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Star Trek: Discovery’s latest episode makes a rare point about male rape survivors

Star Trek: Discovery’s latest episode makes a rare point about male rape survivors


The other conversation about sexual assault we need to have

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It’s been a long time since a Star Trek television show felt like it was really going where no one had gone before — or even to relatively infrequently visited places. Although the original 1966 series dared to feature an interracial kiss, the franchise as a whole missed the boat on LGBT representation until it was already mainstream. And between Star Trek: Enterprise and the reboot films, the Trek series has spent the last decade flailing around in lackluster retreads of its own tropes.

But in the November 12th episode “Into the Forest I Go” Star Trek: Discovery explored a subject that few mainstream shows have had the guts to tackle meaningfully: the rape and sexual abuse of men. The subject is even more important amid the current conversation about sexual assault, inspired by an avalanche of accusations in the entertainment industry, which are still rolling out at a feverish pitch.

Most of these accusations have been made by women against powerful men, but Star Trek: Discovery actor Anthony Rapp is a reminder that women are not the only victims of predatory sexual advances. Rapp, who plays science officer Lieutenant Paul Stamets, recently accused actor Kevin Spacey, 12 years his senior, of attempting to sexually assault him when he was only 14. Like Rose McGowan’s accusations against Harvey Weinstein, Rapp’s story set off a cascade of reports from more than a dozen other men who say Spacey assaulted them, which led to Netflix cutting ties with the House of Cards star and Ridley Scott replacing Spacey in a completed film. The accusations may even result in criminal charges for Spacey.

As our culture grapples with the endemic nature of sexual abuse, we cannot ignore the assaults experienced by men, or the way they are often silenced by stigmas and myths: that being raped is emasculating and signifies weakness; that it is impossible for women to rape boys or men; or that men are not traumatized by unwanted come-ons from women, because they are always eager for sex.

The unexpected poster child for this conversation on Star Trek: Discovery is the ship’s chief of security, Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). Tyler is first seen in the episode “Choose Your Pain” where he shares a cell in a Klingon prison with the captured Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs). When Tyler reveals that he’s been held captive for more than seven months, Lorca is incredulous. No one survives Klingon torture that long, he insists. Tyler pauses. “The captain of this ship — she’s taken a liking to me,” he says. Lorca’s expression tightens; he knows what that means.

Like many survivors before him, Tyler finds that escaping from his abuser isn’t easy — physically or psychologically. During the inevitable prison break, as he tries to limp to the escape ship, the Klingon captain L’rell appears to block his way. “Did you really think you could leave me?” she hisses, looming in front of him. “After all we’ve been through?” He grapples with her, punches her with a wild fury, and makes his way out, clearly shaken.

On television, personal trauma has a way of disappearing at the end of an episode, once the immediate drama and emotional impact has passed. But with the mid-season finale “Into the Forest I Go,” Discovery acknowledged the ugly reality that it’s rarely easy to move on after sexual assault. Although Tyler seems to thrive in his new life on Discovery, and his role as security chief, even starting a romance with Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), his scars persist beneath his affable surface. 

“You put on a facade, like everything that happens to you just washes off,” Burnham tells him. But the lasting impact of his wounds come into play when Tyler surreptitiously beams to a Klingon flagship for a mission, and comes face-to-face yet again with the woman who raped and tortured him. This time, his reaction is even more profound. Despite all his battle training, he freezes, unable to fire his weapon, and he loses himself in a series of horrifying flashbacks.

Later, he tells Burnham that his former captor is “the reason I’ve had nightmares every night since Captain Lorca and I fled her ship.” His voice starts to break. “She’s also the only reason I'm still alive. Two hundred and twenty-seven days. But it only took one to realize I wasn’t going to make it out alive. Not unless I made a choice.” That choice is familiar to many abuse survivors: resist and face violence or death, or cooperate with an abuser and try to get out alive.

“I encouraged it,” he says, tears in his eyes. “Her sick affections, her obsession with me, because if I hadn’t, I’d be dead like all the others. And I got out. I get to keep living my life.” Although he doesn’t seem ashamed, per se, he’s clearly haunted by his decision, and by the violations he had to suffer to save himself.

He’s unquestionably strong, brave, and trained to defend himself at an elite level. And yet none of this saved him from sexual assault.

What makes this scene all the more significant is how it deviates from historical depictions of rape survivors; Tyler is not only a man, but a highly trained soldier, capable of killing multiple Klingon warriors in hand-to-hand combat. In a battle training simulation with Lorca, he takes out 36 foes with tactical precision. He’s unquestionably strong, brave, and trained to defend himself at an elite level. And yet none of this saved him from sexual assault. Faced with a situation where someone had enormous power over him and decided to prey on him, he did what he needed to do in order to get out alive.

It’s a pointed rejoinder to the all the Monday morning rape quarterbacks who ask survivors why they didn’t fight back against their attackers, or didn’t fight harder, even when faced with terrible repercussions. Some people clearly find comfort in picking apart rape survivors’ stories, trying to find the “mistake.” Rape is less frightening to some people if they can convince themselves that it only happens when people make bad decisions, or “deserve” it in some way. Tyler’s story was designed around a more revealing, frightening truth: the only thing keeping any of us safe from harassment and abuse is our relative power in a situation. And that can be stripped away from any of us, regardless of gender, by a predator with the inclination and opportunity.

Thanks to the bravery of Terry Crews, the actor and former football player best known as the buff Sergeant Terry Jeffords on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, we have a vivid, real-life example to draw on as well. Last month, Crews alleged that a male Hollywood executive groped his genitals at an event in 2016. Even though Crews is six-foot-three, 245 pounds, and known for his muscular physique, he did not feel he could fight back: “I didn’t want [to be] ostracized — par [for] the course when the predator has power [and] influence.”

Unlike the experiences Rapp and Crews describe — and the one Discovery depicts — the sexual assault of men is often played as a joke in media, where the punchline is that the man probably wanted it, or at least didn’t mind that much. Even Star Trek itself hasn’t always been immune to this pernicious myth. In “First Contact,” a 1991 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Commander Riker is imprisoned in a hospital on an alien planet, surrounded by a xenophobic populace that’s about to turn on him, and possibly kill him. He’s approached by a bespectacled female alien who offers to help him escape, but only if he has sex with her. 

“I’ve always wanted to make love with an alien. It’s not so much to ask,” she wheedles, grabbing his hand as he pulls back. When he tries to make excuses to extract himself from the situation — he’s in a hurry, their biology might be incompatible — she keeps pressing, refusing to take no for an answer. “It’s your only way out of here,” she concludes.

The woman’s coercive ultimatum should send a chill down anyone’s spine, but instead, it’s staged as a minor bit of comedy, and Riker rolls his eyes and makes an “Oh well” expression before going along with it. Riker is, after all, a notorious womanizer, and it’s implied that he doesn’t mind entirely. This is just an amusing speed bump en route to his escape, rather than a serious incident of sexual abuse. (Male-on-male rape is often treated with similar levity, hence the prevalence of “don’t drop the soap” humor.) The show cuts to the woman aiding his escape, presumably after extracting whatever sexual acts she desired. It is never discussed again. 

Like Tyler, Riker is trying to stay alive in a potentially fatal situation. Like Tyler, he is forced to trade sex for survival. But the implication is that his libido is so omnivorous that he has no boundaries to violate, and that even the most coercive and controlling sex is still a minor inconvenience at most. This scene is played for comedy, but it’s sickening — not only for its inherent awfulness, but also for the message it sends to male survivors who have been told that their assaults are laughable, hardly to be considered assaults at all.

Bravo to Star Trek: Discovery for acknowledging what men like Rapp and Crews already know, and that the rest of us have a moral imperative to recognize: sexual abuse can happen to anyone, even strong, heroic men; that it isn’t their fault, and perhaps most importantly, they aren’t alone.