Warning: Spoilers ahead for Sierra Burgess Is A Loser.
If I could rename Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, Netflix's newest rom-com, I'd call it Sierra Burgess Is Kind Of A Terrible Person. Maybe that's a bit harsh. She is a high school student, after all, and it's been scientifically proven that the teenage brain is wired to make horrible decisions. But Sierra is manipulative and nasty underneath the facade of a nice, shy girl. Not only does she catfish Jamey, the sweetest guy on Earth (played by the internet's boyfriend, Noah Centineo), she also manipulates her enemy (Veronica) into being the face of her catfish and then lashes out when it doesn't work. Not to mention that she ghosts her adorable friend Dan, who rightfully called her out for lying to this dude, but was still 100% there for her.
Yet, I can forgive all of those terrible behaviors, because the film makes it clear that Sierra is making bad choices and will have to redeem herself. But the most egregious moment is one we're supposed to laugh off: Sierra convinces Veronica to go on an IRL date with Jamey, and then stalks them the whole time. As Sierra is laying underneath a car listening to everything they say, Jamey leans in to kiss Veronica. She pulls away at first, but then tells him to keep his eyes closed while Sierra comes out from her hiding place and kisses him instead. We're clearly supposed to think this moment is both cute and funny. Except it's not funny or cute, because Jamey never said he wanted to kiss Sierra. By making him cover his eyes, both Sierra and Veronica take away Jamey's ability to choose what he wanted to do with his body, and then they're never even held accountable. Instead, there's another "cute" moment at the end of the movie when Jamey and Sierra kiss each other for real and he says, "Have we done that before?"
If I’m being honest, I like bits and pieces of Sierra Burgess — but I don’t like the fact that Sierra kissed Jamey when he thought it was Veronica. If that had been two guys, and one was kissing the girl, people would be pretty upset. It’s not consensual and it’s not cool.— 〽️egs (@meganmjohnson98) September 10, 2018
So I watched ‘Sierra Burgess is a Loser’ right after ‘To all the boys I’ve loved before’ thinking it’s gonna be another feel good movie. Boy was I wrong. The catfish love story with the weird non-consensual kiss is unsettling. Must move onto next movie to erase this one from mind— Amena (@amenaofficial) September 10, 2018
I was excited to watch Sierra Burgess but it didn’t live up to the hype. There was no storyline, there were offensive jokes, Sierra faked having a disability, she catfished Jamey and kissed him without consent. That’s extremely inappropriate. Not even Noah could save this movie.— Courtney Josephs (@courtneyamberj) September 10, 2018
And rightfully so. No matter which definition of consent you subscribe to, it's clear that Jamey had no autonomy in that kiss. "If you want to do something sexual with someone, you need to ask first," says Julia Bennett, director of learning strategy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "If you don’t ask first and get a clear 'yes' in response, then you don’t have that person’s consent, and what you’re doing to them may be rape or sexual assault."
Now, we wouldn't necessarily call the kiss sexual assault, but it was a violation of Jamey's body and choice. Consent is necessary for more than just sex; it's important to get consent for every part of an intimate encounter, including a kiss. "Consent is an essential part of a healthy, empowered sex life and means that you and your partner agree to do something sexual — whether it’s kissing, touching, oral sex, vaginal sex, or anal sex. Before doing any of those things, it needs to be totally clear that both people involved want it, know what’s going to happen, and feel good about it," Bennett says. Jamey clearly didn't know what was going to happen — that's the point of the "joke" — so the kiss could never have been consensual.
But even if your partner can see your kiss coming, it's important to ask for consent instead of just assuming they want to kiss you, too. "Plain and simple, consent shows that you respect the other person, their body, and their desires," says Kait Scalisi, MPH, a sex educator and speaker. So if you're going in for a kiss (especially if it's the first time you've kissed each other), you can say something as simple as, "Can I kiss you?" Or, sometimes even non-verbal communication can work. "A sexy pause after you lean in but before lips meet heightens sensation and arousal," Scalisi says. "Throw in a whispered, 'Yes?' and you have yourself a swoon-worthy scene out of a romance novel." Consent seems complicated, but maybe if movies, tv, and books spoke more clearly about it, asking for permission to kiss someone (or do anything else) wouldn't feel so difficult.
"We almost never see movies or TV shows where people talk about consent," Bennett says. "We don’t have enough examples of what consent looks like or skill-building about how to communicate, so it’s no wonder there’s confusion." Maybe I can forgive Sierra for not knowing enough about consent to realize that kissing Jamey was wrong, but at the very least, she should have apologized.