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Sexual Consent, as portrayed on screen

I watched a few recently released movies and TV miniseries that deal with the common theme of sexual consent. The following shows touch on sexual consent as either a central or peripheral theme:

But before jumping into reviewing these shows, first a look at the subject of consent itself (with thanks to Wikipedia for most of the content).

Concept of sexual consent

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the concept of consent to engage in sexual activity first came to the fore, with Canadian academic Lois Isabel Pineau arguing that society needed to move towards a more communicative model of sexuality so that consent becomes more explicit or clear, objective and layered, with a more comprehensive model than “no means no” or “yes means yes”. In many (and, sadly, not all) jurisdictions, sexual activity without consent is now considered rape or a form of sexual assault. There are various aspects and elements to sexual consent, some of which are addressed as follows…

Moral and legal perspectives

How we define consent can be rather complex, with scholarly literature around the subject continuing to evolve and being, as such, often contradictory, limited or without consensus. Also, the moral notion of consent may not always align with the legal concept. Dr James Roffee, a social lecture in criminology at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences, demonstrates this in his argument that the legal definition needs to be universal to avoid confusion in legal decisions. An example cited would be adult siblings or other family members voluntarily entering a sexual relationship, where the legal system still deems this incestual and therefore considered a crime.

The use of particular language in the legislation regarding familial sexual activities manipulates the reader to view it as immoral and criminal, even if all parties are consenting. Similarly, some minors under the legal age of consent may knowingly and willingly choose to be in a sexual relationship. The law, however, does not view this as legitimate.

Age of consent

While there is a necessity for an age of consent to be defined, it does not allow for varying levels of awareness and maturity. As such, we can see how a moral and a legal understanding do not always align. Minors below a certain age, defined as age of consent in that jurisdiction, are deemed not able to give valid consent by law to sexual acts. This age of consent is the age below which a minor is considered legally incompetent to consent to sexual acts.

Consequently, an adult who engages in sexual activity with a minor younger than the age of consent cannot claim that the sexual activity was consensual, and such activity may be considered statutory rape.

Across Australian state and territory jurisdictions, the legal age for consensual sex varies between 16 and 17. For other sexual activities, the criminal legislation relating to different types of sexual behaviours and interactions varies across Australian jurisdictions.

In cases where both parties are under the age of consent or of similar age, several jurisdictions provide a legal defence when a mutually consensual sexual interaction is between two young people close in age (ACT, NSW, SA, TAS, VIC and WA). These jurisdictions are attempting to find a balance between protecting children and young people from adult sexual exploitation while not criminalising them for having sexual relationships with their peers.

There are also other nuances relating to age of consent when it comes to sexting. It may be worth noting the following in terms of what the NSW legal code says on the subject. “The age of consent to sex in NSW is 16 but the age of consent when it comes to sexting is 18. As a result, even if the young person in the image says it’s okay to be filmed or photographed, it’s still a crime”.

Implied and explicit consent

This varies from country to country, e.g. Canadian courts require consent to be explicit, ruling out implied forms of consent as a defence for sexual assault. Courts in the US are less rigid, allowing the defence to show the court how consent could have been implied through a previous relationship with the alleged rapist, e.g. through befriending, dating, cohabiting, or marrying. Or implicit consent could be seen to have been granted through having consented to sexual contact on previous occasions, flirting or wearing “provocative” clothing.

Unwanted sexual activity

This can involve rape or other forms of sexual assault, but it may also be distinguished from them. Jesse Ford, author of a 2018 study that showed that men are having unwanted sex with women to “prove they are not gay”, states that “all sexual assault is unwanted sex, but not all unwanted sex is sexual assault”. A 1998 study showed that both men and women “consent to unwanted sexual activity” in heterosexual dating, in these cases, they consented to unwanted sex to satisfy their partner, “promote intimacy”, or avoid tension in the relationship. The authors argue that estimates of “unwanted (nonconsensual) sexual experiences” may confound nonconsensual sex and consensual sex.

Verbal vs. nonverbal

While different consent policies and contemporary social conventions and practices have differing views on whether non-verbal cues count as consent, some rules do permit seeking consent through non-verbal communication. There’s also the potential for a mix of the two types, depending on different policies and laws. According to journalist Kae Burdo who writes for the Bustle platform, the maxim “only verbal consent counts” is limited, in that it fails to accommodate parties that can only consent non-verbally, such as people with disabilities and those in the BDSM communities.

Dartmouth College’s rules on consent state that a communication in intimate encounters is often nonverbal cues such as smiling, nodding, and touching another person; however, “body language often isn’t enough” because interpreting body language is risky, so the best option is to use “explicit verbal communication”. A 2015 article by Sandy Keenan published in the New York Times asserts that men typically use nonverbal indicators to determine consent (61 percent say they perceive consent through a partner’s body language) whereas women typically wait till a partner verbally asks them before they indicate consent (only 10 percent say they indicate consent through body language), a differing approach and expectation which may lead to confusion and misunderstanding in heterosexual couples’ encounters.

In Tovia Smith’s 2014 piece published on the NPR website, Mary Spellman, dean of students at Claremont McKenna College, states that her college allows either verbal or non-verbal consent, with non-verbal consent being assessed by looking at whether the other person is “actively participating” and touching the other person when he or she is touching or encouraging the first person, i.e. showing signs to indicate that a person is an active participant in whatever is going on.

Mental disabilities or conditions

Persons with Alzheimer’s disease or similar medical conditions may be unable to give legal consent to sexual relations even with their spouse. The state of New York in the US does not consider it to be consent in cases where people have physical disability that makes them unable to communicate that they do not consent, either using words or physical signals or if they have a mental illness or condition that makes them unable to understand the sexual activity. The US state of South Carolina has a 10-year penalty for a person who has sex with a person who is mentally challenged or incapable of movement.

We occasionally read horrific news reports in Australia where patients or residents in age care or medical care facilities have been caught on secretly installed cameras being assaulted by staff who take advantage of the patient’s inability to grant consent or don’t have the mental capacity to identify and fend off such an attack.

On the other hand, law professor Deborah Denno (from the Fordham University School of Law, in her 1997 academic paper) argues that people with some types of mental challenges should be able to consent to sex; she says they “… have the right to do so, and unnecessarily broad and moralistic restrictions infringe upon that right”.

Unconsciousness or intoxication

Only in some jurisdictions in the US are individuals who are intoxicated from alcohol or drugs not in a position to give consent. Michigan is one of them. In Canada, intoxication is a factor that affects whether a person can legally consent to sexual activity. The level of intoxication that makes consent impossible varies according to circumstances, including how intoxicated the person is or whether they voluntarily consumed the alcohol or drugs.

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a person drunk to the point of unconsciousness cannot consent to sex, having ruled that once a person loses consciousness or is asleep, they cannot possibly consent. A drunken consent can still be construed as consent under Canadian law.

Fight-flight-or-freeze response

In cases of sexual assault, a person may experience such a physiological reaction in response to a perceived harmful event, attack or threat to survival which is also called ‘hyperarousal’ or ‘acute stress response’. First described by American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon in his theory, animals react to threats with a general discharge or the sympathetic nervous system, preparing them for fighting or fleeing… or freezing as an instinctive reflex to survive the situation. It is therefore common for victims of assaults being unable to verbalise or fight of their attackers in some instances.

We’ve seen a few erroneous and unreasonable legal judgements overturned in court on appeal on this basis. It’s particularly alarming that so many (including learned judges and women themselves) are still unaware of this concept where it comes to children and women being overwhelmed and unable to resist when faced with a sexual assault situation.

Education to address socially evolving mores around sex

It is inevitable, as science informs and further academic and legal inquiry into the human condition and social development evolves, that our views towards how sexual activity is framed and regulated should change over time. The power play in any sexual relationship has shifted over time, along with the emancipation of women and the premise for marriage going beyond the safeguarding of property and the purpose of sex being treated as more than a purely procreative activity.

The 2006 Broadway musical Spring Awakening, based on the 1891 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, tells the cautionary tale of a group of teenagers living in Germany in the late 19th century discovering their sexuality. The prudish times and puritanical social environment of the play’s context meant that they were deliberately deprived of information about how it all works physiologically and socially, much less the issue of consent. The consequences are nothing less than tragic as the boy who finds himself attracted to another boy turns to suicide as a way out of his impossible dilemma and a girl who finds herself accidentally pregnant is forced into an illegal termination of the pregnancy by her parents… with fatal results.

In the absence of adequate and responsible discussion or exposure to the concepts and principles around sexual consent in the home, it then becomes essential that adolescent kids receive age-appropriate education on the subject. It is even more baffling and frustrating to see sections of society and insist on denying the kids access to such information, on the mistaken and naive notion that simply keeping away information about sexual activity from them—so as not to “corrupt” them—would naturally result in such activity never coming into play. Would someone please explain to them that the human impulse to engage in carnal knowledge is not entirely a result of the knowledge itself, whether this is gained from books, hearing about it from their peers or simply what they have been programmed to believe?

Religious extremism

The head of Catholic Education Tasmania very recently criticised consent education that was being rolled out as part of the national as national curriculum, saying it includes “highly sensitive, amoral and potentially harmful information”. He objected to children being taught that any form of sexual activity is OK provided both persons give consent, despite the federal education department’s clarification that schools would have some flexibility when it comes to teaching the curriculum.

And yet, we know too well how such religious zealots have irrationally conflated the legitimate matter of two persons of the same sex engaging in consensual sexual activity with bestiality or paedophilia, clearly displaying how they either do not or refuse to grasp the concept of consent. Can they not see that an animal cannot give consent, hence the unambiguous unacceptability of bestiality? Perhaps this why so many innocent children sexually violated by clergy has often been dismissed as mere collateral damage in the priority to defend an institution’s reputation, “what men do” or flippantly referred to as “part of the homosexual agenda” when priests and some nuns too are allowed to assault kids of either gender with no consequences.

This may not be baffling to them, but one has only to read sections of their scripture to understand that sex, as defined in ancient times, was never about consent but more to do with preserving man’s right in a patriarchal and now outmoded misogynistic view of how societies always have and should continue to operate.

1. One Night

Released: September 2023


This engrossing six-part Australian miniseries tells the story of a trio of female friends whose close bond and lives were shattered by the events of one night twenty years ago. Consent, recovery, and damaged relationships are key themes explored through the central characters. Simone (Nicole da Silva), Hat (Yael Stone) and Tess (Jodie Whitaker) share a special friendship which was put to the test when Tess was sexually assaulted at a pub where Hat worked as a bartender.

The setting and premise

Set and shot beautifully in the south coast of NSW—with its stunningly coastal landscape—the drama begins to unfold when Tess (who had moved to London after the incident) decides to return to Australia having secured a new corporate financial job in Barangaroo in Sydney, along with her female partner and the two children they share. Simone, who has never really recovered from the episode or made much of her life since, also went away but has returned to her hometown to live with and care for her widowed father Don (William Zappa) who’s suffering from dementia. Hat, who is now a lawyer, never left town and continues to live there with her husband and kids.

Simone has just finished writing a book about the events of that one night, mainly to try and make sense of what happened, but also to finally make something of herself. But the contents of her novel are bound to stir up emotions, not just amongst her friends but the community too. As can be expected, it opens pandora’s box with accusations of not just the assault but other shady dealings at the pub owned by Mary Calley (Noni Hazelhurst, played with a rather unconvincing Scottish accent) and her two sons Joey Calley (George Mason) and Trevor Calley (Erroll Shand).

The format

Through a retelling of the events dredged up by Simone’s new book and Tess’ timely return to town, we learn of the events leading up to that one tragic night portrayed in flashbacks played by a corresponding set of younger actors. The episodes are structured to reveal fragments of what really happened that one night through the lens of each character; first Simone, Hat followed by Tess and then back to Simone, Hat and Tess again. Perhaps this rigid structure may have been unnecessarily dragged things out so the pacing sags mid-way through the series.

Simone, who was in a budding relationship with Tess at the time, cannot forgive herself for not having prevented the incident. She did see what she saw but not enough to know exactly what Tess had been subjected to. And their inability or refusal to discuss it, compounded by the police deciding not to even investigate Tess’ claims of assault has left things uncomfortably unresolved.

Hat seems the most distressed party from potentially being identified in the book. We learn that she’s stuck her neck out to try and implicate Tess’ attackers in other criminal activity with a secret testimony that may have been used to put away one of the Calley boys for illegal drug activity instead of the sexual assault. But Trevor, who was put away in prison for his illegal drug dealings is now about to be released early on good behaviour. She fears for her life if he should learn that she’d provided insider testimony about the on-goings at their pub where she worked at the time.

Consent and personal responsibility

When consent wasn’t a word used much twenty-years ago. Hat, being the lawyer was always aware a person who was extremely drunk was in no position to fend off an attack by three burley men, much less give consent. But her insinuations and insistence that Tess was too drunk were construed as trying to put the blame for the attack on Tess (or even Simone) for having allowed herself to be in such a vulnerable position.

The discomfort and tensions are compounded when Tess’ daughter takes an interest in Trevor’s son, whom viewers are led to believe might have been the perpetrator of the crime against Tess. Will history repeat itself? How will it all end?

2. A Nearly Normal Family

Released: September 2023

This Swedish miniseries is about the Sandell family and based on a 2018 novel by M.T. Edvardsson. It opens with 15-year-old Stella being sent off to summer camp by her parents Adam (Bjőrn Bengtsson) and Ulrica (Lo Kauppi). The camp goes seemingly well until Stella, who is attracted to an older sports instructor Robin, decides to go swimming with him in the lake alone. After some anticipated flirting and a spontaneous kiss turns into a cue for more, they proceed to cabin for privacy where they are subsequently found in a compromising position by someone. And then Stella is expelled from the camp for misbehaving.

The first crime

Her parents are distraught to learn, when her mother probes further about her misbehaviour, only for Stella to reluctantly admit that the intimacy had been forced on her despite her discomfort with it. She had been immobilised (in classic fight-flight-or-freeze response to her situation, as discussed above) and somehow wasn’t able to effectively protest Robin forcing himself on her.

However, with the mother Ulrica being a lawyer, she knows too well how such ‘she-said-he-said’ cases like these would never hold up in a court of law. She and hubby Adam agree that the best course of action for their daughter is to protect her from the even more damaging glare of public and media scrutiny. Based on her combined lawyer-mother’s intuitions it seems Stella would be better off not pursuing the case. They could all just treat this as an unfortunate event, chalking it up as another valuable lesson in life’s experiences and simply moving past it.

Moving forward

Fast forward four years later and the family appears to have moved on from the unpleasant incident. Or has it?

Stella, now 19 years old, has opted not to continue with further studies at university and is now working at a local bakery to earn enough money for travel, which serves as her short-term goal in life. She remains close with her best friend Amina who went on to university and whose parents are also close with her parents. One night she sees another good-looking but older guy whom she fancies and decides to take off with him. The dashing Chris (Christian Fandango Sundgren) shows her a great time in the city, and they start a ‘secret’ relationship.

The second crime

Before we know it, things fall apart for the family again and there’s been a murder and with evidence having been found by the police that places Stella at the scene of the crime, so she is hauled off into remand. We are left to wonder what happened while we see both her parents doing whatever they can to again ‘protect’ their daughter from harm, albeit a bit too late.

Pacing and focus

The episodes drag out and details are revealed progressively as to what transpired between Stella and Chris to have ended in the tragedy. We also discover that Ulrica was having an affair with an old lawyer friend whom she enlists to, if only to make things even messier, defend her daughter. We also learn that Stella’s friend Amina got to know Chris, adding an additional element of intrigue regarding her involvement in the crime.

The whole sensibility of this Swedish miniseries is preoccupied with the human drama more than it is with the forensic, criminal investigation or even the legal courtroom process. Being inundated with American and British criminal series which are always invested in those aspects of a criminal case, it feels somewhat unsatisfactory and to some extent even refreshing that the storytelling is so different to what we’re accustomed to. If nothing, it’s interesting and valuable to see how differently the Swedish legal system operates from the one’s we are used to in the US and UK.


Unlike what seems to be the priority in most US criminal TV dramas, justice, truth and clarity on culpability aren’t necessarily the outcomes we arrive at.

Will Stella and her family pay the price for her dalliance with another older man? And have they learnt anything from both of her disastrous relationships?

You’ll have to watch all 6 episodes to find out.

3. May December

Released: December 2023

The basic conceit for the movie reads: Twenty years after their notorious tabloid romance gripped the nation, a married couple buckles under pressure, when an actress arrives to do research for a film about their past. A seemingly happy couple, Julienne Moore reunites with director Todd Haynes for this movie, having previously worked together on Safe, Nine Months, Far from Heaven and Wonderstuck.

The context

Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth, an actress preparing to play a character Gracie (Julienne Moore) in a film about her and her scandalous relationship with younger husband Joe (Charles Melton). Gracie and Joe have been happily married for twenty years now and the relationship has produced two children. We discover that the reason for and general public interest in the movie being planned is that Gracie and Joe had started their relationship when Joe was an underaged seventh grader.

Elizabeth visits and spends quite a bit of time with the family to understand the subject and context of the role she is about to play. Joe is now in his thirties and one of Gracie’s children with Joe is about to graduate from high school. Gracie, having paid her dues for her crime of statutory rape has apparently been reintegrated into society, surviving on selling baked goods to her supporters who keep ordering them from her. Gracie’s former husband Tom (D W Moffett) and her other children from the marriage with him continue to live in the area, which only adds fuel to the volatile and awkward social context.

Elizabeth continues to interview various characters as part of her research for the role. Coincidentally, she’s 36 years old, the same age Gracie was when she committed her crime with Joe. She is determined to get to the bottom of what it was like for Gracie to make the decisions she did. Elizabeth takes a liking to Joe and the pointed and pertinent questions she asks are bound to stir things up in perhaps an unhealthy manner.  

The true story behind the movie

The movie is loosely based on the true story of Mary Katherine “Mary Kay” Schmitz Letourneau Fualauu, who in the mid-1990s was an elementary school teacher in her thirties who had an unlawful sexual relationship with a 12-year-old student, Vili Fauulauu. In 1997, she pleaded guilty to two counts of a felony which was second-degree rape of a child. Letourneau and Fualauu had two daughters together and, after she was incarcerated for several years for the rape of Fualauu, they were married. The marriage lasted 14 years, from 2005 until they eventually separated in 2019, and Mary Kay died of cancer soon after that.

In many interviews throughout their marriage, Fualauu insisted that their relationship was consensual, but after their separation, an article in People magazine indicated that with time and maturity, he had come to understand the relationship as abusive and unhealthy “from the start”.

Consent and ethical questions

The key question that prevails throughout the movie is whether what Gracie and Joe did was acceptable. Did it become alright just, because the relationship started in an unacceptable manner, has survived for so long? And can a male seventh grader ever be able to consent to a sexual relationship with anybody, much less one with a thirty-five-year-old woman almost three times his age?

Clearly, he is not, although we see Gracie constantly reinforcing the position that it was the boy who flirted with her and initiated the relationship. From various insightful scenes we are shown how unstable and immature both Gracie and Joe are. Is age alone ever a decider as to a person’s ability to act in a socially responsible manner?

4. Cat Person

Released: November 2023

This fascinating movie is a razor-sharp exploration of the horrors of modern day dating which involves the pitfalls of communicating via social media. To borrow Sheila O’Malley’s description in her review published on Roger Ebert, this movie speaks of the “thorny complications of male-female “courtship” rituals, riddled with misunderstandings, unspoken misgivings, and ignored red flags” which are all too familiar in our contemporary digital world.

Margot (Emilia Jones) is a 20-year-old college sophomore who works part-time at the concession counter of the local cineplex. At work, she meets an older guy Robert (Nicholas Braun, whom we recognise playing goofy cousin Greg in Succession). He intrigues her as someone who could potentially offer her a different relationship experience from her usual immature college peers. He’s rather awkward and geeky but is similarly interested in her as someone young, pretty and intelligent whom he’s attracted to.

Their first date does go very well but they continue to text each other back and forth. Somehow the appeal of their online communications doesn’t quite match the in-person interactions.


Both their inner thoughts are hilariously depicted in fantasy scenes which get the biggest laughs in the way they are so extreme in pre-empting the worst possible expectations of each other

Source material and criticisms

The movie is directed by Susanna Fogel and is based on a short story by Kristen Roupenian which first appeared in 2017 in The New Yorker. It has a screenplay by Michelle Ashford that extends the premise well beyond what had been covered in the original short story.

The final 40 minutes of the film have been concocted to provide a ridiculous ending, diverting the original story into horror, thriller mode which critics have criticised as been not only unbelievable but diluting the impact of the original story.

Sex scene and consent

Yes, there is an epic sex scene in which the concept of consent does come into play. Margot, who appears to be a lot more experienced than Robert (having been curious to know how an older man could be so inexperienced and incompetent where kissing is concerned) finds herself agreeing to go through with it. Astoundingly, Margot’s willingness to proceed seems to be more to do with her not wanting to offend or be unkind to him and to witness just how bad he could be, so she consents. (See the discussion above regarding unwanted vs. nonconsensual sex).

The sex scene itself is hilarious in the way the director and script writer have managed to vividly capture what goes on in someone’s mind while a bad or regrettable hook-up is happening. Margot talks to her alter ego whom she imagines is outside herself but in the same room observing the event. It’s a rather insightful and novel way to do this, rather than the usual narration to flashbacks or through some laboured conversation with a confidant well after the event.

Inability to recognise red flags

Margot’s hostel mate and best friend, Taylor (Australian actress Geraldine Viswanathan), is a vocal and uncompromising feminist who cannot understand why Margot would continue to engage with someone she is only vaguely interested in and whom she suspects may be hiding his true identity or intentions. Taylor constantly urges her friend to sever things and not lead him on. Yet, Margot is complicit in not being able to just say no, and to nip things in the bud before they get out of hand.

Notwithstanding the unsatisfactory ending, we hope the valuable takeaway from this movie would be for both sexes to know better and to have the social sense and discipline to notice and respond accordingly to red flags raised on both sides.

While we acknowledge that both parties in the relationship are responsible for its outcomes, we can’t but agree that the inability to communicate and manage things in an honest and timely manner are essential to preventing things from escalating to extreme and ridiculous proportions, which this movie presents.

5. She Came To Me

Released: October 2023

This quirky offering from writer/director Rebecca Miller tells the story of composer Steven Lauddem (Peter Dinklage) who is creatively blocked and unable to finish the score of his big comeback opera. Egged on by his wife Patricia (Anne Hathaway) who is stylish, OCD and his former therapist, Steven heads out to walk the dog and to clear his head. He encounters Katrina (Marisa Tomei), a delightfully frothy and eccentric tugboat captain with a romantic love addiction who seduces him. The unusual and unexpected adventure seems to be just the thing he needed as he then manages to complete his come-back opera based on the encounter.

Age of consent involving the kids

The issue of consent in this movie relates to a sub-plot involving Patricia’s 18-year-old son Julian (Evan Ellison) from a previous marriage who is in an intimate relationship with his 15-year-old high school classmate Teresa Szyskowski (Harlow Jane).

Things become awkward when we find out that Teresa’s mother Magdalena (Joanna Kulig) is the cleaner in Steven and Patricia’s household. Magdelena is an illegal undocumented immigrant who is cohabiting with Trey, a legal court reporter who has become an expert in the law and also a harsh and unfeeling disciplinarian. Coincidentally, both teenagers live with their stepdads and when Trey discovers that his legally adopted stepdaughter is sexually active with an older boy and sexting each with pornographic images while under the legal age of consent, he threatens to report what constitutes a crime which would ruin things for everyone concerned. He’s also a pompous Civil War re-enactor who is obsessed with historical accuracy.

Resolving the mess

Marriage is contemplated as a potential way for the two youths to avoid their relationship deemed and treated as a crime. The final part of the movie revolves around Steven producing his new opera, Julian’s family desperately trying to organise an emergency wedding for the teenagers and the OCD Patricia opting to respond to her vocation of becoming a nun.

It’s all most bizarre and not entirely unsuitable material for a modern-day opera involving super flawed but highly interesting and real characters and situations.

1. One Night

Official trailer

Other reviews

2. A Nearly Normal Family

Official trailer

Other reviews

3. May December

Official trailer

Other reviews

4. Cat Person

Official trailer

Other reviews

5. She Came To Me

Official trailer

Other reviews