Anatomy of a Scandal Misses the Mark on Consent

The following contains spoilers for Anatomy of a Scandal, now streaming on Netflix.

Anatomy of a Scandal premiered on Netflix as a legal drama series about a sexual assault case against a politician in the United Kingdom. The court case is largely based on the argument of whether consent was verbally given. However, this is problematic as there is much more to consent than saying yes or no.

In this limited series, Olivia Lytton worked as a political researcher for James Whitehouse, a Tory Member of Parliament (MP), who raped her in a lift in the House of Commons. The two previously had an affair that lasted for five months, with him breaking it off. Olivia then takes James to court. During this time, the defense's Angela Regan argues how Olivia never said the word "no" and how this means that she was not unwilling. When the trial ended, the jury presented a verdict of "not guilty" even though James did commit the assault. In the court sessions, consent is depicted as something that is black and white, when it is much more intricate than that.

The one valid point that the show makes regarding consent is that it can be withdrawn at any time. However, from here, it deviates from current understandings of consent and places too much weight on a person having expressed themselves in these situations. In one of the episodes, Angela Regan asks, "How can a person hear no when it hasn’t been said?" This way of thinking throws non-verbal communication out the window and ignores situations when consent is not given, such as when a person is unconscious or unresponsive.

In these instances, when people have a freeze response or are in a state of shock, they may not have the ability to respond at that moment. This means that if a person doesn't say anything, it shouldn't be assumed that they are consenting. There is also the use of body language, where a person might try to push the other away. Olivia did this and hesitated by saying "not here," which indicates that she was not giving her full consent. Even though Kate tries to make a point of this during the trial, it did not appear to be relevant to the jury or to the defense.

The series was also able to focus on sexual assault that occurs on college campuses. Holly Berry moved and changed her name to Kate Woodcroft after being assaulted by James at Oxford. On college campuses, sexual assault is still rife and young people do not always have a proper understanding of what consent means especially during their first years. Holly, however, was clearly not consenting, with James ultimately pressuring and physically forcing her into it because he felt he was entitled to.

The argument that consent is revoked only when the word no is said takes away the responsibility from people in doing the work of interpreting these situations. Many factors can play a part in whether consent is given. Anatomy of a Scandal had the opportunity to focus more on these different aspects of consent but chose not to, which resulted in a muted handling of a relevant topic. This adds to the current discussions about the handling of sexual assault and consent in TV shows, such as with Claire in Outlander and Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout.

Anatomy of a Scandal is now streaming on Netflix.

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