Lauren Ambrose plays an intellectually disabled character who is raped by teenage boys. Being Law & Order, nothing is cut and dry: The judge in the case compels district attorney Jack McCoy to prove that the accused attackers knew that she was disabled, and took advantage of her inability to consent. Ultimately, Ambrose's on-screen dad insists that they drop the case altogether, to maintain his daughter's dignity.

Did the show get it right?
Did the episode do right by the victim? That remained up in the air — and unfortunately, it didn't seem like it did in the end. But in terms of accurately representing that ability to consent is a key component of consensual sex: It made the point loud and clear.
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Photo: Patrick Gookin.
The series: The Skinny (Season 1, Episode 5)

How consent came into play: First, get familiar with the name Jessie Kahnweiler, because she's a likely contender to join the Jill Soloway and Lena Dunham circle this year. Her web series, The Skinny, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and will make its online premiere with Refinery29 on January 27.

Now that that's out of the way... Jessie, who stars in the show, allows her ex-boyfriend (and former drug addict) Cole, played by Spencer Hill, to stay with her for a couple of days. One afternoon while she's getting ready to head to an important meeting, he decides that he wants to have sex. While at first she says no, she starts to get into it — but after she orgasms and tries to get up, he forces her on to her stomach and enters her anally until he's finished. Cole doesn't seem at all clued into the fact that he just violated Jessie; afterwards, she's in a daze and shocked by how he forced her into something she definitely didn't want.

Did the show get it right?
The Skinny is, above all other things, graphically honest. And because the majority of sexual assaults occur between intimate partners, the series was dead-on with the setup. In terms of the rape itself, the scene was interwoven with all of the issues that come up when we're talking about affirmative consent — when sex stops being consensual and becomes assault, specifically. Jessie might have said yes after Cole convinced her to hook up, but she definitely said no to being sodomized, and he inarguably should have backed off.
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Image: Courtesy of ABC Family.
The series: Switched at Birth (Season 4, Episodes 5,6: "At First Clear Word" & "Black and Grey")

How consent came into play:
Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) wakes up in bed with her ex-boyfriend Tank (Max Adler), having blacked out the night before while partying. She slips out of the room, worried that she cheated on her long-distance new guy, Emmett. But as she starts to really think about what happened the night before, she realized that she wasn't okay with whatever happened between herself and Tank. Ultimately, she goes through the school authorities and reports her rapist. The story arc culminates in Tank's expulsion.

Did the show get it right?
Bay replays the events of that night to her mother, but pretends that she's talking about a friend. Her mom is really clear about the fact that if you're too drunk to give consent, then it's rape. Bay continues exploring the incident in conversations with friends, and can't quite shake the feeling that she could be somehow responsible. Ultimately, the conversation shifted to real life: The Switched at Birth cast and crew participated in a Twitter chat with fans. The series offered up plenty of nuance, but it asserted a very important point — without a clear and continued "yes," the sex could not be considered consensual.
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Image: Courtesy of ITV.
The series: Downton Abbey (Season 4, Episode 2)

How consent came into play: When Viscount Gillingham came to Downton, his valet — Mr. Green (Nigel Harman) — came with him. Green does his best to ingratiate himself with the house staff, but he's overly familiar and flirtatious with Anna (Joanne Froggatt). Bates, Anna's husband (Brendan Coyle), doesn't like the way Green is eying his wife, but Anna insists that Green is just trying to be friendly— until, that is, he tries to seduce her. When she refuses his advances, he violently rapes her while an opera performance goes on upstairs.

Did the show get it right?
The rape itself occurs off-screen, but the music that plays while it's happening almost makes it more painful to watch. There's no grey zone here: Green is seriously overstepping. But while Downton fans expressed much discontent over the episode, the show did an overall impeccable job of portraying the aftermath of sexual assault — the victim's fear, shame, and trauma.
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Image: Courtesy of FX.
The series: American Horror Story: Hotel (Season 2, Episode 1: "Checking In")

How consent came into play: Ryan Murphy primed viewers for this gory scene before the premiere debuted — and he didn't scrimp on stomach turning details. Max Greenfield plays a heroin junkie who gets anally raped by a spiked dildo. The shocking scene was more appalling than anything else, and the show was called out for making light of gay rape, as well as a general gratuitous violence.

Did the show get it right?
Hands down, no way. And here's why.

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