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CW: The Reality (TV) of Consent

CW: This explores descriptions of non-consensual behavior.

Reality TV is not without its controversy and concerns about treatment of its stars.

I have not been so gripped by two hours of tv as I was watching the episodes “All Wrong” and “The Turnover Day” from Bravo’s Below Deck: Down Under. Below Deck is a series that chronicles the experiences of the crew members living and working on a superyacht or sailing yacht. Sometimes I felt like this was a floating version of working in Res Life.

These two episodes (starting about ⅔ - ¾ of the way into the first episode) became a masterclass in sexual misconduct, consent, bystander intervention, empathy, trauma, victim-blaming, male victimization, and how to respond to sexual misconduct. I literally cried watching them.

I was drawn to this iteration of Below Deck due to one its stars Aesha Scott, who previously appeared on Below Deck: Mediterranean in 2019 During that show, another crew member, Jack, made a joke about “raping her face” (Aesha and Jack were consensually flirting and kissing). Aesha immediately pushed back on the joke and told him it wasn’t funny, and disclosed she was a survivor of sexual assault. In her confessional, she shared her experience and emphasized that people should be allowed to have fun and get drunk without fear of harm. Jack apologized and seemed to genuinely understand the hurt he caused. I saw then what an amazing teaching tool her choice to be vulnerable and disclose her assault was.

In “All Wrong,” Aesha expresses her instinct that crew member, Luke, wants to take advantage of Margot (who reports to Aesha) because she is intoxicated after a crew night out. Aesha privately expresses this to Margot, who confirms she just wants to go to bed and “no Luke.” Aesha stays in Margot’s room until she falls asleep, stepping out briefly to get a snack. What an amazing example of bystander intervention.

What happens after, I will always be haunted by.

The electrical on the boat gets tripped, and Luke, wearing only a towel, seems to use this opportunity to enter Margot’s cabin. Luke, now nude, climbs into her bed, the top bunk, while she is unconscious and hovers over her before settling in against her body.

Fortunately, production intervenes and commands him out, although he refuses to follow their directives and slams the door in their face. He attempts to ask Margot confusingly worded questions in what seemed like an effort to obtain, what he could argue, consent (it wasn’t). Despite how many investigative reports I’ve read or survivors I’ve spoken to, his boldness and entitlement are still shocking to watch. It makes me wonder what happened when a production crew wasn’t there to intervene. As someone who worked in student conduct, I immediately saw how this conversation would be used against Margot, despite her not being in a position to give consent. Predatory behavior can be confusing to understand, but this quick premeditation was only an effort to give him an out later.

Aesha returns as Luke is seen running away nude to his own cabin.

Aesha makes sure Margot is safe and wakes up the captain, Jason. You can see Aesha’s trauma, I would imagine informed by her own experience, all over her face. Jason’s only concerns are what happened, is Margot safe, and comforting Aesha. He then immediately removes Luke from the boat and puts him in the hotel. Jason’s concern was Margot’s safety and ability to continue working; this is akin to the supportive measures issued through Title IX and maintaining someone’s right to an education.

Watching Margot process what happened live, is surreal. I’ve experienced it issuing supportive measures or taking in reports of sexual misconduct. It’s not something I want for anyone. Margot recently shared that she feels it's vital for people to watch these episodes, so this all feels less voyeuristic when the survivor points to their experience and demands we learn from it.

Seeing the support Margot receives from the crew (minus Laura, we’ll get there), is what allows her to feel safe and “loved.” At one point, Margot begins to blame herself for drinking too much. Chef Tzarina firmly says “Women should be able to be black out drunk if they want to. We should be able to stand in a room naked and not have anyone do anything to us.”

What also happens is Laura, the other crew member under Aesha’s supervision. Laura, at one point, tells Margot “I think he just meant it as a joke. He’s a funny guy. He didn’t mean anything bad. He wouldn’t rape you…And it’s not that you said ‘no’ to him the whole night. Like he didn’t feel comfortable to come to you. He felt welcomed coming there.” It was stunning to watch.

Due to Aesha’s leadership, Margot felt comfortable disclosing this conversation to her. Due to Jason’s leadership, Aesha felt comfortable disclosing it to him. There’s a lot of ways we silence survivors, and not creating space for them to report or report retaliation (by our response to them and bureaucratic processes) is one of them.

In addition to victim-blaming, Laura also finds herself in the 1%. Some estimates state that upwards of 99% of perpetrators are male, although truthfully, we’ll never know due to underreporting.

Concurrent to Luke’s misconduct, Laura is continuing to touch, frotter, and demand intimate interactions of Adam, a crew member under Luke’s supervision (because of course, Luke was in a supervisory position - which adds another unsavory layer). Adam gently, firmly, and repeatedly tells Laura “no” over the course of the night. She rejects his non-consent, coerces him into a “non-sexual” massage, and follows him into his cabin. This kind of sexual compliance is not consent. He asks her to leave and lays down in his bed, the top bunk. He tells her the massage was a bad idea. She squirts lotion on his back, climbs into his bed, sits on him, and begins to massage his back. Again, production intervenes and demands she get down and leave. She continues to massage him and kisses his neck twice before eventually acquiescing.

Adam’s story is important, because it’s another way we silence survivors. By facilitating education as if all men are perpetrators, we leave them no room for victimhood. There are complex gender norms and sexual scripts at play here. His an example of the very real response people (of any gender) have when disclosing, and weight they take on when the perpetrator faces consequences as a result of their report. Adam appears to be all too aware that his actions and reactions to Laura have to be “nice,” (which can be categorized as the fawn stress response), because the response from her could destroy his image, time on the boat, and career. It’s important we make the effort to understand this, and not judge.

In his confessional, Adam says “I’m not interested in Laura in the slightest. I told her a million times I just want to be friends. She’s not getting the point across, I don’t know what to do.” That’s why it’s important people in leadership roles are also good bystanders. The next day, Aesha talks to Adam about what she’s observed, checks on his well-being, and confirms she is there to support him and intervene.

Aesha reports Laura’s interactions with Adam (and Margot) to Jason. Jason inquires about Laura’s interactions with Adam in a private meeting. Adam says “Just being a little too much when we are going out, just kind of hanging over me too much. Kind of just like my space. I don’t want to be rude to her or make her feel embarrassed, so I’ve been saying ‘no’ in a playful manner.”

No is no, and consent can be drawn at any time. Additionally, consent via sexual compliance and/or coercion is not consent. We don’t do enough to teach people, especially people in leadership, decision-making, and authoritative positions how to understand this.

Later, when Laura is terminated for her behavior towards both Adam and Margot, Adam says “I feel bad. I hate to even think that I aided in her getting fired.” While this statement may be confusing or shocking to some, anyone that has worked with survivors knows this is an all too common response. Their moral reasoning is often not based on the ethic of justice, but rather the ethic of care. It’s critical those in leadership, investigation, response, and decision-making roles understand this so they can respond appropriately and maintain the survivor’s safety.

It might just seem like a silly reality tv, but what unfolded is victim-blaming and how to swiftly and firmly respond to it, creating safe spaces for survivors with leaders who listen to them and put their safety first, destroying the idea that it's the survivor’s fault because they drank too much or might have been flirty, sexual compliance and coercion, watching someone processes trauma, deploying empathy, investigations, and responding to sexual misconduct in a formal way (because spoilers: Luke was terminated too). Though it’s challenging to watch, it’s a lesson to us all.

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