I'm taking a big leap here in admitting that I watch Cougar Town. The show's name is enough to subject it to ridicule from the young, liberal students that I share a campus with at Brown University. But I started watching the show halfway through its first season, and, finding that the name really didn't do it justice, silently defended Cougar Town to myself as a quirky and charming, but mislabelled and therefore misunderstood, comedy.
Watching this week's episode, however, I found myself squirming in discomfort. Valentine's Day was, in Cougar Town, a day of various forms of nonconsensual sex — that is, rape.
It begins as one of the married couples on the show discusses Valentine's Day gifts. Ellie Torres, played by Scrubs' Christina Miller, reveals that each year she gave her husband, Andy (Ian Gomez), a coupon for sex that he could redeem at any time. Luckily, she says, he always lost his coupons. At this point, Andy pulls out a handful of the coupons, saved, not lost, over ten years, and describes the sex-fest that he and Ellie will be having over the next few days. At this point, Ellie freezes, speechless with horror, and soon after dashes from the restaurant where they are eating.
As the Coordinator of the Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse here at Brown, I tend to be more sensitive than the average American to issues of consent related to sex. Surely, I thought, Ellie likes having sex with her husband, and the character is just putting on a show to maintain her tough woman persona. So at this point in the episode, I was willing to overlook the my feelings of foreboding and laugh it off as the joke it was meant to be.
As the twenty minutes of Cougar Town progressed, however, I could see no joke in Ellie's eyes. There was no "Aww, I'm only pretending to not want to have sex with you." There was only "I am dead inside. You will be having sex with an inanimate object." The character says "No," outright and with much finality, and her husband ignores her completely, asking if she'd rather go upstairs to bed, or try out the couch.
The story between Ellie and Andy is interspersed with Courtney Cox's character, Jules, struggling with insomnia. She takes a sleeping pill, which causes her to sleep-walk and -talk. When she wakes up the next day, her husband informs her of her strange nighttime behavior, at which point she asks in horror, "You didn't have sex with me, did you?" He assures her that no, he did not, only to brag silently to the other men in the room, as soon as Jules's back is turned, that actually he did have sex with her.
One of the key issues we who work on the issue of sexual assault deal with is the question of when a person can actually consent to sex. At least in Rhode Island, a person cannot consent while "mentally incapacitated," which includes intoxication from alcohol and other mind-altering drugs. Since Jules is under the influence of a sedative in the show, and therefore unconscious, she is incapable of consenting to sex. The scene set in Cougar Town is uncomfortably close to incidences of sexual assault committed with the aid of date-rape drugs. Although Jules's husband does not maliciously administer mind-altering substances to her, he certainly takes advantage of her unconscious state.
Meanwhile, Ellie goes so far as to hide out in a friend's house to escape her husband. When she says that she hates having sex with Andy, the friends tells her that hate sex can be really great.
Again, the episode strays uncomfortably close to the reality of an abusive relationship. People often assume that partners in a long-standing sexual relationship cannot rape one another. The idea is that consistent consent is equivalent to permanent consent. In fact, partners in a relationship have the right to refuse sex at any point, and when one partner doesn't respect the other's decisions, sex can quickly turn into sexual assault. Unfortunately, friends and family of the couple can see such conflicts as lovers' spats, and not take seriously the implications of one partner pressuring the other into sex.
Ellie's friend exemplifies this reaction. She believes Ellie and Andy are in love, and therefore fails to acknowledge the seriousness of what Ellie is saying about her sexual relationship with her husband. In the world outside of Cougar Town, this sort of behavior from friends can cause traumatized victims of an abusive relationship to feel their concerns are irrational or their wishes unreasonable, trapping them in a toxic situation.
It may seem like an exercise in futility to be taking a TBS comedy seriously. But what made me so uncomfortable was the lack of comedy in this episode of Cougar Town. Ellie is not joking when she says no to Andy. Instead, the whole dynamic between them is the joke. The relationship abuse is the joke. Similarly, Jules is not joking when she asks her husband about sex. The unconscious, nonconsensual sex is the joke.
Is is here that I must draw the line. I cannot condone comedy that contributes to rape culture. I cannot watch a show that accepts nonconsensual sex as a normal dynamic within a marriage. No means no, end of story.