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Coerced Consent is not Consent

by Lee Conderacci

Cruel Intentions is rife with instances of dubious, ambiguous, and nonexistent consent. In this example, there are several layers of dishonesty and manipulation at play, leading up to the sexual encounter between Sebastian and Cecile.

Sebastian has persuaded Cecile to sneak out of her house and come to his place, under the pretense that he will help her draft and send a letter to the man she loves but is forbidden to see. Sebastian's real intention here is to "corrupt" Cecile by having sex with her-- all in order to exact revenge on Cecile's mother for turning the girl he really wants, Annette, against him.

We see that Sebastian has plied Cecile with alcohol as the scene opens. He then goads her into taking her clothes off. When she gets uncomfortable, he says that all he wants to do is kiss her. Cecile is hesitant, but consents to this. Then Sebastian indicates that he wants to perform oral sex on her, and she balks. Sebastian threatens to call her mother, so she agrees, but only because of this threat.

The film does not present this as an act of sexual assault on Sebastian's part. In fact, it frames the incident as humorous, if darkly so. In a later scene, Cecile confides in another character, Kathryn, about what happened with Sebastian, and she is clearly shaken up and confused. Kathryn essentially gaslights Cecile by questioning whether the situation was really unpleasant, and then telling Cecile that this is part of her "becoming a woman."

The film's flippant treatment of this example of sexual coercion and assault, and its dismissal of the victimized character's experience, is a chilling but not uncharacteristic representation of certain popular attitudes about consent and assault. Consent must be clear and uncoerced; saying yes after being threatened is not consent.

Cruel Intentions: Coercion

Cruel Intentions is a teen-centered adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, which is in turn adapted from Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a story of sexual coercion, manipulation, blackmail, and deceit.

from Cruel Intentions (1999)
Creator: Roger Kumble
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Posted by Lee Conderacci
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