ABC Family’s ‘Switched at Birth’ Tackles Campus Rape

Sexual assault on college campuses is rarely clear-cut—and the ABC Family teen drama gets realistic with an ambiguous case of Yes Means Yes.

An 18-year-old wakes up in a dorm room bed next to her ex-boyfriend. She has no idea what happened the night before, except that she drank a lot and she feels uncomfortable, unsure if they've had sex. As she goes about her day, she finds out more—including that they did have sex. But she still cannot remember if she ever consented to having sex.

It’s a familiar enough scene on college campuses. But this particular scenario belongs to a television show, ABC Family’s Switched at Birth, which aired the second part of a two-part story arc on Tuesday dealing with sexual assault.

“We really have to talk about this,” said Switched at Birth’s executive producer Lizzy Weiss. “To not do the story as pretty much the only show on TV with young women protagonists in college would be sort of a disservice to our audience. Let’s get into it, as risky as it is, and be part of the conversation.”

Switched at Birth has never shied away from serious issues before, and now midway through its fourth season, main character Bay Kennish is unsure what happened during that dorm room party, even at the conclusion of the second episode. Part of the deep conflict in the show is that the incident involves her ex-boyfriend Tank, a fan favorite character who had never been anything but loyal to her. Weiss says they picked a beloved character on purpose, to show the “sticky” nature of many campus sexual assaults.

“It’s a convoluted case rather than it’s damn clear it was rape,” Weiss said. In fact, Bay's biological mother is the first to say rape out loud, not Bay herself.

The story arc comes on the heels of two former Vanderbilt football players being found guilty of raping a fellow student. Although in that case there were four alleged assailants (two have been found guilty and two are still awaiting trial), the victim in that case also did not believe she had been sexually assaulted at first. When she woke up the next morning, “I felt very out of it,” the alleged victim testified. According to her testimony, she initially refused an examination but the Nashville Police opened an investigation anyway. She had been dating one of the alleged assailants Brandon Vandenberg (who has been found guilty of counts of rape, sexual battery, unlawful photography and tampering with evidence), and when he told her he might get kicked off the football team, she texted him “I don’t want anyone to get in trouble because of me.”

The “I don’t want anyone to get in trouble because of me” is a theme in Switched at Birth, where Bay is at first unwilling to report the incident, although an investigation goes forward without her consent. At first, she refuses to speak to the school but relents as it spirals—and her name is printed online. Having both characters’ names publicized and “dragged through the mud” was important, Weiss said.

Weiss said she had not read about the Vanderbilt case specifically, but this is just one example of how especially timely the story arc is. For example, on the same day the first episode of the story arc aired, Paul Nungesser, who has been accused of raping a Columbia University student who has chosen to carry a mattress around campus as part of a protest against the school’s failure to expel her alleged assailant, came forward in an interview with The Daily Beast to say he was falsely accused.

The Columbia case is just one of many. The U.S. Department of Education last year named 55 universities that are under investigation for their handling of sexual violence on campus. The White House has attempted to increase awareness for sexual assault on campus, and President Obama even gave a PSA during the Grammys highlighting the problem.

In their quest to provide a realistic storyline, Switched at Birth consulted Break the Cycle, a nonprofit dedicated to provide dating-abuse help for young people ages 12-24. After the Feb. 3 episode, Switched at Birth stars Vanessa Marano (whose character was raped) and Max Adler (who plays the boy accused of rape) participated in a Twitter chat with Break the Cycle and viewers about the episode. After the Feb. 10 episode, Constance Marie, who plays the birth mother of the victim, will participate in a Twitter chat with Break the Cycle.

Jasmine Ceja, the National Youth Organizer for Break the Cycle, said having the conversation about a television show and on social media is especially important because it “reaches young people where they are.”

Both Ceja and Sarah Colomé, a training specialist for Break the Cycle, participated in the Twitter chat after the episode. “It was phenomenal,” Colomé said. Colomé said they not only answered questions from viewers but also worked to debunking “rape myths,” including the role that alcohol can play and that “it shouldn’t be that someone should protect themselves from sexual assault but that we should be teaching people not to assault others.”

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Ceja and Colomé said they received responses from young people in similar situations, and Weiss said she had people reach out to her as well.

Weiss said she wanted to address the modern catchphrase “Yes Means Yes,” which insists sexual participants receive positive affirmative before going forward. “It’s a whole new era,” Weiss said. “It’s no longer no means no, but yes means yes.”

Last year, California and New York passed Yes Means Yes laws, meaning that consent needs “an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision” by both parties. The California law includes any university that receives financial aid from the state, and while New York’s applies to public universities, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed expanding it to include private universities in January 2015. Additionally, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) last year proposed federal law to make colleges more accountable for rape victims.

The emphasis on “yes means yes” is what sets Switched at Birth apart from other television shows that have dealt with rape in the past. “It’s you need to get a yes—that’s just a dramatic change for men to understand,” Weiss said.

Although Bay has trouble admitting she was raped, by the end of the second episode she tells school investigators that she feels Tank took advantage of her. But she is still not happy when he is expelled, given how ambiguous the whole situation was. This will not be the end of the storyline: Weiss says the Feb. 17 episode will continue to deal with the fallout, and although it won’t be front-and-center in the rest of the season, it will still be something the rest of the cast is aware of happened to Bay.

“It’s part of who she is, and part of her past,” Weiss said.