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How Come the BBC Was Right to Show a Rape Scene in Eastenders?

15/10/2014 12:40 BST | Updated 14/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Perhaps you have read about the controversy surrounding the rape scene in the BBC soap "Eastenders"? Essentially, a happily married woman is raped by her seemingly normal brother in law (or nephew - as this is Eastenders, there is some murky family secret there). The rape takes place after she comforts him, while they are alone in her flat. In order to be able to comment fairly on this storyline, I did actually watch it. The rape is not even shown, it is implied: The victim protests and is pushed down onto a table, looking distraught. The next time we see them, he is stroking her hair and he promises he won't tell anyone. The victim says nothing, but later showers and disinfects her clothes.

278 people complained to the BBC while more than 100 complained to Ofcom (an independent regulator of the UK communication industry). This is a tiny minority compared to the huge amount of people who watched the episode - 7.3 million people. However, the bosses of Eastenders were still forced to explain that this soap "has a rich history of tackling difficult issues." Frankly, they are far more diplomatic than I would be. The reason the viewers complained was, that they felt the storyline was too traumatic, and they wanted the BBC to specifically warn that the episode may be disturbing, just before it was broadcast. One viewer tweeted that the soap is always so depressing. To state the obvious though: nobody is forcing these people to watch it, are they?! One viewer tweeted that "it is a difficult subject to tackle with an 11 year old" while another complained that "I was watching with my 15 year old daughter who got very upset!! Disturbing!!!"

Yes, it is disturbing, but because it is deeply contradictory and irresponsible to choose to watch a soap with your teenage daughter, which portrays constantly bickering and unhappy families who threaten and beat each other up, only to discover that your child is unable to cope with implied rape. If you choose to watch the soap with your child, you should be willing and able to discuss any issues the programme brings up, including that of sexual violence. If your child is old enough to understand that the implied rape scenes depict a rape, then she is old enough to be taught that rape does not just happen on an unlit path at night. She is old enough to learn that if her boyfriend forces himself on her, that is also rape.

I suspect many parents who watch soaps with their children do not actively choose for their children to watch it. Rather, they just watch the soaps even though their children are still up. Whatever the reason for the children watching, it is blatantly NOT the responsibility of the programme makers to ensure that their adult television programme will not distress any children whatsoever, just because it is screened before the 9pm watershed. For readers outside the UK, the 9pm watershed is a rule that programmes screened before 9 in the evening, should be suitable for children (that is, no swearing, sexual content, violence). However, as parents, we must take responsibility too. It is totally unreasonable to expect the people with no children, older children or with adult children, to watch child friendly television until 9pm, simply because some parents of young children let them watch whatever they themselves happen to be watching. Obviously, we all make mistakes sometimes, but that does not mean we should blame somebody else.

I should hold my hand up here and admit that our 2 young girls (then aged 4 and 6) once watched the end of the children's television channel CBeebies until the programmes changed to a food programme with experimental cook and liquid nitrogen lover Heston Blumenthal. Consequently, they discovered a real interest in his programmes, so we started finding them online and watching them together, all four of us. One episode turned out to contain a scene in which some very excitable women were drinking liquid chocolate from golden penises. My husband and I felt negligent that they had watched it, but it had gone over their heads.

Crucially, although these programmes had sometimes aired before the 9pm watershed, we would never dream of blaming anybody but ourselves, because as their parents, it is obviously our responsibility to vet what they watch. Similarly, I wonder why the parents of the distressed young Eastenders viewers do not just take responsibility and also seize the opportunity to discuss rape with their children. An opportunity like that does not often present itself, but it is crucial that children feel able to talk to their parents about anything at all, and that the children, as burgeoning adults, understand their rights. Increasingly, children are growing up in a sexualised media environment and some young girls are under pressure from their boyfriends to carry out sexual acts before they are ready, partly fuelled by the easy access to hard core porn. Add to this the fact that many people are confused about what constitutes rape and our children clearly need to be taught better personal boundaries. I am including you, George Galloway in the rape confusion, as you claim that having sex with someone who is asleep is bad sexual etiquette rather than rape! Galloway is not alone, though: a survey for Amnesty International found that 37% of respondents believed that it was the victim's own fault, if they did not say "no" clearly enough. Furthermore, 21% of young men would try to have sex with someone who did not want to have sex with them. Furthermore, some young people have no idea that they are always entitled to say no, whether they have had sex with someone before, or whether they are mid-act and want to stop.

Would any parent not want to help their child understand what is and what is not rape? As Vicky Prior points out in Metro on 7th October, the rapist in the Eastenders story line is the opposite of how rapists are normally portrayed in the media (old, ugly flashers who leap on strangers) and the victim is happy, bubbly and confident, also, she thinks, the opposite of a normally portrayed victim. And, as Ms Prior says, that is why this storyline is important: It shows that rape can happen to anybody, at any time.

If your child was ever raped, you would want them to realise that it was not their fault; and that rape by a friend or relative is still rape, wouldn't you? That is the point of the Eastenders plot. One person, complaining about Eastenders, said that the soap was not the place to tackle this issue: However, with more than 10% of the UK's population watching it, and with young people saying that sex education in schools is too little, too late and too biological, I would argue that Eastenders is an excellent place to tackle this issue, and we should all be grateful rather than complaining about it. The soap even dishes out helpline numbers for people who have been raped, what more do people want?

This post first appeared in How come...? on 12/10/2014