Calling that Poldark sex scene “consensual” doesn’t tell the whole story

Ross and Elizabeth's night at Trenwith raises important questions about consent - and sends out some problematic messages, says Sarah Doran

120794

When I first heard that the creators of BBC’s Poldark were intending to re-interpret ‘the rape scene’ for the 2016 series I was dubious because that passage in the 1953 novel is incredibly problematic.

Advertisement

“Don’t. I’ll scream. Oh God, Ross”, Elizabeth protests in the source book, as the Cornish captain – enraged by her decision to accept his enemy Warleggan’s marriage proposal – barges into her home, ignores her when she rebuffs his angry advances, and then carries her upstairs to bed to treat her like “a slut” before the scene cuts, leaving the rest to our imaginations.

Some fans say it’s rape, others insist it’s ambiguous. It’s a polarising issue that was always bound to cause controversy, no matter which way the writers chose to handle it.

In the run-up to transmission the show’s creators had “discussions” with stars Aidan Turner and Heida Reed as they tried to decide the “right way” to portray what happened next. Author Winston Graham’s son, Andrew, was also consulted in his late father’s absence, to make sure the scene stayed true to the original text.

Leading man Turner has said the 2016 scene seems more “consensual”. He claims Ross doesn’t force himself on Elizabeth, describing it as “emotional unfinished business” and saying it “just seems right”.

Andrew Graham, meanwhile, argues that if you read all of his father’s novels “it becomes clear, from earlier scenes as well as from Elizabeth’s immediate reactions and later mixed emotions that what finally happened was consensual sex born of long-term love and longing”.

But having now watched the new adaptation’s take on the story, I’ve got a major problem with the description of Ross and Elizabeth’s encounter as “consensual”.

120654

The 2016 TV adaptation omits much of the novel’s dialogue – Elizabeth doesn’t say “stop” or “no” or threaten to scream – but the characters’ physical actions suggest something dark and unsettling is happening.

Elizabeth doesn’t ask Ross into her house – he kicks the door down. When she says “not tonight” and points out that Ross shouldn’t be in her bedroom, he ignores her. When she asks him to “please leave”, he refuses. And when she pushes him away after he kisses her, he still goes in for a second attempt, only to be pushed away again.

During an argument at the foot of her bed, Elizabeth gasps “you wouldn’t dare”. Ross responds by throwing her down on the sheets, snarling that he would (and telling her she would too), then briefly pinning her arms to her sides as he gets on top of her. It’s only after that that Elizabeth indicates willingness to comply – by stroking the back of his neck and finally giving in to his advances.

Can we honestly just call that “consensual sex born of long-term love and longing”? Is it not brimming with shades of grey? And could it not also be interpreted as sex born of pressure, exerted by a controlling partner who wanted someone to submit to his will?

Elizabeth never actually says the word “no”, but she never actually says the word “yes” either. She does, however, repeatedly push Ross away and ask him to leave, a request which he completely ignores.

If a friend told you that someone – even their own partner – had treated them in the same way as Ross Poldark treated Elizabeth would you feel comfortable about what had happened? Would you have been comfortable if it was happening to you?

Non-consensual sex isn’t merely the preserve of deviants and creepy villains. Swoon-worthy heroes on horseback and loving partners have the capacity to force the issue too. 

Consent and coercion are two very different things, and I’d argue that Ross and Elizabeth’s ‘tryst’ features behaviour that’s less of the former and more of the latter.  

Gillian Anderson’s Stella Gibson put it best in an incredibly powerful speech about consent during the opening episode of the new series of BBC2 crime drama The Fall.

Just because someone doesn’t fight or run, it doesn’t mean that what has happened is acceptable – and that’s why I find the term “consensual” a completely inappropriate one to use when it comes to this scene.

120795

Poldark writer Debbie Horsfield got it spot on when she said the scene would feature some degree of ambiguity, and it’s undeniable that one interpretation is that it is an aggressively coercive and manipulative series of events. Calling it “right” or “consensual”, and particularly showing Elizabeth’s resistance turning into enjoyment, risks sending a potentially dangerous message via primetime Sunday night TV to anyone on either side of such an encounter in real life.

Is it really OK that you were pressured into something if you went along with it in the end? Is it really OK to pressure someone who refuses you initially, but eventually gives in?

Does no only mean no when someone actually says it? Or do actions speak as loudly – if not louder – than words?

Advertisement

Poldark continues on BBC1 Sunday nights at 9pm