Sorry Poldark, forcing a woman to have sex against her will isn't romantic - it's rape

Aidan Turner – who plays Ross Poldark in the series – has defended the scene that many say is a 'damaging' depiction of 'rape fantasy'BBC

In a month when global events and social media interactions have made it clear that the general public and politicians alike are deeply confused about sexual violence, Poldark production company Mammoth Screen has ridden in on a dashing steed to make it clear that they don't know what rape is either.

Back in August, much fanfare was made of the news that Mammoth Screen had decided to "cut" a "shocking" rape storyline from the next series of TV show Poldark, which would have shown the "married hero forcing ex Elizabeth into bed". Instead, it was reported Poldark would: "have a fling with first love Elizabeth".

A source at the time told The Sun: "Ross is a hero and times have changed since the 1950s and 1970s. The new series reflects that in a way that keeps Ross Poldark as the romantic hero that fans want." Additionally, a Mammoth Screen spokesperson told The Mirror: "[Poldark novelist] Winston Graham's version of events is open to interpretation. Ours is not."

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But when the scene was aired in Sunday evening's episode, the description "forcing ex into bed" reflected its portrayal far more accurately than "fling with first love".

The scene shows 'romantic hero' Poldark kicking down the door to Elizabeth's house, ignoring her when she actively and clearly says no to him, before pinning her down on the bed as she tries to escape and forcing her into sex. In other words, he rapes her. To make things more problematic, the episode portrays Elizabeth as later seemingly enjoying the event, thus providing a near textbook depiction of the classic "She said no but really she was gagging for it" rape myth.

This idea, that it is sexy and romantic for men to forcefully take control in romantic situations, ignoring women's objections – and that women secretly love it and want it even when saying 'no' – is a common trope. The same idea was implied in the lyrics for Robin Thicke's infamous song Blurred Lines, in which he repeatedly sings "I know you want it" even while having to check "baby can you breathe?" It is a myth many survivors come up against when their reports of rape are dismissed or disbelieved.

Threat, power and control are clearly established as is his repeated denial of her clearly stated wishes.

Equally damaging is the idea that rape isn't really rape when it happens between two people who have previously had sex – another myth that gets a nod from the scene and the way it has been defended in the press. Andrew Graham, consultant to Mammoth Screen, and son of Winston Graham, has described the scene as portraying: "consensual sex born of long-term love and longing".

But contrary to popular belief, past encounters are irrelevant to the right to refuse consent in each individual situation, as Elizabeth clearly, repeatedly, tries to do.

It is important to be clear that this isn't about censorship, or suggesting that sensitive subjects shouldn't be shown on television or film. It is about how they are dealt with and the wider conversation around them. Had the production company chosen to tackle the subject of rape with a portrayal that didn't attempt to show the perpetrator as a "romantic hero", or perpetuate damaging and unrealistic myths, it could have contributed to an important and badly needed national conversation about consent.

Instead, it added to the already enormous problem of myths and misconceptions about sexual violence. By publicly suggesting that the scene does not depict a rape, with star Aiden Turner saying "it seems consensual and it just seems right" and producer Karen Thrussel saying the scene depicts "a consensual act", the problem has been compounded further.

While much of the discussion of this episode has focused specifically on its climactic moments, it becomes even more problematic when the wider context is taken into account. Breaking the scene down in more detail reveals strikingly clear hallmarks of abusive situations that will be horribly familiar to many survivors.

First, our "romantic hero" angrily and threateningly growls at his tearful wife to "get out of my way" as she begs him not to go to Elizabeth's house. On arrival, he raps angrily on the front door, screams Elizabeth's name and kicks in the door. He strides through house still shouting her name.

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When he arrives at her bedroom door, Elizabeth looks genuinely distressed and tries to suggest they speak "perhaps tomorrow mor—" but he cuts her off, saying: "no, not tomorrow, now". Next, she tries to de-escalate the situation by moving it away from the bedroom, saying: "downstairs then. I'll get a candle." He deliberately rejects her wishes, following her into the room uninvited. She says "Ross I don't think—", but he cuts her off again, tauntingly finishing her sentence: "I should be in here" and shuts the door behind him. Threat, power and control are clearly established, as is his repeated denial of her clearly stated wishes.

He paces back and forth while she stands with arms tensed by her sides, trying to defuse the situation – "I hated having to send you that letter but really I've said all there is to be said" – trying to calm him down, apologising for his perception of her role in rousing his wrath, appealing to him to be reasonable.

He laughs at, harangues and speaks angrily to her in response, ignoring her request to "please leave now", before the rest of the scene unfolds.

When you look at this portrayal of a scared and uncomfortable woman trying, repeatedly, to calm down and eject an unwanted male intruder in her bedroom in the middle of the night, the insistence that this scene is not abusive becomes even more damaging. If this is a "romantic hero", he isn't the hero we need.


Laura Bates is the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which has collated over 80,000 women's stories of harassment and discrimination at work and in everyday life. She is also a prolific writer and the recipient of several awards. Follow Laura on Twitter here.


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