TIME Television

Poldark Sex Scene Criticized For Perpetuating ‘Rape Fantasies’

"Ideas like this are underneath lots of excuses for not believing women when they report rape."

Makers of the British historical drama Poldark have come under fire for a sex scene broadcast in the U.K. on Sunday evening, which critics say blurred the boundary between consensual and non-consensual intercourse and “would not have been out of place in a porn film”.

Set in the late 18th century, Poldark is the story of a young captain, Ross Poldark (played by Irish actor Aidan Turner), who returns from the American War of Independence to find his estate destroyed and former sweetheart, Elizabeth (Heida Reed), engaged. Despite marrying another woman, he continues to love Elizabeth, and is furious when she later falls for his rival, George Warleggan.

During the controversial scene, Poldark and Elizabeth argue over her decision to wed George. “I oppose this marriage, Elizabeth, I would be glad of your assurance you will not go through with it,” Poldark tells her, as he repeatedly and passionately kisses her while she attempts to push him off. “I love him to distraction… I detest you,” Elizabeth retaliates, before she is thrown onto the bed and pinned down by Poldark, at which point she succumbs and begins to kiss him back.

Campaigners have said the scene perpetuates the dangerous notion that when a woman resists they still want to have sex, as well as the myth that ordinarily heroic or moral men, such as Poldark, are not rapists.

“The Poldark ‘rape’ scene would not be out of place in a porn film – a strong man who knows what must be done and a woman who apparently resists but wants it really,” Sarah Green, a spokeswoman for the End Violence Against Women campaign group, told TIME. “Ideas like this are underneath lots of excuses for not believing women when they report rape.” Fay Maxted, chief executive of the Survivors Trust, an umbrella organisation for rape charities, described the scene as a “rape fantasy” in an interview with the Guardian. “This is some sort of rape fantasy where the man is overcome by his lusty passions and the woman resists but she really wants him after all. It’s a complete rape myth,” she said.

This is not the first time a popular television show has been criticized for its treatment of rape. The makers of cult classic Game of Thrones said in 2015 that the show’s sexual violence would be toned down in season six following the outrage expressed when character Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) was raped on her wedding night. Viewers and critics argued that the scene was merely intended to shock and didn’t serve a narrative purpose.

Similarly, earlier this year the producer of Outlander was forced to defend a graphic rape scene where Claire (Caitriona Balfe) was raped by the King of France (Lionel Lingelser) in order for Jamie (Sam Heughan) to be released from the Bastille. “This scene is crucial to the story, so I stand by what we showed,” producer and writer Toni Graphia told The Hollywood Reporter, amid criticism that the scene was “sickening” and “disturbing”.

Like Graphia, Poldark writer Debbie Horsfield explained that Sunday’s scene was true to the novel it was adapted from: Warleggan, by Winston Graham, written in 1953. “One of the first things you learn when you’re adapting a novel is that no two readers imagine a scene the same way,” she said, in a statement released by the show. “This is even more acute when a scene ends abruptly. As program makers, we needed to decide what the audience would actually see and, as far as possible, to bring to life what the original author intended the scene to depict.”

“There is no ‘shock rape’ storyline in the novels,” Winston Graham’s son Andrew, a consultant on the series, said in the same statement. “To say so is to misconstrue my father’s text. The BBC has cut nothing and [the production company] Mammoth Screen’s portrayal of these scenes is entirely true to my father’s writing.”

Poldark is shown on PBS in the United States under its Masterpiece Theater banner. The second season is airing Sundays Oct. 2 – Nov. 27.

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