Left to right: Sophie, Esther and Cece / Shortland Street
Shortland Street, like most soap operas, has had its share of frustrating characters and badly-paced plotlines. But the show has taken a daring, complicated twist since the last week of June that I am totally here for.
Esther Samuels has accused Ben King of sexual violation. However, with crafty editing that omits the actual prelude to the intercourse, the audience doesn’t know what really happened.
But regardless of who is telling the truth, this storyline has already delivered three lesser-talked-about messages around sexual misconduct that the nation needs to hear.
1. Addressing the ‘Nice Guys’
Shortland Street has never had a Nice-Guy rapist before, which is one reason why their new direction was so bold.
Viewers may remember Zac Smith, who attacked Roimata in an alley, or the Beechwood Beast, who violently and repeatedly raped women in Ferndale. These characters delivered the very necessary, albeit simplistic, message that “Rape Is Bad!” but they also constructed a stereotype of what we envision rapists to look like. A stereotype that, considering most victims of sexual assault are assaulted by someone they know, is not wholly true.
Enter Nice Guy, Ben King. He’s educated, polite and even saved Esther from an attack just prior to their interactions. Even supporting Esther the way I do, I don’t think Ben is necessarily a bad person. He, along with all the Nice Guys he represents, is simply a reflection of the society he’s grown up in. The society that emboldens male sexuality. The society that excuses their sexual misbehaviour. The society that doesn’t police their bodies, words and actions as much as they do women’s.
As a result, Nice Guys may be amazing fathers, friends and colleagues but they have as much potential to be sexually abusive as Zac Smith or Ian Reid. Sure, they won’t generally stalk or physically abuse a woman, but unless they are aware of the sexual aggressions they too are capable of, they can be just as damaging.
2. Consent: The Finer Points
If anyone feels the need to blame Esther, they have a misconception around consent. Women can have these misconceptions, too, because even Esther wanted to blame herself.
She tried to excuse Ben’s behaviour since she had invited him to bed, drank excessively with him and considered that he may not have heard her. Many complicated messages about consent are implied by the events of the storyline.
Firstly, withdrawing consent is a right. A green light can turn red at any time. Ben also had the right to decide against sleeping with Esther and go home (which he didn’t do,). And both of them can exercise their rights at any point before or during intercourse. The unfortunate thing was, when Esther exercised that right to stop, Ben didn’t listen or didn’t notice.
Which brings us to the second finer point of consent. Consent should be enthusiastic. Ben could have easily detected her unwillingness and stopped if he actually prioritised the woman he was with over his own motives. Be attentive during sex. Notice if your partner/s is/are enthusiastic or not.
Lastly, consent through coercion is not consent. Much of the behaviour we are familiar with is not healthy: think begging someone who has already said no to change their mind, attempting to ‘convince’ someone by touching, or continuing intercourse with someone who gave consent begrudgingly. In any of these cases, there’s no enthusiastic consent.
Just ask yourself: is sex really so important that you’d be okay to have sex with someone who didn’t really want to have sex with you and felt uncomfortable throughout it all?
3. People Believing Women
I was worried for Esther. A woman coming out with her story of sexual abuse is sadly seldom received well. Without any other witnesses, it would really be Ben’s word against hers. But that was before the staff of Shortland Street banded around Esther.
Kylie, who is admittedly problematic, helped Esther to articulate what exactly had happened to her. Ben’s wife, Cece, went to hear Esther’s side of the story. Then Cece told an aghast Ben that he had ignored her protests during sex, too, so she believes Esther — as do Nicole, Harper, TK, Boyd and Chris.
If Esther’s plight took place in real life, the reactions of the people around her could be very different. A scorned wife could completely reject her account of events. The friends of a respected doctor could claim he would never do that.
Esther’s plight is taking place in real life. Many of us have experienced a version of her story. Something so hurtful but so intangible, so difficult to prove, that we let go. Maybe it’s for the sake of healing, our career or our family. We just want to forget. And the perpetrators hardly ever get their reckoning.
But movements like #MeToo are lowering the tolerance people have for any sexual misconduct while broadening our definition of it. The staff of Shortland Street are a good example of how we should respond to sexual misconduct allegations (minus Kylie’s hotheaded rant in ED.)
They remain professional and don’t interfere with the work of the police, but at the same time, they’ve made it clear to other staff, and Ben himself, that his behaviour was unacceptable — whether he can fathom it or not.
The incredible support network that Esther has around her gives me faith that she will find justice, one way or another.
And the writers and directors of Shortland Street putting more thought-provoking and insightful storylines on TV give me faith that the sexual climate for women in New Zealand will only improve.Support Villainesse