Sexual Consent In 'The Handmaid's Tale' Is Sadly Familiar
Hulu's TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale is a chilling look at fictional Republic of Gilead, where women are stripped of fundamental rights and shoulder the blame for many issues of society, including infertility. As suh, the discussion of sexual consent of The Handmaid's Tale is similar to the real-life issue — as unfortunate as it is that contemporary society could have so much in common with the fictional story.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), sexual consent is defined as "an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity," but the legal definition varies by state. In The Handmaid's Tale, the rules of sexual consent are also set by the state — the fictional republic — but to a much more extreme degree. Fertile women are conscripted into the service of being Handmaids for wealthy families, for which they are ordered to conceive a child with the husband of the family and carry the baby to term. The Handmaids are forced into this service and, if they rebel or do not follow orders, the outspoken are supposedly sent to The Colonies, where people are ordered to clean up toxic waste.
In the first episode, Offred prepares for The Ceremony, in which Commander Fred Waterford forces himself upon Offred as his wife Serena Joy grips her hands to hold her down. All the power in The Ceremony belongs to The Commander: it is only begun when he arrives, and it looks like he is the only person receiving any arousal during the process. Offred remains expressionless throughout The Ceremony, and does not say no or protest, but as she bathes in preparation of the act, she asks in a voice-over, "What have I done to deserve this?"
In real life, each state in the U.S. defines consent differently, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily mean the definitions aren't open to interpretation. According to RAINN, 22 states — including Mississippi, Idaho, and Hawaii — do not have clear guidelines for what defines sexual consent, meaning that ultimately, it could be determined on a case-by-case basis by attorneys and judges — and not the person who experiences sexual assault. Unfortunately, that could leave a lot of room for error when it comes to prosecuting perpetrators.
The Handmaid's Tale makes it clear that its views on consent are ingrained in the Handmaids early on. In the first episode, Handmaid Janine tells the story of how she was sexually assaulted by several men while at the re-education center. "Who led them on? Whose fault was it?" Aunt Lydia, guardian of the Handmaids, asks the group during a flashback. "I don't know," Janine says. But the Handmaids chant, "Her fault." "Why did God let such a terrible thing to happen?" Aunt Lydia asks the group. "Teach her a lesson," the rest of the Handmaids chant. The scene shows that the Republic of Gilead is more concerned with victim-shaming women rather than addressing the issue of a woman's right to sexual consent.
Sadly, victim-shaming is very real. According to The Independent, a UK study revealed that one-quarter of people think those who are raped when drunk are partially responsible for the assault, while more than one-third of people believed those who flirt a lot should also shoulder responsibility for a sexual assault. These numbers show that we still have a long way to go when it comes to educating the public about sexual consent and sexual assault in general. It's this kind of thinking that causes many women — including myself — to scrutinize and avoid certain activities, because it could be misconstrued by the public.
The Handmaid's Tale's first episode ends with an ironic twist: the Handmaids have a ceremony of their own, attacking a convicted rapist. "This man raped a Handmaid. She was pregnant and the baby died," Aunt Lydia announces to the group as the Handmaids respond with gasps. This twists the series' vision of consent even further: It is implied that even consensual sex with a Handmaid belonging to another man is "rape," yet the everyday sexual assault of the Handmaids by wealthy men and their wives is mandated by society.
And that's similar to how rapists are currently prosecuted in the United States. Just take a look at the many, many high-status men in our society who have been publicly accused of rape or face sexual assault charges, but do not get convicted or face consequences. Plus, according to RAINN, 994 of every 1,000 rapes do not result in conviction or jail time.
While the Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale seems like a truly scary place, what is even scarier is that its rules about sexual consent share shades of truth with the present.